This week I have been thinking a lot about books; depressingly not science fiction or travel books. No, this week I have been preoccupied with thoughts about my pupils’ books. This is because I have spent the majority of my free periods holed up in the maths office surrounded by piles and piles of books. I don’t really know how it happened. I thought I had a system. I thought I was on top of it.
What I do know is that I have probably written about the same amount of text in this one week as is contained in the entire His Dark Materials trilogy. However, the things I have written are not fantasy genius and, as has slowly dawned on me, are also painfully repetitive; do you ever find yourself writing the same comment for the same mistake in about 60 different books?
We know that effective, regular feedback is essential for ensuring that our pupils progress. Without it, how will pupils know where they are, where they are aiming and what they can do to get there? This raises the incredibly important question: how can we make feedback useful for our pupils and do it in a way that does not end in repetitive strain injury for me?
Thankfully, this moment of realisation coincided with a nicely timed induction session with an advanced skills teacher who shared some of her techniques for marking pupils’ work. Two suggestions I am particularly excited to try are as follows...
The first is colour-coded stickers. These are currently used by our whole design and technology department and I have asked my head of department if we can discuss the possibility of our own sticker set in the next meeting.
How it works is each pupil is given a key for around 12 coloured stickers, six for positive feedback and six for areas for improvement, which they stick in the front of their books. When you come to mark the pupils’ work, instead of having to write “please simplify your answer” or “much improved”, there is a sticker that indicates these specific comments.
This not only saves on writing, but also provides a clear indication, on flipping through a pupil’s book, if they are acting on feedback, or receiving the same colour every time and not making changes to how they work.
A variation on this is to use highlighter pens with different colours assigned to represent different comments. For example, green could mean “great working out shown” and red (a contrasting colour) “please show your working out”.
The second suggestion was to “write a letter to your class”. This is exactly what it says on the tin. After looking through a set of books and seeing the same three or four mistakes crop up time and time again, you write a generic letter that praises the key successes made by the class as a whole and addresses the key areas for improvement.
The letter is then given to all pupils in the following lesson. Pupils read it, look back over their work and highlight the parts of the letter that they think apply to them.
This saves you having to write the same four comments five billion times and, best of all, requires pupils to actually look back over their own work and engage with the feedback. Brilliant!
Despite the time-consuming element of marking, I am finding it invaluable in helping me to see where my pupils are and what I need to do to progress them. I am hoping that these techniques will make it clearer for pupils to see where they need to go – and save me from writer’s wrist!
Our NQT diarist this year writes anonymously and is a teacher of maths from a south London secondary.