Marking and feedback strategies: A tick or a cross?

Written by: Steve Burnage | Published:
Image: MA Education

Effective teaching and learning cannot take place without effective marking and feedback. Steve Burnage offers us some practical strategies and advice

Good feedback lies at the heart of good learning. It’s about “working the gap” between what your learners already know, understand and can do and what they will know, be able to understand and do in the future.

The role of the teacher is not to close the gap for their learners but to support them to close the gap for themselves.

Effective marking and feedback allows us, as teachers, to provide this support. In this article, we will explore five practical things to try that will enable all of us to be more effective in our marking and feedback:

  1. Share learning intentions and success criteria with learners.
  2. Engage in quality dialogue and discussion.
  3. Give immediate, high-quality feedback.
  4. Mark less yet achieving more.
  5. Make effective use of peer and self-assessment.

Learning intentions/success criteria

Identifying the learning intentions for a lesson or series of lessons is usually quite straightforward and can be done in five simple steps

  1. Use appropriate phrasing and tone that the learner will understand, e.g. “Today we’re going to learn...”
  2. Emphasise learning rather than doing, e.g “In this lesson, we will learn...”
  3. Make clear how they will learn – will the learning focus on recalling facts, developing skills or building awareness and understanding? For example: “We will memorise a passage from a poem”, “We will learn how to balance on a beam”, or “We will understand how water turns to ice”.
  4. Show how learners will demonstrate knowledge and understanding, e.g. “I can present five key facts about...”
  5. Make them manageable, accessible and visible, e.g. no more than two or three learning intentions per-lesson that are clearly displayed throughout the lesson. You could use a flip chart or have the learning intentions at the bottom of each PowerPoint slide.

Quality dialogue/discussion

Assessment is a two-way process, it is not just about giving feedback to learners, it is also about getting feedback from learners so that we can:

  • Clarify what learning has taken place – the most powerful learning is when learners can tell us what they have learned in their own words.
  • Identify what difficulties are being experienced – learner talk helps us to identify mis-learned ideas or incorrect understanding.
  • Introduce future tasks – learner feedback helps us plan and tailor future learning to the abilities and current learning of our students.

Getting high levels of interaction means going beyond simple instruction and stopping the obsession that many teachers have with “getting the right answer”. We can do this by:

  • Asking better questions – think about targeting open and closed questions to specific learners. Many teachers still use “hands-up” as an effective response strategy. The issue with this is that you can’t easily differentiate your questioning to meet the needs of individual learners. Surely it is far better to target your questioning precisely to the ability of each individual learner? This also has the added benefit of being an effective classroom management strategy.
  • Valuing wrong answers – these give us insights into mis-learning and help us generate class discussion. If we receive a wrong answer, we can take the answer round the class – “how do you think we got that answer?” – or extend the student’s thinking directly – “explain how you arrived at that answer”.
  • Thinking about how we ask questions – give learners time to think (at least 10 seconds), take answers around the class, and treat questioning as a volleyball match rather than a tennis rally. This analogy implies that it is better to keep the answer “in the air” as long as possible – like a volleyball match – rather than seeing it as a simple two-way exchange between one student and the teacher – as in a tennis rally.
  • Developing opportunities for group discussion such as “think, pair, share” – learners think of their own answer to a question then discuss it with a partner and finally share it with the class. Or “Ask for five” – ask learners to come up with their own solutions to a problem or issue and then work in pairs or small groups to come up with their best five responses which they then share with the class.

Immediate quality feedback

  • Develop good verbal feedback that focuses on the task and not the person. For example: “This essay includes some relevant and well-written points with good examples. The essay could be improved by...”
  • Focus your verbal feedback on effort and technique. For example: “It is clear that you have put a lot of time into this presentation. The first section is particularly effective because... You could improve slides x, y, and z by...”
  • Involve “I” statements rather than “you” statements – for example: “I felt the way you used character description in this story was very effective because...”
  • Use appreciation – for example: “It’s good to see you remembered to...”

Mark less, achieve more

Use written feedback with caution. Most written feedback has little impact on learners, their learning or the progress they make.

This is a bold statement, especially since most teachers in the UK spend most of their time providing this sort of feedback and marking. So, why is this the case?

Many learners just don’t engage with the written feedback. They just don’t read it – either because they feel they don’t need to if the grade is okay, or because they just don’t want the bad news if the grade is poor.

However, some written feedback strategies can be very effective:

  • Marking according to success criteria. This can be quite contentious in schools but it makes perfect sense. If the learning intention of a lesson is “to learn to use descriptive language to describe a character” then the marking should focus on how successfully a learner has done this and not on spelling, punctuation and grammar (SPAG). If the learning intention of a lesson is to improve SPAG then the marking and feedback should focus on this. By marking according to success criteria, both you and the learner are focusing on the desired learning intention for that activity or piece of learning.
  • Use highlight and prompt marking. Highlight (with a highlighter pen) “growth points”, i.e. two or three aspects of the work that have been successful in terms of learning intentions and success criteria. Prompt – identify one area for improvement, linked with an arrow to the nearest white space and write a prompt to help learners make that small improvement. Some schools refer to this method as “two stars and a wish”.
  • What about grading work? To be effective, your written comments need to cause thinking and give pupils help to improve. Grades or marks on their own don’t do that any more than vague comments like “good work” would.

Peer and self-assessment

There are two good reasons for promoting and developing self-assessment and peer-assessment with your learners:

  • It enables more pupils to receive immediate and good-quality feedback more often than any one teacher has time for.
  • It helps learners to take more responsibility for their own learning.

To promote assessment by learners, the climate in the classroom needs to be one where learners of all abilities believe:

  • It is okay to make mistakes.
  • There’s no need to conceal your difficulties.
  • It is okay to be stuck.
  • It is normal and acceptable to get something wrong.

As leaders of learning in our classrooms, we can support the development of these skills by continuing to value “wrong answers” in ways we have set out above. In addition, we can set learning tasks that focus on the process rather than the outcome.

In addition, for peer and self-assessment to be truly effective, we should teach the skills that will enable learners to do this in such a way that their comments take their own learning and that of others forwards by:

  • Modelling good-quality products and processes: For learners to be able to make judgements about their learning and the learning of their peers, they need to know “what good looks like”. As teachers, we need to model “good” for them or, even better, use examples of other learners’ work to show them “what good looks like”.
  • Working more effectively in pairs: Many learners don’t “instinctively” know how to work collaboratively and cooperatively, we need to teach it just as we need to teach behaviour or subject-specific skills and knowledge.

Conclusion

It has long been the case that effective marking and feedback is far more than the appropriate use of a tick or a cross. Many teachers still have serious doubts about the idea that they could mark less and achieve more, yet even Ofsted has recently commented that the cycle of marking often perpetuated by school leadership teams has got out of hand.

If we let go and provide support, young people can become less dependent on us, more engaged in their own learning – and better able to assess and feedback on their own learning and progress and that of others.

  • Steve Burnage has experience of leading challenging inner city and urban secondary schools. He now works as a freelance trainer, consultant and author for senior and middle leadership, support staff, strategic development, performance management and coaching and mentoring. Visit www.simplyinset.co.uk and read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2u1KW9e


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