By Nicole Fauteux
Self-assessment is well established in the dental hygiene program at the University of Oklahoma (OU) College of Dentistry. Whether students are taking an impression, writing a research paper, or in clinic removing plaque, they are asked to cast a critical eye on their own performance and to learn from what they see.
“We view self-assessment as an integral part of student learning and incorporate it in multiple courses,” says Vicki A. Coury, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Dental Hygiene. It’s easy to find self-assessment embedded throughout OU’s dental hygiene curriculum via rubrics, reflections, and other mechanisms. Students are initially presented a two-hour lecture on the philosophy and mechanics of self-assessment, including its importance throughout their professional lives. They apply it in their didactic and laboratory courses and use in it their Community Health Practicum and Senior Capstone Seminar projects. In the clinic, faculty members ask questions of the students that encourage self-assessment on a daily basis, and self-assessment plays an integral role in students’ all important clinical competency exams.
Why does OU devote so much energy to self-assessment? Assistant Professor Laurie Cunningham began implementing self-assessment in the dental materials laboratory course three years ago. She says that previously, students had trouble articulating what was not right with an impression, but after using a self-assessment tool that reviews the process step by step, the improvement is striking.
“Students will bring an impression over to me,” says Prof. Cunningham, “and present the impression and give reasons why the impression needs to be retaken. That’s when you know students are learning. They are becoming more self-reliant.”
Prof. Cunningham also uses self-assessment in her community health course where students must develop a protocol for their practicum. She says there was a time when she would provide detailed comments on the protocols only to see the students return from the project without having followed through on her advice.
“Now when they go out to do their projects,” she says, “they are better prepared. They have thought it through. It helps them take ownership.”
Jane N. Gray, Professor and Senior Clinical Coordinator, puts self-assessment to work in the clinic, asking her students to post weekly summaries of their clinical experiences on a discussion board. The postings allow students to reflect in a critical fashion on what they have done.
“They are making a conscious effort to ask, ‘How am I going to make this different next time?’” says Prof. Gray.
She sees self-assessment as benefiting faculty as well because it provides an inside view of students’ thinking. This awareness prompts faculty to address misconceptions and problems with performance right away rather than waiting to discover them on a final exam.
At OU, self-assessment also plays a significant role in grading. Rubrics show students what is expected of them and make clear that there is an objective basis for evaluation. When correctly done, self-assessment can also help students earn back points they have lost due to poor performance. For example, students are required to assess their own performance on scaling during one of many competency exams. If there are any deposits remaining, students have an opportunity to regain points by using the self-assessment tool to successfully identify their errors, explain how they occurred, and correct them.
Research into self-assessment suggests that achieving a high level of accuracy in assessing one’s own work is fraught with challenges. This conclusion resonates with Prof. Carolyn H. Ray, who teaches preventive dentistry, research methods, and the Senior Capstone Experience. She confirms that her students’ self-assessments are “highly inflated” at first.
“I don’t know if it’s their lack of putting time into using the evaluation tool or if it’s their inability to recognize deficiencies in their work,” she says. Either way, as Prof. Ray sees it, students have so much to do that it is hard for them to put all the pieces together. Nevertheless, she observes that, over the course of the three semesters spanned by her courses, students become noticeably more self-critical.
“Whatever the experience is—writing a paper, nutritional counseling, assessing a patient—I think self-assessment allows them to pause and integrate what they’ve learned into their experiential and knowledge base, so it has great benefit from that point of view.”
Despite its strengths, self-assessment has limitations. OU faculty not only observe variation in student performance. They also see differing levels of student engagement with the process. Self-assessment seems especially effective in helping high-achieving students who see the process as an integral part of their professional education and are working to advance from very good to excellent. Lower-achieving students sometimes feel it is just one more hoop through which they have to jump. How can faculty overcome that challenge?
“You need to make sure that students know the expectations of self-assessment,” says Prof. Cunningham, “that they understand how to use it, and that they see it is not just an assignment. They need to know that self-assessment is there to help them.”