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Reproduced from 1994 Conference Proceedings, pp. 10-13 ã SCUTREA 1997


The move to self-assessment: liberation or a new mechanism for oppression?

David Boud, University of Technology, Sydney

Over the past fifteen years I have been involved in introducing self-assessment practices into courses in higher education in a variety of ways. While this was relatively easy to do in my own teaching, the challenge I faced was how I could help others do it in the context of their own subjects and local departmental constraints. There was a great deal of enthusiasm from some staff and we were successful in implementing self-assessment in undergraduate courses ranging across law, engineering, education and architecture. Accounts of these were published at the time in specialist journals, but overall there was little interest in these ideas beyond those with whom I or my colleagues had direct contact.

My academic interests shifted and I moved away from a post which involved me with academic colleagues throughout the university into the mainstream of training adult educators. I returned recently to the area of self-assessment to explore what was currently happening, not least because I was using it in my own teaching. However, when I did so I realised that the wider picture had changed substantially. No longer was self-assessment an isolated practice engaged in by a committed few, but, especially in the UK, it was being considered as a key element in Enterprise and Capability initiatives and regarded, not as strange and part of the innovative fringe, but as a practice to be widely commended. Although I was heartened by this, I was also puzzled by how an idea which is potentially so challenging to the status quo could apparently be so readily accepted.

The concept of self-assessment

Before proceeding further, however, it is necessary to define self-assessment and indicate the contexts in which it has been used. The defining characteristic is:

the involvement of students in identifying standards and/or criteria to apply to their work, and making judgements about the extent to which they have met these criteria and standards.1

The significant aspect of this definition is that it goes beyond the idea of allocating marks into the engagement of students with questions concerning what quality work means in any given area. Such a definition does not imply that self-assessment should occur in isolation; it normally involves drawing upon the criteria and judgements of others, but leaves decision-making in the hands of the student. Not all documented examples of self-assessment meet this standard, and it is often in the extent to which they fall short in this regard that difficulties arise.

Motives for the introduction of self-assessment are complex; they include both the educational and the expedient. It is clear that the ability to self-assess is a core educational skill which is necessary for lifelong learning and which it is desirable to develop as part of higher education. However, it can also provide the opportunity to reduce staff workload. If staff can use their time more productively by not marking the same question time after time and year after year, it is argued they will be less stressed and able to devote their time to more useful things, hopefully related to student learning.

Adult students and assessment

My rekindled interest in assessment also led me to consider other changes which had been occurring over the same period. One is the massive shift of adult students from the informal adult education sector into formal higher education. The numbers of such students in both Australia and the UK has risen dramatically over the past fifteen years, and traditional extra-mural provision has appeared to decline in step with the opening of access to courses for credit.

The role of assessment in informal and formal contexts differs markedly and students pay a price for operating in the formal system. They move from a situation in which decisions about learning goals, study programs and assessment of outcomes is influenced significantly by themselves, to one in which these are, by and large, defined and imposed by others. In part this is desirable and just what they want - to be measured against the prevailing community standards in any given area - but at a deeper level, because of the generally unsophisticated conceptions of assessment which are widespread2, they are inducted into a dependency culture in which the decisions of others count for far more than their own assessments.

While there have been increasing numbers of adult students enrolling alongside school leavers and participating in relatively unchanging teaching practices, there have been counter developments which involve the promoting of increased student responsibility for learning. There has been a noticeable increase in activities which take a student-centred approach and which involve students in making significant decisions about their work. These include an emphasis on project work, the use of learning contracts and negotiated learning and various profiling initiatives.

Liberation or oppression?

In revisiting self-assessment it was noticeable that, like many other related innovations, it was taking root now less in the heart of traditional subjects, where I had previously been working, but in areas such as communication projects, work-based learning, and new process-oriented subjects (the areas using learning contracts as described in Stephenson and Laycock3, provide a good example of this range). In the UK, self-assessment appeared not only to be more widespread than in Australia, but was a central part of the Enterprise in Higher Education agenda. While it was encouraging to see many more examples in practice, the question remained of how much would be sustained when the money and the specific external impetus for change disappeared? Would there really be a shift in the balance of power in the direction of students? Indeed, to what extent was that ever a motive of the staff involved. Self-assessment as defined here demands such a shift, but to what extent was it being contained and used to give the impression of a student-centred approach?

Rather than attempt a definitive answer, I wish to share my initial thoughts on a framework which can be used to help us make judgements about whether particular self-assessment practices are liberatory or oppressive. The question considered is: under what circumstances might self-assessment act to allow students to take more responsibility for their learning and in what circumstances might it do the opposite?

A given innovative practice is rarely intrinsically progressive or liberatory. Any strategy can be conceived of or implemented in such a way that its impact will be reduced or the status quo preserved. We can easily be blind to the ways in which our good intentions have been co-opted by others. What matters is not only the initial motive for introduction and the conception itself, but the small decisions that are necessarily made on a day-to-day basis in order that any teaching and learning activity might 'work' satisfactorily in practice. Any desired innovation can be derailed or subverted during implementation so that the needs of staff rather than students are met. In viewing an innovation at a distance it often very difficult to discern these subtle shifts which have large consequences.

The table below has been prepared to summarise my observations and interpretations about self-assessment practices in higher education. Having designed, inspected and read accounts of a large number of self-assessment approaches in Australia, the UK and elsewhere (amounting to a total of around two hundred), I have reflected on the features which seem to me to make a difference between a liberatory and an oppressive situation. For simplicity's sake, the table presents a polarity between two positions. In most contexts the situation will be far from clear cut and a careful judgement will need to be made to determine whether or not the process, given the unique environment in which it operates, is sufficiently open.

When self-assessment is introduced with the characteristics listed in the second column, it can be relatively ineffectual. This makes it no less oppressive however, as all teaching and assessment practices either contribute towards improving learning or inhibit it. Any additional requirement on students which does not significantly assist them is burdensome and should be avoided.


The introduction of self-assessment needs to be planned carefully and the consequences explored thoroughly. It is not simply a strategy which can be read about and instantly applied with success. There are dynamics of power within courses and between staff to be considered. The introduction of self-assessment and other student-directed activities can destabilise existing teacher-student relationships and require a reappraisal of the goals of courses and the working practices of staff. Students will wonder why there is not a more direct relationship between course outcomes and how they are assessed, they will be mystified about why staff give so little feedback when they appear to spend so much time marking, and they will tend to question assessment practices in other subjects when they become more aware of how to interpret academic standards and demonstrate them in their own work.

Self-assessment demands a change of focus in staff activity away from the structuring of examinations and the marking of assignments towards the setting of assessment tasks and management of the assessment process. Greater emphasis normally needs to be given to the relationship between assessment tasks and overall course outcomes, to the processes of involving students in assessment, to preparation of guidelines to aid students in making assessments and to being explicit about what excellent work really looks like. A clear and frank appraisal of the context of learning is required and the implications for students and colleagues considered.

If done sensitively with detailed preparation, quite radical and liberating innovation can be instigated in the most unlikely of contexts4. If self-assessment is taken off the shelf, or in response to an external agenda, it can easily founder and sometimes discredit those who introduced it.

The success of self-assessment is not just a function of the interest and commitment of staff. A suitable environment for students requires that staff be operating in a context in which they are able to operate sufficiently autonomously and in which there can be open and vigorous discussion of educational issues. Quality courses are rarely produced in a climate which is not supportive of staff. The question arises of the extent to which any meaningful self-assessment could be introduced into some contexts: some may be so intrinsically oppressive - to staff and to students - that consideration of self-assessment would be a sham.

Self-assessment, and indeed other approaches to teaching and learning which require students to take increasing responsibility for their own learning, involves risk. Parts of the mechanism of control by staff of students are shared with students and, in these circumstances, staff have to have confidence in themselves and in their colleagues that this will not act to their own disadvantage. It is ironic that we are currently seeing a climate in which there is encouragement for such developments, while, simultaneously, pressures towards definable outcomes and accountability are leading to a more rigid specification of academic work. Handling such contradictions is not easy, but it is increasingly becoming a normal part of the life of those who work in higher education.

Table 1. Liberatory and oppressive factors in self-assessment

Self assessment:

tends to be liberating when:

tends to be oppressive when:

the motive for its introduction is related to enhancing learning

it is related to meeting institutional or other external requirements

it is introduced with a clear rationale and there is an opportunity to question it

it is treated as another part of course requirements

learners are involved in establishing criteria

learners are using criteria determined solely by others

learners have a direct role in influencing the process

the process is imposed on them

it makes an identifiable contribution to formal decision-making

no use is formally made of the outcomes

it is one of number of complementary strategies to promote self-directed and interdependent learning

it is tacked on to an existing subject in isolation from other strategies

its practices permeate the total course

it is marginalised as part of subjects which have low status

staff are willing to share control of assessment and do so

staff retain all control (sometimes despite appearances otherwise)

qualitative peer feedback is used as part of the process

it is subordinated to quantitative peer assessment

it is part of a profiling process in which students have an active role

records about students are produced with no input from them

activities are introduced in step with the students' capabilities in learning-how-to-learn

it is a one-off event without preparation



  1. D Boud (1991) Implementing student self-assessment. Second, revised edition. Sydney: HERDSA
  2. D Boud (1994) Keynote address to Assessment for learning in higher education: responding to and initiating change. Conference of the Staff and Educational Development Association, Telford, 16-18 May
  3. J Stephenson and M Laycock (eds) (1993) Using learning contracts in higher education. London: Kogan Page
  4. J Cowan (1988) Struggling with self-assessment. In D Boud (ed) Developing student autonomy in learning. Second edition. London: Kogan Page. pp 192-210

This document was added to the Education-line database on 02 June 2003