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Higher Education 18:529-549 (1989)

9 Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht - Printed in the Netherlands

Quantitative studies of student self-assessment in higher

education: a critical analysis of findings


Professional Development Centre, University of New South Wales, Kensington, NSW 2033,
Australia. Napier Polytechnic, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Honorary Visiting Fellow in the former
Tertiary Education Research Centre, University of New South Wales)

Abstract. Student self-assessment occurs when learners make judgements about aspects of their
own performance. This paper focuses on one aspect of quantitative self-assessments: the compari-
son of student-generated marks with those generated by teachers. Studies including such compari-
sons in the context o f higher education courses are reviewed and the following questions are
addressed: (i) do students tend to over- or under-rate themselves vis-a-vis teachers?, (ii) do students
of different abilities have the same tendencies?, (iii) do students in different kinds or levels o f
course tend to under- or over-rate themselves?, (iv) do students improve their ability to rate
themselves over time or with practice?, (v) are the same tendencies evident when self-marks are
used for formal assessment purposes?, and (vi) are there gender differences in self-rating? The
paper also discusses methodological issues in studies o f this type and makes recommendations
concerning the analysis and presentation of information.


Self-assessment refers to the involvement of learners in making judgements

about their own learning, particularly about their achievements and the
outcomes of their learning. Self-assessment is formative in that it contributes
to the learning process and assists learners to direct their energies to areas for
improvement, and it may also be summative, either in the sense of learners
deciding that they have learned as much as they wished to in a given area, or,
in formal institutional settings, it may contribute to the grades awarded to
The term self-assessment is used to encompass the two key elements in any
assessment decision: the identification of criteria or standards to be applied
to one's work, and the making o f judgements about the extent to which work
meets these criteria. Where students are involved in making judgements of
their work without a concomitant involvement in establishing criteria, this is
commonly referred to as self-marking. It occurs, for example, when students
are provided with model answers or a standard rating scale. Many studies
which describe themselves as studies of self-assessment do not involve students
in the selection of criteria and simply ask them to rate themselves according
to some pre-established scale. Most of the empirical papers discussed later are

of this type and caution must be exercised in generalising their findings to the
wider realm of self-assessment.
There has been an upsurge in interest in self-assessment in the past ten years
as the role of self-assessment both in learning generally, and in the develop-
ment of professional competence has been recognised. One of the characteris-
tics of effective learners is that they have a realistic sense of their own strengths
and weaknesses and that they can use knowledge of their own achievements
to direct their studying into productive directions (Boud, 1986; Sch6n, 1983,
1987). " G o o d " students have always been effective self-assessors, but it is
becoming increasingly recognised that in order to develop this skill more widely
among students, explicit attempts need to be made to develop the capability,
and opportunities need to be given for it to be openly practised. Self-assess-
ment has also been associated with moves towards developing greater student
autonomy in learning, and particularly self-directed learning (Knowles, 1975).
Here self-assessment is a central aspect of the planning and evaluation of
student designed learning activities.
There appear to be at least two main motives in the moves towards teachers
promoting student self-assessment; one primarily educational, the second
often expedient. Firstly, there has been a principled desire on the part of
teachers for learners to take greater responsibility for their own learning
through involvement in a crucial act of learning: assessing one's own compe-
tence. Secondly, there is a practical need to develop assessment procedures
which are a more effective use of resources through using students more and
teachers less in assessment activities, or, at least, redirecting teacher effort
from marking to planning and moderating assessment activities. This latter
motive is often combined with elements of the first (see, for example, Boud
and Holmes, 1981). There have been other considerations such as the desire
of students to take responsibility for the mechanism of educational control,
namely assessment procedures. This interest flourished in the early 1970s, but
is little discussed today. Also, many research studies appear to be prompted
solely by curiosity about whether students can be effective assessors. However,
this non-pragmatic interest also no longer seems to be current.
The literature on student self-assessment can be broadly classified under
three headings: conceptual, practical qualitative, and quantitative.


The conceptual group includes such related work as that by Argyris and Sch6n
(1974) examining professional competence and the role of self and peer
assessment in developing "theories-in-use", and Sch6n (1983, 1987) on the
"reflective practitioner"; Elliot (1978) on teacher self-monitoring; and the