June 3, 2014 by Doug Napolitano-Cremin
The following post is a summary of a talk I recently delivered at the ASE East Conference in Harlow:
When planning for the ASE conference I remarked to a colleague that I had picked a bit of a minefield of a topic to talk about. Marking and feedback is one of those areas in education that can reduce some teachers to tears, but reinvigorate others.
We start off with good intentions when marking. We head off with a desire to achieve something profitable for ourselves (a better understanding of where our pupils ‘are at’) and for our pupils (signposts for how to improve).
As we go through the process we realise it is incredibly hard work. It feels like pushing a boat over a mountain!
Most of us also engage in this task with an unclear idea as to what may lie ahead or have any plan as to what to do when the task is complete.
We need to change the way we think about marking and feedback, and change the way we do it. We need to esnure that what we do has a positive impact on the learning of our pupils, but at the same time not add further pressure on our already heavy workload.
Before thinking about how we improve our marking and feedback practice, we should really ask ourselves, ‘Why bother?‘
John Hattie sums up the reason in one sentence:
‘Feedback is among the most common features of successful teaching and learning.’
John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers, 2012.
The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Toolkit also states that feedback shows very high effects on learning. Feedback works. HOWEVER, like nearly everything in education, the issue is not at all that simple. Both Hattie and the EEF state that feedback has wide ranging effects, and indeed there are a number of studies that demonstrate feedback having a negative effect on learning. The picture is anything but clear!
What does research say?
The purpose of feedback should be to reduce the gap between where the student is and where they are meant to be (Hattie, 2012). Wiliam (2011) also suggests that any feedback provided by a teacher should increase the extent to which learners own their own learning.
In schools, we are often concerned with issues like the frequency of marking, the colour of the pen that we use to mark and what should be on the stamps that we use to highlight our feedback in pupils books! However often we mark, what ever format our feedback takes, we must ensure that the feedback we provide is acted upon. Wiliam (2011) suggests that to aid this, feedback must ‘provide a recipe for future action’.
As mentioned above, research in to feedback and marking does not provide a crystal clear picture for teachers. We can however list some common elements of feedback that result in positive impacts on learning:
- Cause thinking.
- Not be seen as an end-point.
‘Never grade students whilst they are still learning’. (Alfie Kohn)
- Provide a recipe for future actions.
- Be separate from praise.
- Be focused.
- Relate to the learning objectives.
- Be more work for the recipient than the donor.
Before the Lesson
Planning is key if we are to provide pupils with effective feedback both during and after lessons. Much of the hard work and time linked to feedback and marking should happen before the lesson.
Learning objectives need to be planned carefully as they are the foundation of any assessment we do. If feedback is going to be related to our objectives, we need to ensure these objectives are robust, provide challenge and allow all pupils to progress. I have found the ideas behind SOLO taxonomy incredibly valuable to help plan my objectives. I have written about SOLO in more detail here. It provides me with a structured system to ensure pupils are challenged and have the opportunity to make progress during the lesson.
Before the lesson we need to plan HOW we are going to assess the progress made towards learning objectives. Activities and questions need to be designed carefully to ensure that they are fit for purpose. These activities should stretch and challenge pupils. The purpose of activities should not be to ‘get something in their books’, but should be to develop understanding or assess that understanding.
The possible mistakes that pupils may make, the misconceptions they may have, need to be considered when planning the lesson. This will enable appropriate feedback to be planned in advance and save a great amount of time during and after lessons.
The 5 minute marking plan, designed by Stephen Tierney (@LeadingLearner) and Ross Morrison McGill (@TeacherToolkit) is a very useful resource for the planning of marking and feedback and can be found here. Although it can certainly take longer than five minutes to fill in the plan, it provides a nice visual aid to help you organise your thinking about the marking and feedback that will take place in your lesson. One section of the plan that I really like is titled, ‘What should/should not be marked’. As Ross writes,
This can be a hard one for teachers. We want to mark everything but quality and quantity can create problems. Go back to “The Big Picture”. Why are you marking, what will add most value to the teaching & learning.
During the Lesson
The following is a description of a few things we are trying in our department. These approaches are very much a work in progress. We hope to evaluate their effectiveness near the end of the academic year.
In the Science department at Haverstock, we have been trying to…
- Reduce the workload involved with marking but increase the impact it has.
- Increase student engagement with feedback.
It has been a particular challenge for us to find strategies to achieve these goals, but the following are a few things that we are currently trialling.
Feedback aims to reduce the gap between where the student ‘is’ and where they are ‘meant to be’. We have been looking at low-intensity, high-impact methods that we can use to find out where a student ‘is’ at the beginning of a lesson or topic. We have used work produced by the York University Science Education Group to help us in this task. Their ‘Confidence Grids’ provide a fantastic insight in to pupils understanding and can also be used again at the end of a lesson/topic to judge progress. Read more about this work here.
Another tool we are using, similar to the confidence grids, was shared with me by our speech and language therapist, Sophie Jankel. She introduced the ‘Word Learning Score’ grid to me as an aid to help pupils with their literacy skills. Knowledge of the meaning of words can be a strong indicator of a pupil’s knowledge of a particular topic. Like the confidence grids, teachers can gain a very quick insight in to where each pupil ‘is’ and they are just one of a number of ways in which progress can be evidenced. A copy of the grid to be downloaded and edited can be found here.
Beyond the ‘pre-assessment’ described above, we are also trying to encourage teachers to use time in lessons effectively. The school has given all teachers a ‘Next steps’ stamper. These stamps are to be used by teachers as a means of recording the verbal feedback that they provide pupils during the course of a lesson. For example; during a lesson I look over Jimmy’s work and tell him that he has described the trend of a particular graph well but he now needs to explain this trend. I will stamp his page with the ‘Next steps’ stamp and ask Jimmy to write down the feedback I have just given, ‘Explain the trend shown in the graph‘. Jimmy will then complete the ‘next steps’ he has been given. These improvements are completed in green pen by the pupil as it is then clear to the teacher that improvements have indeed been made. The green pen also allows for progress to be easily identified.
I am usually very sceptical of teachers using stamps in their marking. In my own experience I have found that the stamps have generally added nothing to the learning of pupils and have been used purely as a result of accountability of teachers (the classic ‘verbal feedback given’ stamp being a prime example). The ‘Next steps’ stamp we are using however is more than just a way for teachers to record the feedback they are giving. Making pupils write their own feedback next to the stamp will hopefully engage pupils in the task that they have to complete. It is also a useful way to check pupils understand what they have been asked to do, as the teacher will check that the ‘Next steps’ have been written down correctly.
A teacher is not necessarily expected to do this for all pupils in a lesson. As part of their planning, 4-5 pupils could be identified and targeted for specific feedback in a lesson in the way described above. These pupils will help to give an indication as to how the class is doing overall and can help the teacher decide what tehir own next steps will be in terms of planning.
Below is a picture of a small example of how this system has been used so far in the department:
As a department we are also trying to build in DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) in to our schemes of work and individual planning. The idea of building in time for pupils to reflect and improve on their learning has been written about extensively by a number of teacher bloggers. Some great posts to read include:
Both of the blogs mentioned above have also produced some useful diagrams that can be used by departments who are developing their marking policies, like we are at Haverstock.
After the Lesson
What happens after the lesson very much depends on what has happened during the lesson! It is now time to reflect on the progress made by pupils during the lesson. This can be done using the various pieces of information collected during the lesson through the techniques described above and through the various AfL techniques that can be used and are now common place in many schools.
There will obviously be times where in depth marking of work after lessons is required. This marking can, and should, aid the planning of the next lesson. The key however is to ensure that the marking being completed is low intensity for teachers but has a high impact on pupils’ learning.
With careful planning the marking of books after a lesson can be a quick and effective process. Ensuring that you know what pieces of work need in-depth marking will save a lot of time. Teachers may have even already planned a list of phrases that will be used when feeding back on work. These phrases will be based on the teacher’s knowledge of common mistakes that are regularly made with that activity/area of work.
Some teachers have ensured that they avoid wasting time searching through books by getting pupils to hand in their books at the end of the lesson open at the page the teacher will be marking. Some teachers have got in to a routine of asking pupils to complete activities that are going to be used as evidence of learning on separate pieces of paper. This makes it much easier and quicker to collect in and mark.
Discussing these ideas at the ASE conference sparked an interesting conversation about the purpose of exercise books. We need to ensure that it is clear to pupils and teachers what the purpose of the exercise books are. They can often be viewed, by both teachers and pupils, as instruments of accountability. There can be little thought about what actually goes in to exercise books and their value for learning is therefore diminished. Inspired by the ideas presented by Ron Berger in his book, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ I am toying with the idea of having a system where pupils use exercise books for compiling notes, ideas etc. during lessons and another book or folder for ‘excellent’ work that evidences what they have learnt. My marking and feedback would focus on the folder/book of excellent work, whilst the ‘note-book’ would be a focus for peer and self assessment. I will have to think a bit more about this idea and write about it in further detail in the future!
There are various ways that we can ensure our marking and feedback has a high impact on pupils. Most of the methods I have trialled have been pinched from teachers much better than myself so I would encourage you to read their own accounts:
David Didau – Making Feedback Stick.
Kenny Pieper (@kennypieper) – Marking is Feedback is Differentiation is Planning
Once this is all done, the wonderful process starts all over again…Planning – Marking – Feedback – Planning…
Where to now…
As mentioned previously, we are very much in the middle of the trial stage of the methods mentioned above. At the end of academic year we will have to evaluate the work that we have done and make some decisions based on this evaluation. There is still a long way to go on our journey, but I am sure that we can have a huge impact on the work of teachers and the learning of pupils by persevering, learning from schools/colleagues around the country and getting this issue right.