Self-Assessment in Essay Writing: HTST 201

Self-Assessment and Reflection

“When they’ve already assessed themselves, it makes it easier for me to identify strengths and weaknesses” –Dr. Ken MacMillan


Dr. Ken MacMillan is a highly regarded Professor in the Department of History at the University of Calgary. He teaches an introductory history course, HTST 201: Early Modern Europe 1350-1815, a large lecture course with over 200 students. The majority of students in the course are not history majors and are taking the course as an elective. This means that there are a huge range of skills and backgrounds among students. Essay writing is a core skill developed in history classes, but can be intimidating for student who are not used to this form of assessment. Dr. MacMillan tries to support his students during their essays and encourages them to self-assess as they write.


Two essays are assigned in HTST 201. Both are based on primary sources provided to the students on D2L and are four pages (double-spaced) in length. There are several resources available to help the students with their writing. They are given a writing workshop based on the assignment, a free essay writing handbook that Dr. MacMillan wrote to teach students about style, structure, and argumentation, as well as a model essay that includes all of the components of a strong paper. Students are also given the rubric that will be used to assess the essay. When students have completed their first draft, Dr. MacMillan encourages them to use the rubric to “grade” their work. He recommends that they print out the rubric and physically check off where they think their paper fits in each of the different sections.

Students can bring their self-assessment to Dr. MacMillan, which he quickly reviews himself. This becomes a prime teachable moment, when the instructor and student can discuss areas of strength and those areas that could be improved. He provides students with suggestions to increase quality of their paper, but one advantage of using the rubric is that it shows that fixing one or two things will not make their essay perfect. “It’s never just one thing”, he says, “You have to look at the essay as a whole and say ‘How can I make this more effective?’”

Dr. MacMillan and his team of teaching assistants grade and return the essays in approximately one week. This is difficult to do with so many students, but it is important, especially for the first essay. The second essay follows the exact same format as the first, so the feedback that students receive will guide them as they write and self-assess it. There are very high expectations for history essays, even at the junior level. The rubric and feedback explain the rationale behind the grading, so that students understand how their grade was determined.


Self-assessment can be difficult for students at first, but it is a good way for them to understand the assignment expectations. It also helps them get quicker feedback and advice from their instructors. Students can tell which areas they are struggling with the most, and can ask specific questions to improve those areas. This is beneficial in such a large class. Self-assessment is an important way for students to develop independence and a positive attitude toward lifelong learning. There are always aspects of writing that can be improved and students in every faculty and discipline need strong writing skills. Even if Dr. MacMillan’s students never write a history essay again, having experience assessing their own writing with a rubric will benefit them in other courses and in their careers.

-Ashley Weleschuk

To read about the other assessment methods used in HTST 201, click here