Adrian Tennant takes a look at self-assessment and, in particular, ‘Can do’ statements: a current buzzword and term employed by the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR).

Photo of a CEFR table, to illustrate the concept of 'can do' statements. If too hard, photo of a person writing.

Source: Dougal Waters, Getty Images


In many respects assessment is seen as something that is done to students either by teachers or by an external person, an exam board, etc. However, this does not need to be the case and, in fact, other forms of assessment can be more beneficial and useful for students. In this article we will have a look at self-assessment and, in particular, ‘Can do’ statements.

What is self-assessment?

Self-assessment can be carried out in a number of different ways, but basically it is getting students to assess their own progress, language ability and pieces of work.

Self-assessment is a natural thing. It is rare for anyone to do something without looking back at what they’ve done and judging how successful they were. However, this kind of assessment is rarely formalized or recorded so it can be used at a later stage or as part of an assessment system.

How can we get students to assess themselves?

Structuring self-assessment so that it is systematic, and can be included as part of an overall assessment system, is not difficult. The first step is choosing how the self-assessment will be carried out and how it will be recorded. The next step is discussing the issues of self-assessment with the students themselves. It is important that students understand the rationale behind what the teacher is suggesting, as it will only work effectively if everyone understands what, why and how the idea will work. Then, the teacher should put the system in place and ensure that it is carried out as planned. The final step is to review the system on a number of occasions to make sure it is working as anticipated.

It would be a shame to put a lot of time and effort into instigating something only to find at the end that it hadn’t worked very well. Reviewing how things are going (and getting feedback from the students as well) will help make it more effective. If you find that things aren’t working, it is easier to make adjustments during the process rather than waiting until it’s over.

The positives and negatives of self-assessment

Self-assessment is seen as a way of developing learner autonomy, making the students independent learners and not so reliant on the teacher. If students come to see assessment as a way of informing them about their progress, and helping them become better and more effective learners, then this can only be a positive thing.

It also means that students are more likely to perform better in summative tests, such as end-of-course tests or external exams, as they will not be as nervous about taking them.

However, there are a few problems associated with self-assessment. One problem that is often brought up is the ability of students to accurately assess their progress and work. Certainly, without training, students are unlikely to be able to effectively assess their own work. However, with training and guidance most students can become extremely adept at evaluating how well or how badly they are doing.

Another problem is that it is much easier for students to say what they can’t do rather than what they can do. This leads to fairly negative assessment and poor motivation. It is important when putting into place a self-assessment system that the need to look at positive things and build on those is just as important (if not more so) than looking at the things that need improving.

What are ‘Can do’ statements and how do they work?

The Common European Framework (CEF) has six levels, ranging from A1 at the bottom to C2 at the top. These levels are supposed to show the ability a student has in terms of using the language they are studying. As part of the framework the CEF has descriptors saying what a student can do when they have completed the level. So, for example, at A1 level the CEF looks something like this:

Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

As you can see, these ‘Can do’ statements are very broad. When these are applied to materials they are spelt out in far more specific terms. So, for example, a set of ‘Can do’ statements at the end of a coursebook unit might look something like this:

In English I can …
  • greet other people üû
  • introduce myself üû
  • count to ten üû
  • say my phone number üû
  • say where I am from üû
  • say my nationality üû
  • complete a landing card üû

or this:

Now you can …

  • talk about likes and dislikes
  • talk about your daily routine
  • talk about frequency
  • describe places
  • describe what’s happening now

How good are you? Tick a box.

***Great ¨  **OK ¨  *Not sure ¨

The advantages and disadvantages of ‘Can do’ statements

One of the potential problems with ‘Can do’ statements is that they give the impression that once you’ve ticked something off then you’ve completed it. However, like any other skill in life, unless you keep practising it your ability to do it will diminish.

Another disadvantage is that often the statements are written in very black and white terms, i.e. You can do Y or You can’t do Y. However, as we all know, it is possible to be able to do something, but not very well. Or be able to do something but still not feel entirely comfortable. So, for ‘Can do’ statements to be useful and effective as both assessment tools and in helping students and teachers identify areas for further work it might well be worth giving more choices rather than simple I can do Y / I can’t do Y.

On the plus side, ‘Can do’ statements are a step in the right direction. They are usually written in very clear terms and are directly linked to the aims of a particular lesson, sequence of lessons, unit or level. The whole idea of giving students a degree of autonomy, and a way in which they can assess themselves in terms of what they can do, is definitely a good thing and should be encouraged.

Other methods of self-assessment

Student diaries and reports

Ask your students to keep a regular diary in which they record their thoughts and feelings about lessons, activities, homework, etc. You can ask them to write down what they did, enjoyed, found difficult and want more practice with. Tell the students that these are private and do not need to be shared with anyone. However, explain that at certain points in the course you will ask them to look back through their diaries and write a brief report for you about their progress.


Questionnaires are a great way to get students to assess themselves. Either teachers can put them together or students can write them themselves. The questionnaires can focus on individual lessons or a series of lessons. The types of questions can be yes/no, open questions or ranking ones. For example:

What have you made the most progress with in terms of your English?
What would you like to practise more?
Set yourself three targets for this week/term …
Did you meet your last set of targets?
How much have you improved this term?  A lot ¨   A bit ¨   Not much ¨

Progress checks (tests)

These can either be tests handed out by the teacher or designed by the students. Unlike normal tests, students do these as homework and mark the tests themselves using a key. The marking can be done straight afterwards or at a later stage.

There are a lot of digital elements to coursebooks, including digital tests, which can be done by the students on their own when they want to check their progress. These are marked digitally and immediate feedback is given.

The advantage with getting students to do progress tests as part of a self-assessment system is that they can see the purpose is to inform them of what they know or don’t know and they are then able to go back over things that they need more practise with.


Self-assessment is seen as part of the learning process and a way in which to help develop learner autonomy. Of course, there are a number of problems and issues that need to be considered. However, self-assessment, if carried out well, can be a useful tool for all involved.