Using Student-created Assessments in the Class -or- How to Get Students More Into Their Own Learning

Posted October 26, 2015

By Arron Grow & Greg Price



In our experience, and we suspect in yours, course assessments that are used to determine student learning are predetermined, the same for every student, and prepared long before a class is ever offered. One practice that is not so common is allowing students to determine for themselves how their learning should be assessed. For those who have the flexibility we’d like to present a way teachers can enable students to personalize their own learning assessments. But first, a bit of foundation for why we would even suggest such an idea. (This is, after all, an educator’s blog and it would seem unfitting to present our ideas without first establishing some reasons, right?)

Is this what assessment looks like? Probably not if students are provided the chance to participate in creating their own. [Image: Leif (Bryne)]

Support for Student-created Assessments

Many studies support the idea that increasing student engagement improves learning in higher education (Astin,1993; Kuh, 2003; Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh, & Whitt, 2005; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005). In all these studies and many more, the recurring theme is this—the more engaged students are in their own educational experiences, the better the chances are that they will learn more. This conclusion is supported in at least two ways. For starters, when students participate in the creation of their own assessments, it enables them to create assessment experiences that are in line with their own learning preferences. In other words, whether students have a conscious knowledge of it or not, they know how they themselves learn best. Knowing themselves as they do, students can create assessments that will leverage their preferences. If, for example, a student prefers to write, they will likely create an assessment that calls for a written product. Students who believe they learn better when they see things in visual form, will likely design an assessment that leans on this preference.

Another benefit is that self-created assessments allow students to demonstrate knowledge in ways that can showcase their individual strengths. Both of these reasons are ways of integrating student voices more into the teaching and learning process, increasing student engagement, and, in the process, improving student learning. Now who among us wouldn’t want these benefits? No one? Good, now let’s get to the process.

A Process for Implementing Student-created Assessments

Recommendations before Starting Out

Before getting into details, here are a few recommendations to keep in mind.

Be open-minded. 

According to Svinigki and McKeachie (2013), “What is important is learning, not teaching. Teaching effectiveness depends not just on what the teacher does, but on what the student does” (p. 5). There are many instructors who are locked into specific systems; either those imposed by the academic institution where they work or those of their own making. Consider instead the notion of “challenging the process” proposed by Kouzes and Posner (2012). Be willing to test this out; personally witness if this helps students learn more.

Start small. 

For management reasons, it is recommended that students are given the opportunity to create their own assessment for only one part of a course and that all students create their own assessment from the same part of the course. This may seem contrary to the guidance provided earlier where we suggest straying from set systems. While suggesting you be willing to challenge the process, you may want to stay within certain norms – particularly at first. One of the norms we’re talking about here is everyone stay together. Variations in their ‘togetherness’ is what we’re espousing. Gradual change is typically received more easily than big changes all at the same time.

Getting the Ball Rolling

Introduce the idea early. 

At the start of the course, typically when going over a course syllabus, introduce all proposed class assessments, including the assessment which will be the student-created assessment. There is no need to go into great detail about the student-created assessment at this time, just let students know that they will have the opportunity to decide for themselves how they may want to demonstrate their knowledge in a specific content area to be covered later in the course.

Students propose idea. 

When the section to involve student-determined assessments arrives, have students determine the specific method that they will use to demonstrate their knowledge. Have them submit their proposed assessment plan. Here are some tips to help students develop their assessment ideas: (a) Ensure that students understand the role of assessments in learning is for them to demonstrate their mastery of course content; (b) Remind students what the objectives are for the part of the course in which they will create their own assessment; and (c) Explain how their goal is to create an assessment product that will demonstrate their mastery of the objective(s) for that part of the course. In education circles this is often referred to as backwards course design; backwards in a positive sense, that is a process that starts with the end in mind, not a process that is questionable to the point of needing to be discarded. : )

Students create grading rubric. 

Have students create a grading rubric for the assessment product they have in mind to create. Point to the grading rubrics used in the course syllabus. Grading rubrics should have the following recommended elements. These of course will vary based on the course and on instructor preference:

(a) Creation of assessment product should take X number of hours (determined by instructor and announced to students).

(b) Four-to-five specific rubric components.

(c) Four levels of accomplishment for each rubric component (from no performance in each component area to exemplary performance in each component area).

(d) Specific, measureable descriptions for each rubric component at each level of accomplishment.

(e) The number of total points for the assessment that is the same for all learners. The instructor informs students of the total number of points the rubric is to have. Students determine how this total number of points is to be divided up among the rubric components they identify.

A good resource for examples of rubrics used for different types of learning activities is available through Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center. Though not all of the rubric elements listed above are demonstrated in examples on the Eberly Center page, it is still a good idea to give students to use as a model – whether it is from an external source, or of your own making.

Students submit their proposed assessment idea and associated rubric for instructor review. The instructor reviews and returns proposals to students with comments for improvements if appropriate. We have found that sometimes students don’t want to create their own learning activities. For this reason it’s also a good idea to have a predetermined assessments ready to use as well.

Applications of Student-created Assessments in the Classroom

Here are a few of examples for assessments submitted by students:

Course: Psychology

Content Area: Mind/Body Connections

Learning Objective: Demonstrate knowledge of commonly accepted steps that lead to having a positive mental attitude.

Prompt for Student-created Assessment: Provide a work product that displays commonly accepted steps that lead to having a positive mental attitude. Provide sources for the information you provide.

Proposals Received:

  • Provide a 30-day, once-a-day script for the college radio station to read from during their morning show.
  • Paint a mural over the ugly gray wall outside the student union; one that provides at least three daily activities students can use to improve mental attitudes.
  • Create a pamphlet that can be distributed through the student health center.
  • Create a web-page to add to the student life section of the school’s Intranet site.

Course: Biology

Content Area: Kreb’s Cycle

Learning Objective: Demonstrate understanding of the eight steps in the Kreb’s Cycle process.

Prompt for Student-created Assessment: Provide a work product that displays your understanding of the Kreb’s Cycle.

Proposals Received:

  • Create a 10-minute video describing the Kreb’s Cycle process.
  • Be the interviewee in an interview about the Kreb’s Cycle process (video or audio recording).
  • Create a large poster that describes the Kreb’s Cycle process which is suitable for long-term display in the classroom.
  • Give a 10- to 15-minute presentation of the Kreb’s Cycle to the class.

Course: Literature

Content Area: The works of Edgar Allan Poe

Learning Objective: Analyze the themes of Poe’s work for relevance in today’s world.

Prompt for Student-created Assessment: Provide evidence that you know and can relate to others through a) the major themes of Poe’s work and b) how his themes are relevant to people today.

Proposals Received:

  • Create a narrated PowerPoint presentation that presents the themes of Poe’s work and analyzes the themes of his work for relevance in today’s world.
  • Paint the wood fence along 24th and 25th on Vine Street with information about Poe’s works and how they connect with today’s society (The fence is mine so it’s okay.).
  • Give a 15- to 20-minute dramatization with fellow classmates during the student union sponsored brown-bag sessions on the topic of Poe’s themes and the meanings we can get from them today.

Course: Marketing

Content Area: Identifying Target Market Population

Learning Objective: Analyze strategies for identifying and narrowing target market populations.

Prompt for Student-created Assessment: Provide evidence of your understanding of strategies for identifying and narrowing target market populations.

Proposals Received:

  • Present a proposal to a company that describes how my firm would use multiple methods to help them define, refine, and connect with their most appropriate markets.
  • Write a white paper that addresses a company that has been identified in the news as losing market share and provide an analyses of where and how they can find new market populations
  • Present a 15-minute presentation to the class about how various social media can use forums to identify different target market populations for businesses.


The more our students are involved in deciding how they will approach their own learning, the more engaged and productive their learning experience will be. Teachers who take advantage of this to increase student engagement and student voice in their classes are likely to be surprised and impressed with the creativity students will demonstrate. In our opinion, the added creativity will widen the perspective of all students and even instructors to create more gratifying, and more memorable educational experiences for everyone involved. Give it a try. See how this works. If you like the experience (and we suspect you will) tell others about it.

Editor’s Note: A more detailed look at this topic is available in: Advances in Exemplary Instruction: Proven practices in higher education. Flores, K. A., Kirstein, K. D., Schieber, C. E., & Olswang, S. G. (Eds.). (2015)


Arron Grow, Ph.D. is Associate Professor and Associate Program Director for doctoral level studies in organizational leadership for the School of Applied Leadership at City University of Seattle. He researches, writes, and speaks on topics connected with employee engagement and managerial excellence. He is the author of How to Not Suck as a Manager and Change or Go: How to Stop Non Team Player Behavior at Work

Greg Price is an Assistant Professor at City University of Seattle, in Seattle, WA. He is the Academic Program Director for the Master of Arts Leadership program at the same university. Greg also teaches courses in leadership, business, and communications. His research interests are in entrepreneurial leadership and team development. In business, Greg is co-owner of a publishing business in Seattle, WA


Astin, A. W. (1993). What matters in college? Four critical years revisited. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2012). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen in organizations. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.

Kuh, G. D. (2003). What we're learning about student engagement from NSSE: Benchmarks for effective educational practices. Change, 35(2), 24-32.

Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., & Whitt, E. J. (2005). Assessing conditions to enhance educational effectiveness: The inventory for student engagement and success. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students: A third decade of research. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Svinigki, M., & McKeachie, W. (2013). McKeachie’s Teaching Tips. (14th ed.) Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.