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Learning, Psychology, Sustainability, Uncategorized

Grading requires an ego that I don’t have, at least in sustainability

Okay, so 2+2=4. If that’s the question, I can probably grade it. But most of what I teach is sustainability and “right” answers are a lot less clear. I’ve been doing research into self-reflection and sustainable assessment recently for a project and I think it applies here.

Sustainable assessment, described by Boud and Falchikov (2007), is the idea of setting students up so that they can continue to learn on their own after their formal schooling. This idea is very appealing to me because things are changing, we are constantly discovering new things, and I want my students to continue to learn, to stay up-to-date, and become knowledge creators themselves. This requires that the develop skills such as information literacy, research, and self evaluation. With this in mind, I have no delusions of grandeur when it comes to the content that I provide to students. Sure doughnut economics is a current and developing topic, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t have changed or it will still be relevant in five years. This goes for any of the specific topics that I teach. I want to enable students to make decisions about resources and topics, I want them to think about strengths and weaknesses in those resources and in their own understanding. I want them to ask questions rather than rely on answers. This fits very well with the idea of assessment that supports the development of lifelong learners; it does not fit very well with the idea that I am, or even the textbook is, the primary authority. If that’s the case, the students may learn to turn to me, which will be problematic when they’re professionals or community members or consumers.

When it comes to self reflection and assessment, Andrade (2019) said something that really resonated with me. They said that the arguments that self assessment is flawed because they often don’t match the instructor’s assessment is itself flawed because it relies on the belief that the instructor’s assessment is accurate. This is a major factor that led me to adopt an approach to assessment known as specifications grading (Nilson, 2014). In this approach, I don’t assign specific points. I assess assignments against a set of specifications which the students have access to, I focus on providing feedback regardless of how students did, and then I indicate whether the assignment is complete (ie, meets the specifications) or in need of revisions. The set up of university means that I’m still an authority. But I also aim to facilitate the authority of each and every student.

This approach supports what Tan (2007) describes as future-driven self-assessment. In this approach, “there is no emphasis on students being able to match the teacher’s or the programme’s requirements exactly” (p. 125). I believe that one of the reasons I like this approach is that, again, I have no delusions of grandeur. The content I teach is secondary to the practices of learning, thinking, and reflecting that I try to help students develop. This requires self-assessment.

Based on all of this, my conclusion is that I don’t have the ego necessary for grading. Even if something has a “right” answer today, it might change tomorrow. To assume that I know everything is something that I just can’t do. I cannot do the learning for my students but I can help them find a path that they can continue to follow and challenge long after they leave my course.


Andrade, H. L. (2019). A Critical Review of Research on Student Self-Assessment. Frontiers in Education, 4, 87. https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2019.00087

Boud, D., & Falchikov, N. (Eds.). (2007). Rethinking assessment in higher education: Learning for the longer term. Routledge.

Nilson, L. (2014). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time (First). Stylus.

Tan, Kelvin. (2007). Conceptions of self-assessment: What is needed for long-term learning? In D. Boud & N. Falchikov (Eds.), Rethinking assessment in higher education: Learning for the longer term (pp. 114–127). Routledge.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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