Marking Made Easy, Feedback Made Relevant

First posted on the Tales From The Reach blog on 22 May 2018 and then the Herts & Bucks TSA blog on 23 May 2018.

In 2016, a DfE working group found that the obsessive nature, depth and frequency of marking was impacting negatively on teachers’ well-being and their ability to plan, prepare and deliver outstanding lessons; essentially, marking was monopolising our working hours outside of the classroom to the detriment of our health and, ironically, our pupils’ progress. The working group’s report, Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking concluded that our profession needs to reconsider our approaches to marking and feedback in order to eliminate unnecessary teacher workload. Importantly, the current state of play could not continue, as:

“Marking has evolved into an unhelpful burden for teachers, when the time it takes is not repaid in positive impact on pupils’ progress. This is frequently because it is serving a different purpose such as demonstrating teacher performance or to satisfy the requirements of other, mainly adult, audiences. Too often, it is the marking itself which is being monitored and commented on by leaders rather than pupil outcomes and progress as a result of quality feedback.” (p. 6)

Personally, I completely concur with this view as I have often written extensive feedback for pupils knowing full well that they were unlikely to read it, act upon it or have time to reflect on it. Moreover, my mind was often focused on the member of SLT who would be scrutinising my book rather than the needs of my pupils. Instead of planning how to use the assessed work to move the pupils forward in their learning, I was committed to flooding their books with red or green pen on the premise that the more I wrote the more thorough my marking would seem to be. Importantly, the DfE report also indicated the need to refocus our energies on using assessment to inform our teaching as much as informing our senior leaders how great our marking is:

“The consequence of this skewed dominance of written feedback means that teachers have less time to focus on the most important aspect of their job – teaching pupils.” (ibid.)

So, what have we done in response?

As part of our ‘Three Strands’ INSET sessions, a group of teachers had been trialling a different approach to feedback. They explored the evidence around whole class feedback, reviewed the experiences of other schools trialling similar approaches, and then tested the new approach with one of their classes. After the initial trial and agreement amongst the group that the whole class feedback approach had worked, we rolled the trial out across years 7, 8 , 9 and 10.

What follows is a summary of the work we have done.

The mathematics of marking

Before outlining our procedures for whole class feedback, consider this evidence from one of our teacher’s experiences of implementing it:

Initially she had:

  • 120 books;
  • spending 5 minutes marking time per book;
  • completed 4 times per cycle;
  • this is 2,400 minutes, or 40 hours, marking per cycle;
  • it equates to 3.5 hours per week;
  • this undeniably creates fatigue.

However, here’s the alternative:

  • 120 books;
  • spending 1.5 minutes per book;
  • completed 4 times per cycle;
  • this is 720 minutes, or 12 hours, marking per cycle;
  • this equates to 1 hour per week;
  • this gives more time for the crucial element of planning teaching based upon the evidence from marking.

How did we achieve this?

Our teachers all engaged with the whole class feedback trial, which means we do not actually ‘mark’ individual pupils’ books, but instead read through them all making notes of common mistakes, misconceptions and areas for improvement as well as strengths and pupils’ successes. These notes then inform a taught feedback lesson (called D.I.R.T. – “dedicated improvement and reflection time”) where all of the pupils’ learn from each others’ feedback, which includes strengths, weaknesses and possibilities for stretch and challenge.

Although the schools that first introduced this process of feedback were met with scepticism or alarmist media attention (both the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph used somewhat value laden headlines, which were ironically followed by positive comments from staff and pupils), the general view seems to point to improved overall feedback, especially as feedback can be taught and acted upon as part of a sequence of lessons.

Moreover, as Mark Esner points out, one of the problems with “deep marking” is that individual comments end up being very generic. Pupils’ books are swamped  with comments like “add more detail here” or “explain this”, but without the relevant additional detail on how to follow through on these directions. Importantly, in a class of 30, we also need to be realistic about getting around to each pupil to explain our comments, ensure they are understood and then acted upon. However, by analysing the assessed work as a class, whole class feedback offers plenty of opportunity to demonstrate and model the different strengths and weaknesses as well trends in common spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes. Moreover, the feedback can also identify ways to move grades up through tasks built on the back of the feedback. Therefore, the feedback can be far more meaningful and purposeful in terms of active learning and thinking.

‘Whole class feedback’ step-by-step

In order to facilitate the trial, staff were given an INSET on how to deliver whole class feedback. This included:

  1. Collect in a class set of books according to the marking cycle.
  2. Get a blank ‘whole class feedback’ sheet ready (electronic or not).
  3. Read through each book, making notes as to what you are finding on the sheet – no need to write anything in pupil books.
  4. Devise a set of feedback tasks and add these to the bottom of the sheet.
  5. Print the feedback sheet off for each pupil (on green paper).
  6. Plan a feedback task/lesson, giving pupils the time and means by which to act upon your feedback.

This is what a feedback sheet looks like. The instructions of what to put on it are in red:

Screenshot 2018-05-19 at 16.40.55

A completed sheet could look like this exemplar;

Screenshot 2018-05-19 at 16.40.59

The importance of the ‘feedback lesson’

Importantly, some of the time saved in marking books must be invested in planning the follow-up feedback lesson. There is no point giving any sort of feedback to pupils unless they have an opportunity to act upon it. Therefore, feedback should be taught and then involve various activities that allow pupils to improve their work; this could include modelling additional answers based on pupils’ “what went wells” and “even better ifs”.

Fortunately, with “Purple Pen Time” (where responses to feedback are written in purple pen) and D.I.R.T. lessons, pupils were already in the routine of improving upon the work they have previously completed.

Planning purposeful tasks based on what you have learnt from your review of their books is the lynch-pin of this new approach succeeding in its aim of promoting progress and improved understanding amongst all pupils.

Staff feedback and views

The trial was a response to the DfE report on teachers’ workload discussed above. Therefore, we have surveyed our colleagues to collate and analyse their views on whether this approach to marking and feedback actually reduced their workload whilst not adversely affecting the quality of feedback given to pupils. The survey results show considerable positives and are shown below (only a selection of written comments are used):

  1. On average, how long did it take you to complete the review of books and write-up the feedback sheet for pupils?

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 08.40.26

2. On average, how long does it take you to mark a set of books with a similar amount of pupil work, using the existing marking policy?

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 08.40.38

3. What did you like about the ‘whole class feedback’ approach? (Some examples of responses).

“Saved a lot of time not having to circle every misspelt word/accent etc. as there are lots of these in MfL books. Pupils tend to recognise their mistakes more when we feedback as a class before having a task to spell them correctly. It also helps to go over grammar issues as a class as there are lots of common errors. Pupils tended to pick up on mistakes more this way than through simply highlighting them in their book.”

“The simplicity of it and the fact the pupils are encouraged to take ownership of making their own improvements. Further progress was made with purple pen.”

“It saves time as you’re not making the same comment over and over. It forces pupils to be more reflective and independent in their learning. It means I can spend time doing more in-depth feedback with those who need a bit of extra help. It helps me to focus more clearly on the feedback I am giving because I am not so tired by the time I have completed the marking. I can give feedback in a more timely fashion because I have time to do it more regularly.”

“Time is saved. More thorough written feedback has been incorporated in the WCF sheets. Once the WCF sheets are given out, I have been able to go through them to ensure misconceptions are clarified. Names of pupils that are doing things as expected are made public and praised, giving me a chance to revisit the expectations regarding presentation and use of purple pen.”

4. What did you dislike about the ‘whole class feedback’ approach? (Some examples of responses).

“The students’ reaction. They were a little annoyed they didn’t get personal feedback, but I think they will get used to it and when they do extended writing tasks I will mark them individually.”

“It was really difficult not to tick work and comment!”

“Finding the best way to support the least able with identifying their mistakes and improving their work (not a problem with the system just something I feel I need to improve upon.)”

5. What improvements do you feel we could make to the feedback template sheet? (Some examples of responses).

“The two boxes about common misconceptions and errors are a bit similar and often things over lap.”

“I’ve adjusted a few titles for it to cater for Music, but generally it’s a very good idea!”

“In Spanish, we have translated the headings into Spanish; so maybe some freedom for each subject to tweak the template slightly might be a good idea?”

6. If we were to change the school’s marking policy so that the expectation were for ‘whole class feedback’ to take place according to the marking cycle, with any additional marking/feedback at each individual teacher’s discretion, would you support this change?

Screen Shot 2018-05-21 at 08.40.51

7. Any further comments or suggestions?

“The pupils make quicker and further progress using the sheet, which I can also refer to in future tasks during lessons and can use as a resource. Marking could totally take over my life at times, this system enables me to spend a reasonable amount of time on it without feeling overwhelmed.”“This has revolutionised my marking – I have now managed to mark 2 sets of books in one day, without staying up until very late and I do not feel the pupils have suffered in any way because of it.”

It is clear from the responses above that staff feel that this approach is hitting the right balance in terms of workload. The reduction in time is significant and corresponds to the recommendations of the DfE’s working group’s report. For example, the report stated:

“Manageable: marking practice is proportionate and considers the frequency and complexity of written feedback, as well as the cost and time-effectiveness of marking in relation to the overall workload of teachers. This is written into any assessment policy.” (p. 8)

Therefore, we are seriously considering making whole class feedback part of our overall assessment policy. It is important for us to manage staff well-being alongside effective performance management.

Also, the positive responses from staff on how this approach has impacted on pupils will inform our decisions. If we consider the points made by staff above, we can relate this approach to another aspect of the DfE’s working party’s recommendations; this is the importance of using assessed work to inform planning and teaching through effective feedback lessons. Importantly, feedback must be meaningful and give pupils purpose in terms of implementing the feedback, which must identify ways of building on their prior knowledge and developing their subject knowledge and skills. For instance, the report suggests:

“Meaningful: marking varies by age group, subject, and what works best for the pupil and teacher in relation to any particular piece of work. Teachers are encouraged to adjust their approach as necessary and trusted to incorporate the outcomes into subsequent planning and teaching.” (ibid.)

Although the individual authors may not endorse our approach to reducing teachers’ workload per se, we feel that our trial has proved beneficial to staff and – from our own scrutiny of pupils’ books – we also feel that there is a positive impact on pupils’ use of feedback. However, over the next few weeks, we will canvass the views of pupils to ensure they understand why we are approaching marking and feedback in this way; that they feel that the feedback they receive is meaningful and allows them to develop; and, essentially, that they have a chance to offer suggestions to improve the feedback. Once the pupils have been surveyed, and we will feel that the change in assessment policy is right for both teachers and pupils, we will proceed accordingly. Please look out for a future blog analysing the pupils views.

Featured image is from Skeyndor via Flickr and used here under a Creative Commons Licence.

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