Personalized Assessment

Cross posted at Tech Learning

One of the current buzz words in the world of educational technology is “personalized learning” I’ve used it often and while it’s been used prior to the influx of technology in schools, the internet is making it more of a reality and possibility than ever before. If indeed we believe in the value of a personalized learning experience then I think we also need to consider what personalized assessment and evaluation might look like as well.

Trying to define or actualize the concept of personalized learning in schools is still a little fuzzy. Here are a few examples that I think exemplify personalized learning

Will Richardson shares the story of a high school Spanish teacher who decided his students would learn Spanish in the context of their passions or interests. For one student that meant finding a Spanish fashion designer and blogger to connect with and simply begin by reading her blog and leaving comments. Not only was this highly motivating for the student but as a bonus, the designer ended up  asking the student to help her learn English.

Chris Harbeck,  a middle school Math teacher uses something he calls “unprojects” where students demonstrate understanding in Mathematics. Chris talks about students in charge of their learning.

I’ve tried to do similar things working with pre-service teachers at the college level. Students are asked to design their own project that tie into the big themes of the course. Once they get over they get over the initial shock that I won’t be telling them what to do precisely, we begin to negotiate their projects with the intent of making it useful and meaningful. It’s not surprising that for these students, who have been part of a system that rarely acknowledged their interests, they have a difficult time accepting this freedom and choice.

One area that seems a bit behind this trend is in the area of assessment and evaluation. Too often we run into huge snags as we try and implement any type of newer pedagogy and then use traditional evaluation strategies. Quite often they are incompatible. In keeping with the spirit of personalized learning should we not consider personalized assessment? Just like personal learning, this is not easy or straightforward. Simple solutions are not apparent. However a couple of things are worth considering.

Given you may have certain outcomes and expectations, those need to be part of the learning. To attain that, students and teachers need to negotiate the content, the process and the product of the learning. The key is built in feedback loops. Whether it comes from you, their peers or outsiders, the learning needs to be done in such a way that there is lots of opportunity to revise, edit and refine. Putting this work online seems like a no-brainer in facilitating that.

A second, more interesting idea is to allow students to determine some of the weighting in regards to grades. The course I’m teaching at the moment has 3 assessments. One student was brave enough to ask me if she could have some say in these assessments. I’ve done this in the past but for some reason did not include that this term. We decided together that instead of the arbitrary grading allotments to each assessment, they would be able to, within a given range, place more emphasis on one assessment that they felt reflected their energy and time. I’m so glad the student suggested that.  Another classmate responded to the idea this way,

I have grown up in a system, that NEVER worked that way [allowing for choice], … I am so brainwashed into thinking that this is the way it is, and it can’t be changed. Just like I feel as though having a voice in assessment makes me feel empowered, which in turn will have a big influence on the way I do assessment as a future teacher.

Giving students choice in both their learning and assessment seems to be the right thing to do. I can hear some folks already saying, “yeah but what about the tests?” I don’t know the answer totally but I do know we can’t ask students to move to personal learning and then have us as their teachers own the assessment.

Do you have some ideas or examples around personalizing assessment? I would love to hear them.

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  • You tackle one of the major concerns I have with individual assessment. We need to make ourselves comfortable with differentiated assessment and the unsatisfactory implications that will have for people who have a commitment to standardized rubrics and grades in general. We also have to overcome our ingrained assumptions about student self-assessment. I agree with the connection between owning learning and owning assessment

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  • One of the things I’ve done in the past with media project assessments was to build a rubric, including likert style scales for the main things I was looking for in the assignments. Then I asked the students to use the rubric to assess their own work. I did the same thing, independently and without looking at their self- assessments. Then I would compare the two. Where there were significant differences in how we were assessing something, I would invite the students to discuss it with me. Remarkably, they were often harder on themselves than I was, and I found myself trying to talk them into higher marks.

    What I did not do, but I now wish I had, was to give students the option of creating their own rubrics too, and also using them for the assessment. Makes sense, but I never thought of it until reading your post. Thanks for the great advice.
    .-= Richard Schwier´s last blog ..Spring Convo 2010 – Congratulations, Gang! =-.

    • Rick,

      The rubric thing is still a challenge. I’ve never thought of having students build them. I usually ask students to tweak and co construct the rubric but haven’t got the participation I’d like. Probably because of both my lack of emphasis and also their uncertainty. I think if I invest more in that, I’d continue to get better buy in.

  • I think reflective writing is an important part of assessment. During my Masters of EdTech (online), each student had a blog and we were asked to reflect upon our process of learning. Some instructors gave us specific prompts to write about – others just asked for a certain number per week. One instructor placed us in “Learning Circles” and we were required to respond to the posts of members of our circles. This got us out of “writing for the teacher” mode and we really began encouraging each other, asking for more clarification, and slowly started challenging one another.

    This type of assessment was very useful for me. It was awkward at first to begin blogging but after a while, I found that focusing on the PROCESS of learning very helpful to understanding how I learn, how I teach, and a willingness to share my failures and embrace the learning that happens from mistakes.

    This also helped create a strong community among our classmates as we celebrated the various milestones of implementing our Action Research Projects.
    .-= Colette Cassinelli´s last blog ..How networked learning works in MS Science class =-.

  • What I really like about personalized assessment is that it reinforces the notion that my progress as a learner is independent of the learning of my classmates. That is not to say that we can’t learn collaboratively – John Pederson’s recent post on curating people makes as powerful an argument for making connections to other people as I have read. But, when it comes to assessing student progress, a teacher’s assessment of a student’s growth needs to be personal and independent of her assessment of others, even if the learning was done collaboratively.
    .-= Tony Baldasaro´s last blog ..What Should My New Job Title Be? =-.

  • I’ve been writing and thinking about this as well. Alfie Kohn threw me for loop with his essays on Rubrics and grades.

    Why do we have a grade? I’m having a hard time balancing the institutional need for some sort of grade consistency with the need to use grades as a learning tool.

    But do we need either? I’m not sure the grade actually matters. Once we decide the student has met the basic level of competence (passing) I’m not sure what value they have.
    .-= Brandt Schneider´s last blog ..Grades/Rubrics =-.

    • Brandt,

      I’m with you on the value of grades and rubrics. However no matter what we do, we need to involve students and they should be working with us to make meaning.

  • Karen janowski

    I have taken a page from Gary Stager on this one and modified his rubric with my grad students. The rubric is:
    My project impressed
    my mother,
    my neighbor,
    my peers,
    my instructor,

    The point is to help learners accomplish work that impresses themselves. That is the highest level of achievement and assessment.
    (Alvie kohn’s The Trouble with Rubrics has also influenced my thinking)

  • Brian D-L

    Students don’t do “their own assessment” or set their own goals for success in a vacuum. We in fact operate under a faulty dichotomy if we see the choice is between “students owning their assessment” or “teachers/schools owning assessments.” Students are learning in a context that precedes them, within disciplines of knowledge and practice that exist with or without them. Our institutions are engaged (ideally) in guiding them into learning experiences within which they may learn the skills and abilities of the human understandings and human practices of the wider world that have unfolded before they ever existed. Teaching, learning, and assessment, are inter-subjective practices (again, ideally); assessment is the developed self-reflection of students/teachers in inter-subjective practice. Students don’t “own” assessment; teachers/schools don’t “own” assessment; it is the habit of developed self-critique and self awareness that we learn together.

    • Brian,

      Great points. It’s true it’s not an either or but in our current system the pendulum is way too far towards the teacher as the ultimate judge of student learning. That has to change. It is a balance, I agree but I hope my posts triggers some discussion around shifting to a more balanced view.

  • I’ve given similar choice in my undergrad courses – lots of choice for a final project (although not exactly like you’ve done), and the same flexibility in choose-your-own-assessment. I find students really like the choices of final project, but only when presented with rich examples of former student work. Of course, in some cases, that can be limiting (although some students tend to think outside of what they’ve seen). However, in the 10 years that I’ve taught the course and given the choice for student to choose a range of percentages for the their assessments, only a handful have ever taken me up on that. I think there are many things at play here:
    – thought that the instructor has made a ‘good enough’ choice,
    – variance of the assessment percentages doesn’t, in most cases, make much of a difference for a student that is consistent throughout their assessments,
    – fear that ‘it’s a trap’ (only partly kidding),
    – students numbed and complacent by years of little choice.

    (I am sure there are others)
    .-= Alec Couros´s last blog ..Technology & Social Media (Special Issue, Part 2) =-.

    • Alec,

      Probably all those are true. I also think I need to go farther and insist on students developing their own grading scheme. You’re right that in the end, it’s not like to make much difference in their final grade but to me that’s not the point. The intent is to place as much ownership as possible into the student’s hands. I certainly expect undergraduates and graduate students to embrace this and I also think this is certainly something to be considered in K-12 as well.

  • Jayla

    Dean, what an interesting post! I really enjoyed those examples of personalized learning. I mean really, students will get the most out of any assignment or project, by making it meaningful and authentic to them. I am taking a special education class at the moment, and we talk a lot about personalized learning plans for students with learning disabilities, but what about the rest of the students? Like you mentioned, we have been brainwashed by a system that is so ridiculously controlled, that the moment we are given a voice or some freedom, we don’t know what to do. Just like my PD project, I was so stumped for the longest time, because I had so much freedom, that I wanted you to tell me exactly how it should be. Now that I am in the process, and have made it my own, it means so much more.
    Now as a pre-service teacher, the thought of assessment somewhat scares me. I would love to be able to give that choice in terms of assessment, but when your in someone else’s classroom, and you have parents who have come from a rigid system, where do I begin.

  • Rachel

    Great post. I found a great non-profit that has been helping disadvantaged school districts and has had many success stories improving student achievement in Math, SAT and ACT including Collier County, FL and St. Landry Parish, LA. Their site is CyberLearning also offers Technology courses that many schools could find useful.

  • Mary-Ellen Quintana

    I only teach self-contained special ed students. It would be wonderful to have these children, who have individualized plans, be able to create a personalized assessment, or be able to assess classmates. It doesn’t easily happen. First, as Brian says, students neither “own their own assessments nor do they set their own goals in a vacuum.” A great deal of scaffolding is necessary and still, as someone commented, the students grade themselves very harder than a teacher would. They also grade their peers too easily. This is one of the reasons I’m NOT a big rubrics fan, that and the experience that it takes a child with an IQ of 65 so much effort and class time to comprehend and remember the rubric that it’s not worth it. Over time, I’ve noticed that what is worth it is the simple stapling of work sheets together, so they can see their own progress over time when writing or test results are compared. I think personal assessment also occurs in a friendly manner when fragile students are put in groups to work together. Do we work entirely alone at our jobs? No, if we have questions or insecurities about something, we ask someone else for help. I think the kids already realize that working on something with a peer is less threatening than working alone. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in gaming technologies for learning. There appear to be a number of web sites that are experiential, where learning is “fun”, collaborative, and grades are ‘points’ given or gained in the game.

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  • This past school year I piloted a self-directed project that I call the “FedEx Project” after a TED Talk by Daniel Pink (Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose). Fellow educator Jerrid Kruse did something similar which he blogged extensively about (

    The basic idea behind this FedEx project is for students to research a topic that interest them. Nothing new here. The new (I think) twist is that students must come up with a way to share their research with the world. I don’t let them write papers, make PowerPoint presentations or posters. Instead, I encourage them to blog, tweet, podcast, vodcast, or come up with another creative way to share and communicate outside of their classroom.

    The small class I piloted my idea with seemed to enjoy it and many of their final projects were unique and demonstrated authentic learning. I haven’t blogged about the experience yet, but am planning on it!

  • I had my sixth grade language arts students do an independent study project this year. The kids studied are range of topics, but had to use reading, writing, and presenting in some form. They loved their projects and worked very hard. They presented to the class on May 10th. I asked them to use the rubric to grade themselves and to write a reflection piece as well. The final grade was negotiated with me, but I only had to adjust a few because kids are so honest. I adjusted up and down, some kids are also too hard on themselves. The projects were so terrific I decided to make the final exam a glog about their projects that we could put onto a wiki. They worked on the glog and had to learn to link to all of their sources, videos, and web links. I graded the glogs, using a rubric. I always encourage students to speak with me if they feel that my grade doesn’t reflect what they believe that they should receive. I want students to feel that I am fair to them, and they have a voice in the grading. I have had students come back to me for this, and I always praise their courage for speaking to a teacher and advocating for themselves. You can see the wiki at I loved this experience!

  • Hi Dean,
    I want to share a neat teaching opportunity this past year. I had a grade 12 art student, on her way to a post secondary art school, who had taken every art course available in the BC curriculum. We applied to the local School Board for her to do an independent studies course with me as the ‘advisor’. To start the course, she and I created a course outline (heavy on her input – I pulled as much as possible from her and kept my influence to a minimum)that was personalized for her.

    To personalize the assessment, for each unit of study (basically an indepth study resulting in a great deal of process and one final product) she created the criteria using a five point scale which I have in place in all my art courses at the school. She marked all her work, then we consulted and discussed her reasoning behind her marks. I added some formative assessment into those discussions, too.

    For both of us, it was a very successful learning experience. She had the room she needed to push herself and the ownership to keep her motivated. And I found that one of the most valuable aspects of the course was the personalized assessment. It was so meaningful, so relevant. It was also easy for me as she did all the work! I wonder still how I could take that learning experience and make it work with an entire class…

    • Thanks Errin,

      Those are exactly the kind of experiences we need to scale.

  • Great to hear about your experience Errin; I’m pleased that Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Education has incorporated special project credits into the high school offering. when I was administering a school four years ago we encouraged a broad range of projects. I am only sorry that the number of eligible is restricted. Naturally they are only offered as electives and not substitutions for required credits. Even so, a nice effort to both differentiate and acknowledge that learning is not restricted to school or traditional curriculum. Students design their own course, identify their mentor, and contract the assessment with the school.

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  • Dean, I particularly liked your suggestion about having the students choose their own weighting for the various assessments (in my context this would be assessment categories; e.g. tests, quizzes, minor assignments, major assignments, capstone project, blogging, etc.).

    As I read this I thought I might create a Google Form where each student would enter their own weighting for each category and I could then import that across spreadsheets to simplify the process for me as the teacher. Students could enter their individual weightings any time up to say a week before the first reporting period. That would give them some time to experience various types of assessments and make an informed choice about where they demonstrate their best work.

    The more I think about this the more I like it.

    @Erin: I wish I had a teacher do something similar for me when I was a student. (That feeling always starts me thinking about “how can I make that real for my students today?”) Like Dean, I think the heavy lifting here is figuring out how to scale what you did for one student in an independent study for Art to about 100 students across all my math classes. 😉

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