New approaches to student feedback

Written by: Jemma Sherwood | Published:
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As schools realise that forcing teachers to produce reams of written feedback for students is often counterproductive, assessment strategies are starting to change. Jemma Sherwood looks at the research and discusses how her approach has shifted

I have been banging the drum on marking and feedback recently, as loudly as I can from my little corner of the world, because it is causing a huge problem.

In 2014, the Department for Education (DfE) released the results of their Teacher Workload Survey, which confirmed that both marking and data input were among the most burdensome tasks teachers faced – in fact, 53 per cent of respondents said their marking load was burdensome.

As a result of this research, three reports were then produced by three DfE-commissioned expert working groups, one of which was Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking (March 2016).

So, how did marking become the behemoth it is in our classrooms? Almost 20 years ago, Wiliam and Black released Inside the Black Box, the highly influential work that told us how grades rendered comments pointless – you won’t pay attention to a comment if there is a grade alongside it – and how we, as teachers, should be concentrating on formative feedback.

Over time, advice trickled down that written comments were essential to students’ progress (and somehow it seemed that written comments were much more valuable than spoken ones).

Over the last five years, thousands of teachers around the country have seen themselves having to have written “dialogue” with their students on a weekly basis: you write a comment, they respond, you respond to the response...

I am sure I don’t have to point out the folly of this situation, but let’s have a go.

How genuine is this dialogue? Are you desperately trying to think of things to write? Do your students respond with trivial remarks like, “I will do this next time” or “I will revise at home”? If so, the endeavour is a waste of time.

Is this written dialogue something that could be had face-to-face, in conversation, in a fraction of the time and with more nuance and detail? If so, the written endeavour is a waste of time.

Are written comments taking you hours every week, eating into your evenings or weekends? Does your school have a one-size-fits-all marking policy for each department? If so, the endeavour is a waste of time.

It may surprise you to know that the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) released a document in 2016 called A Marked Improvement: A review of the evidence on written marking, in which they concluded that we simply do not know what effect written marking has on learning, as there is not enough evidence.

This, if you are someone subjected to a dialogic marking policy, is enough to make your blood boil. We do not know if written marking actually has much effect. Taking that a little further: does written marking have an effect commensurate with the time it takes to complete? We don’t know. Many of us are convinced that it doesn’t.

Ofsted itself does not want to see lots of marking in books. In its myth-buster document the inspectorate has said that it does not expect to see a “particular frequency or quantity of work in books” nor “any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback”, nor “any written record of oral feedback”.

So verbal feedback stamps? Ridiculous! Dialogic marking? Unnecessary and burdensome.

Now, I would go further than saying that the insane written marking requirements in some schools are unnecessary. They are, in fact, detrimental.

It is detrimental to teachers who have to spend their precious hours, often after work, completing it and, just as worryingly, it is detrimental to our students, who are taught lessons by teachers who are tired, who haven’t had time to plan and who have missed out on the whole point of feedback.

And this is the biggie. We know from research that the most important benefit of good feedback is in informing the teacher what they need to do next. Professor Dylan Wiliam has termed this “responsive teaching”.

It is one thing telling a student that they must “show their working out” or “use more complex sentences” (easier said than done if you don’t know how to do these things), but what is much, much more useful is the teacher having regular feedback on what kinds of working out their students struggle to show, or what kinds of sentence structures are tripping up their class, and planning their next steps accordingly.

This is the point of formative assessment. It’s not about having a written dialogue over the course of a fortnight on a piece of work done too long ago to remember.

It is about the teacher knowing, on a daily basis, what their students can and can’t do and spending their time planning lessons to address this as soon as possible, before misconceptions become embedded or too much time has passed for the feedback to be useful.

Exit tickets and other ideas

Lots of people are thinking about how to address this. In my mathematics department we are impressed by the effects of Dr Doug Lemov’s “exit tickets” (found in Teach Like a Champion, 2010). On an A5 piece of paper students answer two to three questions of increasing difficulty based on the content of the lesson.

These are sometimes pre-printed, sometimes handwritten for students to copy, and are completed in around 50 per cent of lessons. A class set takes about five minutes to mark (no comments needed, the whole class gets the comments next lesson) and tells us exactly what to do next.

If everyone got it right, I can probably move on (although I would never move on without revisiting content in the future in various guises). If the first question or two was answered fine, but the third caused problems, there is the content of my next lesson. If there are mistakes throughout I know I need to spend much more time on this content.

We hand the tickets back at the start of the next lesson, students stick them in and annotate them as I go through the mistakes with the class. Our students are getting regular, immediate feedback which informs their next steps properly, and we teachers have the time to plan instead of laboriously writing comments in books for hours.

Exit tickets work for plenty of subjects – a quick internet search will give you lots of examples. However, I would caution against asking general things like “One thing I learned today is”.

A well-designed exit ticket will pinpoint to you exactly what your students have and haven’t grasped so that you can respond well in the next lesson.

There are plenty of other ways to gain truly formative feedback. Using mini-whiteboards shows you a whole class worth of answers in a flash. Regular mini-quizzes help you to spot gaps in your students’ knowledge and act on them.

And SecEd recently featured the case study of Bedminster Down School, which has a three-pronged approach: Live Marking, Impact Marking, and Summative Assessments (SecEd, January 2018).

Changing cultures

The difficult thing to remember, when you’ve been told for years that marking is king, is that any activity that shows you how everyone in the class is doing is formative assessment, and many of these activities take a fraction of the time that marking takes.

If you want more reading on this topic then start with Daisy Christodoulou’s recent book, Making Good Progress, which provides a splendid analysis of the conflation of summative and formative assessment in the English education system and directs the reader’s thoughts towards making assessment work more effectively in the classroom, thinking particularly about how different assessment models work for different subjects.

Hopefully, you are working in a school that is starting to think carefully about feedback policies that genuinely work, and that aren’t onerous. If not, you might like to suggest to your senior team that they start doing some reading – the wellbeing of their staff and the quality of their students’ learning can only benefit from it.

  • Jemma Sherwood is head of maths and a specialist leader of education in Worcestershire. She tweets as @jemmaths

Further information

  • Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking, Workload Challenge Working Group Report, Department for Education, March 2016: http://bit.ly/2olNzUo
  • A Marked Improvement: A review of the evidence on written marking, Education Endowment Foundation, April 2016: http://bit.ly/2DB0Obi
  • Ofsted inspections: Myths, Ofsted, last updated October 2017: http://bit.ly/2rKBR4d
  • Case study: A marking & feedback revolution, SecEd, January 2018: http://bit.ly/2rv8DcS
  • Teach Like a Champion: 49 Techniques that put students on the path to college, Dr Doug Lemov, 2010, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco: http://teachlikeachampion.com/
  • Making Good Progress? The future of Assessment for Learning, Daisy Christodoulou, OUP, 2017: www.oxfordsecondary.co.uk/daisyc


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