Work habits or learning skills, a section on virtually all Canadian report cards, are well suited to student self-assessment. Not only does self-assessment give teachers access to students’ thought processes about their work, but it is also positively associated with better self-regulation, motivation, and achievement.
I started my teaching career in British Columbia. As a novice teacher, I was especially concerned that my grades be accurate and defensible. When it came time to complete my first set of report cards, I had a spreadsheet containing student scores on every test, quiz, and assignment they had completed that semester. Using a weighting formula that had been communicated to students and parents, I calculated everyone’s grade. I knew some kids would be disappointed, and others elated, but in either case, I could defend my grading decision with rigorously collected evidence. However, there were other assessment criteria I had to report on for which I had collected no evidence. This section of the report card was called “Work Habits” and was supposed to reflect… Now that I think about it, I am not sure what it was supposed to reflect. I considered student effort, and the number of missing or late assignments when rating students’ work habits, but I had no idea if this is what I was supposed to be doing, or if my colleagues considered the same things when they assigned work habits grades. My experience is a common one.
Classroom assessment of work habits
Teachers in all Canadian provinces assess and report aspects of student performance beyond academic achievement. This portion of the report card has different titles in different provinces such as “Learning Skills and Work Habits” in Ontario and “Cross-curricular Competencies” in Quebec, but it is always there. My own research shows that teachers often struggle to complete these assessments and frequently have little evidence on which to base their ratings of students’ work habits. As a result, teachers rely upon their holistic judgment of the student. As an assessment researcher, I should be appalled by this practice, but instead I am sympathetic. For one, I did the same thing when I taught. For another, assessing constructs like collaboration, responsibility, and organization is hard to do.
Assessing work habits is so difficult because they are not easy to observe. When a teacher assesses writing quality, they have a concrete student product in front of them to evaluate. If they want a second opinion, they can show the writing to a colleague, or leave the work and reread it later. But how can a teacher make a reliable judgment of the effort put into the work? Teachers must observe 20 or 30 students at the same time, making it impossible to determine how much time a student puts into a task. Even if a teacher were to focus on a single student for an entire lesson, how can she discern daydreaming from deep thought? The problem is further compounded if the student worked on a task outside of the classroom. Does completed homework reflect an engaged, conscientious student or a helicopter parent?
Effective student self-assessment practices
When trying to assess skills such as self-regulation, researchers most often rely on self-report instruments. These are typically questionnaires completed by the student. Self-report instruments are useful measurement tools because they access respondents’ internal thought processes. This characteristic makes them ideal for classroom assessment of work habits. Many teachers recognize that students have important things to say about their learning and ask students to self-assess their work habits. For example, research conducted in Ontario suggests that about half of high school teachers ask students to complete self-assessments of their work habits. Teachers use these self-assessments to prompt student’ reflection on their learning and improve their metacognition. However, they do not consider the results of the self-assessment when assigning the work habits ratings on report cards – despite believing their students complete their self-assessment honestly.
Student self-assessment of work habits is an encouraging trend, but this practice could be even more widespread. Not only does self-assessment give teachers access to students’ latent thought processes about their work, but it is also positively associated with better self-regulation, motivation, and achievement. However, for student self-assessments of work habits to be effective, it is necessary to implement practices such as co-constructing definitions and expectations. How can a student give a reasonable self-assessment of their collaborative skills if they do not have a firm grasp of what collaboration means? Co-creating definitions of the skills being assessed not only improves students’ self-assessments, but also ensures the teacher and students share a common understanding of that skill. One way of achieving a shared understanding is to create a rubric for each skill with students. The rubric breaks down components of the skill and describes differences in skill levels. When students are able to use the rubric, they develop an understanding of what separates different ratings. For instance, how is excellent collaboration different from good collaboration?
Another tactic known to improve the effectiveness of self-assessments is to have teachers give students guidance on how to complete the self-assessments. Researchers have consistently found that when students are given training on how to self-assess, not only are their assessments more accurate, but the learning benefits are greater. The benefits are even greater when teachers provide their own assessment of the work habits and discuss their assessment, and the self-assessment, with the student. These discussions are critical to helping students become better assessors of their own skills. Students (especially younger ones) are often not accurate reporters of their own skills. Most students tend to overestimate their abilities, and this is especially true for weaker students. Paradoxically, the strongest students are the ones most likely to give themselves low ratings. If we want students to develop an accurate self-concept, they need to be privy not only to the teacher’s ratings, but also the rationale behind them. As a former teacher, I recognize finding time to have these discussions is difficult, but doing so will improve not only students’ ability to self-assess but also their work habits.
Lastly, the students’ self-assessments should appear on the report card. Not only does doing so give them meaningful input into the report card, but it also allows the parents to see the student’s self-assessment. This has the potential to lead to fruitful discussions between parents and children about their work habits.
What does this mean for educators?
If you are a teacher, I encourage you to start implementing student self-assessment of work habits now. The information you gain about your students and their self-concept will lead to rich discussions about their learning and work habits and will also enhance your relationship with them. School administrators can highlight teachers who use self-assessment of the work habits as role models and support teacher development in this area through training and professional learning communities. I urge superintendents to consider what assessment policies, procedures, and training can help improve teachers’ assessment of work habits. The types of skills that fall under work habits (e.g. responsibility, organization, collaboration, initiative, perseverance) lead not only to better learning, but also to better jobs, relationships, and health. Further, these skills are closely aligned with the broader aims of education espoused by school districts and ministries of education. Given the critical importance of these skills for our students as individuals, and for our society as a whole, it is vital that we help teachers develop the capacity to improve students’ work habits. Helping them understand how to effectively implement student self-assessment of work habits would be an excellent first step.
NEW! Discussion Kit
Download the pro-learning session 1.2 – Assessing Students’ Work Habits
Illustration: Dave Donald
First published in Education Canada, March 2019