The Center Is Getting Emotional About Assessment (Part 1)

Making the Case for Social and Emotional Learning Assessment

This is the first in a four-part series on social and emotional learning (SEL) assessment by Center associate Chris Brandt and guest author Katie Buckley, Managing Director of Research & Learning at Transforming Education. Across four posts they make the argument that balanced systems of assessment must effectively support SEL and offer recommendations for how states, districts, and schools can and should support SEL in responsible and useful ways through assessment.

Several months ago, my colleagues Carla Evans, Jeri Thompson, and I partnered with PBLWorks to develop a series of papers focused on 21st Century learning. Also called deeper learning, 21st Century learning represents skills such as problem solving, collaboration, self-direction, creativity, critical thinking, and complex communication that can be universally applied to enhance ways of learning, working and living in the world. My first assignment for PBLWorks was to write about self-directed learning: What is it, why should we care, and how should educators integrate self-directed learning into their instruction and assessment? What started as a straightforward task resulted in important life lessons; lessons powerful enough to change my views about what and how schools should be teaching tomorrow’s leaders. 

In this post, I use those lessons to build a case for integrating and prioritizing social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools. In future posts, I team up with my colleague, Katie Buckley, from Transforming Education, to discuss the implications for SEL assessment in states, districts, schools, and classrooms. 

What is a Self-Directed Learner?

Self-directed learners are self-regulated and highly motivated individuals who act independently and take responsibility for their actions. They choose the what, why, how, and where of their learning. In a previous blog and literature review, I provided a more detailed definition of self-directed learning and discussed implications for instruction and assessment. The research reveals four dimensions of self-directed learning:

  • Self-Regulation is the ability to plan, direct, and control one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors during a learning task.
  • Motivation is the desire to engage in an activity that emerges from the inherent enjoyment of an activity or a sense of obligation to engage in a task. Growth mindset is a major factor influencing motivation: believing that intelligence, personality, and abilities are flexible and dynamic, shaped by experience, and changing over the lifespan (Dweck, 2006).
  • Personal Responsibility (also called responsibility, initiative, and ownership) is a willingness to take full responsibility for one’s actions.
  • Autonomy is the ability to recognize available choices and take charge of one’s learning, and to control choices through ongoing reflection and evaluation. 

Self-directed learning is a critically important skill for someone to achieve lifelong success and fulfillment. Think about the people you know who set and achieve challenging goals, and who are self-motivated, emotionally stable, responsible, and independent. That’s a self-directed learner. Now imagine if our schools focused as much on developing these skills as they did on the content standards. 

Why are SEL Skills So Important for Developing Self-Directed Learners?

Even as our world becomes more connected, adults and children are becoming more socially isolated. Social media has become a breeding ground for anti-social behavior and gaslighting. One in five American children is experiencing a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety. American youth now rank in the bottom quarter among developed nations in well-being and life satisfaction (UNICEF, 2013). More than half of college students experience overwhelming anxiety and a third report intense depression. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide rates have increased by 35% over the last 20 years (Hedegaard et. al, 2020). All of this data helps make the case that social and emotional skills are a necessity in today’s world. 

What Are the Implications for Instruction and Assessment?

Perhaps most encouraging, these social and emotional skills can be learned. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that self-direction can be taught and learned effectively. According to one meta-analysis of 213 school-based programs across 270,000 students in grades K-12, SEL participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance compared to control students with no exposure to these programs (Durlak et. al, 2011). But achieving this outcome requires that our schools place the proper emphasis on SEL and 21st Century skills that have traditionally been given short shrift in schools.

SEL skills are indispensable for academic achievement, career success and, ultimately, for experiencing a rich and meaningful life. Moreover, decades of research indicate that SEL skills can be learned in schools and, therefore, should be incorporated into districts’ curriculum, instruction, and assessment systems (see Brackett, 2019Salovey & Mayer, 1990). Accomplishing this integration will require districts, and schools to shift resources, professional development priorities, and instructional/assessment strategies. It will also require a shift in the mindsets of education leaders and staff.  

The next logical question must be, how can and should states, districts, and schools support SEL in responsible and useful ways through assessment and how can SEL curriculum, instruction, strategies and supports be integrated into an already packed schedule? We address these questions in a series of future posts exploring how states, districts and schools can employ a balanced system of assessment to effectively support SEL.