This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in May 2018. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
Several seminal works of educational research have espoused the virtues of feedback. First came Black and Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box, then Hattie’s Visible Learning, followed by the Educational Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Each posited that feedback was one of the most impactful teaching strategies at our disposal, adding eight months of extra progress every year and leading to at least half a GCSE grade’s improvement.
There is no doubt that feedback is important. After all, if pupils didn’t know what to improve and how to improve it, they would be unlikely to make much progress. But our obsession with feedback has led to an unhealthy and unsustainable teacher workload which, in turn, has adversely affected recruitment and retention in the profession.
For proof of this, look no further than the government’s Workload Challenge (2015) survey, which found that 53 per cent of respondents thought that, while marking pupils’ work was necessary and productive, the excessive nature, depth and frequency of marking was burdensome. Therefore, this week I will explore ways of ensuring that marking and feedback are made meaningful, manageable and motivating…
Marking and feedback have but one purpose: to help pupils make better progress and achieve good outcomes. They might do this directly by providing cues to the pupil about what to improve and they might do it indirectly by providing assessment information to the teacher to guide their planning.
Marking and feedback carried out for any other purpose are not meaningful activities and – as well as being a waste of a teacher’s precious time – can distract and indeed detract from this important goal.
The best person to decide which type of marking and feedback to use and when to use it is, of course, the teacher because it is she who will use the assessment information to aid her planning and to support her pupils to make progress. Accordingly, the teacher should be allowed the freedom to determine whether to give written or verbal feedback, and whether to do so in class or in pupils’ books.
Although a school’s assessment policy may set broad guidelines about how often pupils’ work should be marked in order to ensure that no pupil falls through the net, it also needs to build-in sufficient flexibility so that teachers can decide how to do it.
Consistency is important but this does not necessarily mean unvarying practice. While having a set of shared expectations regarding marking and feedback will help everybody to be clear about what is required of them, each curriculum subject should be allowed to determine the detail of the policy for their areas, responding to the different workload demands of their subject and to the differences inherent in each phase and key stage of education.
The nature and volume of marking and feedback necessarily varies by age group, subject, and what works best for the individual pupil and for the particular piece of work being assessed. As such, teachers should be encouraged to be pragmatic, adjusting their approach according to context. This involves trust and, as Henry L Stimson once said, the only way to make someone trustworthy is to trust them. School leaders will soon know if a teacher’s practice is ineffective – they don’t need to straitjacket all their staff in order to ensure consistency and quality.
In practice, this means that school leaders need to avoid asking teachers to mark at set times of the year because those times might not always be the best times for that subject and that teacher. Instead, schools should ask that teachers mark a set number of times through the year but allow them or their departments to choose precisely when this would be. In so doing, schools can ensure that marking is less frequent but more meaningful.
Schools should also be aware that marking looks very different in some subjects compared with others. As such, subject areas should be allowed to decide what effective marking and feedback should look like for them. Each area may collate examples of best practice to help new staff and to reinforce expectations for existing teachers. But these examples should not be regarded as “the only way” to do things and should not acquire mythic status. Rather, they should continue to evolve over time, and to be challenged.
A teacher’s job is a complex one and it would be possible to work 24/7 and still not feel that the job is done. And yet there are only so many hours in the day.
It is important that, whatever approach schools take to marking and feedback, they ensure they protect teachers’ work/life balances because tired teachers do not perform as well and burn-out can lead to issues with teacher retention – we also know that teacher absences and staff shortages seriously impede pupils’ progress.
Marking and feedback should, therefore, be proportionate. Here we return to the “energy versus impact” equation (see part 1): we want to ensure maximum impact for pupils from the minimum amount of energy teachers expend. Any expectation on the frequency of marking should take into account the complexity of marking and the volume of marking required in any given subject, phase and key stage.
As I’ve said before, there is no doubt that feedback is valuable but we need to decide which one of all the valuable things teachers do are more worthwhile than others and focus on the areas of biggest impact for the smallest investment of teacher time and energy. Put simply, if teachers are spending more time marking and giving feedback than pupils spend on a piece of work then your priorities are wrong and should be changed.
Once a policy is in place, it is important that it is frequently reviewed because marking practices change, particularly in light of reforms to national curricula and qualifications, as well as in response to new research. It may have been tempting to assume that the removal of coursework at GCSE lightened the teacher marking load but in many cases the load simply got heavier as schools introduced more mock exams and other assessment-heavy preparations for terminal tests.
In practice, school leaders need to ensure that teachers are selective in what they mark, rather than expecting them to mark every piece of work a pupil produces and “tick and flick” every page of their exercise books. Marking everything is time-consuming and counter-productive. Feedback becomes like a grain of sand on a beach, ignored by the pupil because of its ubiquity.
Subject areas and teachers should identify the best assessment opportunities in each scheme of work – this might be a synoptic piece that demonstrates pupils’ knowledge and understanding across a range of areas, or it might be the exam questions that garner the most marks (for example, the teacher may only assess the 6-plus mark questions, while pupils and their peers assess the 1 to 5 mark questions).
If nothing else, schools should end the pointless practice of tick and flick.
Marking should help to motivate pupils to progress. In this regard, short verbal feedback is often more motivational than long written comments on pupils’ work.
Indeed, some pupils find written comments demotivating because they ruin the presentation of their work, are confusing, or overwhelming. Once again there’s a simple rule to obey here: if the teacher is doing more work than their pupils, they need to stop. Not only is it harmful to teacher workload, it can become a disincentive for pupils because there is too much feedback on which to focus and respond, and/or they do not think they have to take responsibility for improving their work – particularly if they had not sufficiently checked their own work before receiving feedback – because the teacher is spoon-feeding them.
What’s more, too much feedback can reduce a pupil’s long-term retention and harm resilience. To build retention and resilience, pupils need to be taught to check their own work and make improvements before the teacher marks it and gives feedback.
The feedback should also prompt further thinking and drafting, perhaps by posing questions on which the pupil has to ruminate and act, as opposed to ready-made suggestions and solutions.
In practice, schools need to liaise with pupils on what kind of feedback motivates them best. Evidence suggests that rewarding pupils for their attainment rather than their effort is harmful and counter-productive. Many pupils, when surveyed, say they don’t want summative comments, they just want to know how to improve. What’s more, many pupils say they don’t want praise. They don’t need a written affirmation that they’re working hard. In fact, many pupils simply ignore the praise when given.
However, what applies to written feedback does not always apply to verbal feedback – in fact, the only time to offer praise, in my opinion, is when giving verbal feedback. Positive verbal feedback can be motivating and certainly improves the learning environment. Written feedback, meanwhile, should focus on what needs to happen next.
In 2016, the government’s independent Workload Challenge Working Group recommended that, in order to improve the effectiveness of marking and feedback, governors and school leaders should:
- Use the three principles of meaningful, manageable and motivating to review their school’s marking practice as part of an overall and proportionate assessment policy in partnership with their teachers.
- Evaluate the time implications of any whole-school marking and assessment policy for all teachers to ensure that the school policy does not make unreasonable demands on any particular members of staff.
- Monitor their marking practice as part of their regular monitoring cycle, and in partnership with their teachers and governing boards, and evaluate its effectiveness on pupil progress.
- Challenge emerging fads that indirectly impose excessive marking practices on schools.
The group also recommended that teachers should:
- Seek to develop a range of assessment techniques to support their pedagogy.
- Actively review current practice to ensure marking adheres to the three principles of meaningful, manageable, and motivating.
It’s not what Ofsted wants
Finally, teachers and school leaders should take note of the latest overtures emanating from Ofsted towers. HMI Sean Harford says that inspectors should “not report on marking practice, or make judgements on it, other than whether it follows the school’s assessment policy”.
And Ofsted has made it clear that it does not expect to see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders. Rather, the inspectorate recognises that the amount of work in books and folders will depend on the subject being studied and the age and ability of the pupils.
What’s more, while inspectors will consider how written and oral feedback is used to promote learning, Ofsted does not expect to see any written record of oral feedback provided to pupils by teachers.
If it is necessary for inspectors to identify marking as an area for improvement for a school, they will pay careful attention to the way recommendations are written to ensure that these do not drive unnecessary workload for teachers.
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