How are student-directed learners assessed?

Hopefully by now we all agree that student-directed learning is a great and effective way to prepare today’s students for the world they’re entering. However, student-directed learning turns the traditional idea of a gradebook on its head. Students won’t necessarily be working on the same core skills as their peers, and they certainly won’t be mastering them at the same time. Similarly, project-based learning and Socratic seminars break the traditional idea of student grades.

Even though the method of teaching is different, it is still useful to have some method of assessing student progress. What are the metrics that matter most to you and your school? How will you know if a student is doing well, or if something needs to change so they can learn in a better way?

Some good assessment options

We’ve put together a list of several alternatives to grades. Your school will likely use a combination of assessment methods. Hopefully this will help you start brainstorming!

  • SMART goals. This is a tried-and-true mnemonic method for goal-setting that was originally used for improving management. While the letters can have a few different meanings, for our purposes, they stand for:


Typically, SMART goals are set for big achievements, rather than small goals. Ask the students what big achievements they’d like to work toward and have them define those goals within the SMART framework. Then let them run at the goal, and come back to it daily or weekly to reflect on their progress. A big benefit of this method is that students learn to set their own goals and track their progress through them, a great skill.

  • Accountability buddy. Sometimes we’re not our own best keeper. Especially in a self-directed learning model where students have to be self-motivated, it helps to have someone to check in with who knows what you said you wanted to work toward and can help keep you on track. One important caveat to this method is to pair the students up with each other to be accountability buddies, rather than with a teacher.
  • Badges. Given that a lot of eLearning software tracks progress and rewards students with badges, it’s easy to expand that system into everything that’s done in the classroom. A badge is just a symbol that a task or set of tasks have been completed well. You might create badges for students to earn upon completion of a project, or for exceptional teamwork in their group. Badges can also be combined with other assessment systems, or participation and behavior. For example, a student’s SMART goal might be to earn a certain number of reading badges or to lead a Socratic discussion.
  • Weekly points tracker. This is another method that dovetails nicely with eLearning software. Points work similarly to badges in that students can earn them for tasks completed well. A points system could be set up for core skills, projects, and behavior just like a badge system.
    Wall displays. To turn badges or points into a motivational tool, make the points public. Students can see what areas other students are working in and be encouraged to give it a try themselves. You might also showcase visual work such as artwork on the walls to show pride in what they’ve created.
  • Portfolios. As students learn and achieve different goals, there are some that they will be particularly proud of. Encourage them to put representations of the work that is most important to them in a portfolio. Periodically have the students review and curate their portfolios. It will serve as reflection time for them to visually see what their interests are and how far they’ve come.
  • Standardized tests. Objectively, standardized testing is not the most effective way to measure learning and skill acquisition. However, it might be something you decide to do to bring peace of mind to the families in your school. If you do choose to do standardized testing, we recommend that you put several other assessment methods in place as well, and use those as your primary metrics for progress.

Keep digital records

However you decide to track students’ progress, think about a way to keep it as a digital record. There are a few reasons for this. First, it’s good for a student to be able to look back and see the trend in their work to help them understand what’s working for them as individuals. Second, it’ll be useful for you to collect information on all your students so you can see what’s working and what’s not across the board. Finally, keeping track of things digitally in a way that parents can access is a good way to keep them informed and involved.

Give the parents access

Parents will want to know how their students are doing, and rightly so. The families of your students can be a powerful force in keeping them focused and motivated to learn. However, moving away from the idea of “grades” can be a hard change for parents, especially if they come from the traditional school system.

The best way to address these concerns is to be as transparent as possible about how students’ progress is monitored, by themselves, by the learning coaches, and by their families. The more insight parents have into what’s happening at school, the more they’re empowered to be a positive force in their child’s education.

Be ready to change

You know what they say about the best-laid plans. As nice as it would be to have everything work exactly as you’d like it to, you just don’t know if it’ll work until you’ve tried it. So lay some groundwork for evaluating whether your assessment methods are working, and don’t be afraid to change them if that’s what’s best for your students. And of course, share your wisdom with us here! We would love to know what’s working for you and what’s not.