Assessment: The feedback conundrum

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
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Achieving a whole-school marking policy that satisfies students, parents and teachers might just be impossible. Dr Bernard Trafford instead urges a focus on some simple tenets of good feedback...

Feedback. Sometimes it seems as if our lives are ruled by the demand for it. As a school leader you can’t disappoint an applicant for a post, a school place, a prize or almost anything else without being asked for detailed feedback to the disappointed candidate.

Teachers are constantly required to give “useful feedback” on any piece of work they assess, frequently with the exhortation to make sure that their comments are encouraging, too.

It is hard to argue against such expectations. After all, if someone’s homework, competence, classroom performance, candidacy – or anything else into which they have put a modicum of effort – is to be formally assessed, it is arguably only reasonable to assume that they should be told how well they did and why, perhaps, their efforts didn’t come up to scratch.

The point is, then, that we are talking not so much about feedback (which is relatively easy to furnish), as about the judgement made in the first place.

So discussion of feedback, its nature and form, must focus on assessment and the way we reach our judgements.

Let’s start, then, in the spirit of humility required by the recent report by educational think-tank LKMco and Pearson (#TestingTheWater, November 2017) that concluded that most teachers don’t really understand assessment! Moreover, this one article cannot cover all forms of assessment and judgement, so I’ll begin with teachers marking work and writing reports.

There is (inevitably in schools) some confusion about the audience. A mark on a piece of homework is a form of feedback to the student: except that the keen parent frequently wants to see it too. By the same token, school reports are officially written to parents: yet teachers often feel that the student is the audience, a fact demonstrated by the number of times their written comment falls into the second person or into an exhortation: “Well done, Jack! Keep up the good work!”

Are such bland, if positive, comments still written in the 21st century, with or without appropriate punctuation? I suspect they are, here and there.

The point is often made – and research tends to prove – that a simple mark out of 10 says little about the quality of the student’s work or the amount of learning that has gone on, except in the most basic type of task.

For example, 20 questions designed to practise a single mathematical concept, such as the multiplication of fractions, would be an indicator of how well the technique has been assimilated: but beyond that it offers no qualitative judgement.

To combat this, for many years (decades, even), teachers marking essays in a variety of subjects might, for example, have marked the work out of 40 – 20 for content, but an additional five for each of style, punctuation, handwriting and spelling (or a number of other elements). Few in teaching would nowadays claim that it’s a scientific analysis of the work.

One thing that infuriates students, the recipients of these marks, is their view that teachers are poor at judging how much effort has gone into the work.

In my time I have wrangled for hours on this topic with successive school councils. On a piece of work, or indeed in a report going home to parents, many schools still provide attainment and effort grades. If students hate the latter, parents frequently profess to love them. They want to know “how well my child is doing” and whether they are working hard enough.

Schools frequently try to be more sophisticated: they may claim, for example, that it is not an “effort” grade, but an overall judgement of the impression that students give of their attitude to work and learning. Try to get parents to understand that, and they will swiftly advise you to revert straight to the “effort” thing: they know what (they think) they know.

A head for more than a quarter of a century, I think I’ve tried most approaches. Running traditionally academic schools, I often found myself dealing with a high parental expectation of regular feedback; so perhaps two end-of-term reports and an annual parents’ conference might be augmented by monthly or half-termly short reports – the very kind of shorthand grades that I described above.

Frustrated by the impossibility of achieving consistency across subjects, between the highly subjective judgements of individual teachers, senior colleagues and I tried occasionally to remove all grades, replacing them with a simple traffic-light. A green light (or alternative numeral or letter) suggested no cause for concern: a red light naturally flagged a problem.

This proved acceptable neither to parents nor to staff. Teachers wanted to give (and parents to receive) an extra grade, one that was more than satisfactory: students working really well should be applauded for it. And the result? Parental (let alone student) grief when that top grade wasn’t forthcoming. As all teachers know in relation to their own performance, satisfactory is never satisfactory: perhaps we have to thank 25 years of inspection for that state of affairs!

In my time I also tried to develop, but never had the nerve to implement, a really informative reporting system. In theory, a school might create a grid by which means it could identify and assess both the qualities it seeks in its leaners and the range of desired outcomes: in other words, the old effort and attainment grades transformed into something far more detailed, common across all subjects and providing information which might be of real value to learners and their parents.

In practice, the committee designing this grid risks creating instead the proverbial camel. The number of individual judgements that the teacher would be required to make on each single pupil, multiplied across all subjects and every year-group, represents a colossal edifice that must inevitably collapse under its own weight.
Successive schemes, worthy and imaginative, are shelved. My own is probably still gathering dust somewhere.
We must be grateful that no government, or inspectorate, has attempted to require schools to report according to a national template.

In the 1990s there was a move towards such a thing when the first school management information systems came into play, with “comment banks” providing report descriptors which might conceivably have shed light on a student’s progress in maths or science, but was never of much use with regard to how they held the violin bow or how their ball-skills were developing in PE.

To end, then, it will be clear that I have little faith in any universal system of feedback! So here’s my advice to schools rightly developing their own systems, peculiar and (hopefully) useful to them:

  • When marking work, tell pupils how they might do better next time, while giving credit for the positives and offering encouragement alongside dispassionate critique.
  • School leaders must be aware of the pressure that marking, feedback and reporting exert on teachers: school policy should acknowledge that fact and, as far as possible, set limits that prevent excessive workloads for teachers
  • School leaders should strive to persuade parents of the limitations of grades and subjective judgements: grade shorthand is merely an abbreviation, not a summary that can be usefully analysed.
  • Make sure reporting conveys information that’s useful, not merely easy to convey.

In short, there’s no single or easy answer. Until research unearths better systems for feedback that don’t overwhelm teachers with additional workload, schools must confidently do what works for them.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer and educationist, a former head and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim head at The Purcell School in Hertfordshire. Follow him on Twitter at @bernardtrafford


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