Marking and feedback is possibly one of the most often misunderstood, contentious, emotive aspects of teaching and learning – and a daily issue for teachers to navigate. What does it all mean? What do OFSTED really expect? Can I mark in a way that doesn’t kill my brain or my opportunity to relax – and STILL have a positive impact on my pupils?
I think, in every school I have supported and worked with over the last 18 months, I have had discussions with teachers and leaders alike on every occasion. The overwhelming question is… ‘what SHOULD marking look like in books?’
Well, I’m afraid to say that there is no magic wand, no silver bullet, no universally applicable panacea to the question of marking and feedback. However, the rest of this article might help you in steering your thinking, with the benefit of my experiences in hundreds of schools – and if you do find a miraculous approach to marking that also helps educators keep a decent work-life balance, please do let me know!
Firstly, let’s look at the purpose of marking and feedback. An all-important (and often difficult to address) area of the primary curriculum is ‘audience and purpose’. So, taking that as a starting point, what is your audience and purpose when you mark? Common answers:
- ‘So parents can see how well their child is doing’
- ‘We need to demonstrate and evidence progress over time to external visitors’
- ‘Our school marking policy says we should do it like this’
- ‘So pupils feel rewarded’
- ‘So pupils know what to do next’
Here are some common questions/points I then raise in response:
- How often do parents actually see these books? Is this the best vehicle to communicate to parents the strengths and progression pointers for each child? What might be a more timely/effective approach to letting them see outcomes?
- Direct quote from OFSTED (click here):
“Ofsted recognises that marking and feedback to pupils, both written and oral, are important aspects of assessment. However, Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its assessment policy. Marking and feedback should be consistent with that policy, which may cater for different subjects and different age groups of pupils in different ways, in order to be effective and efficient in promoting learning. 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.” (My emphasis added)
- If we take on board the quote from 2. (above) as a genuine approach form inspection teams, what then does your marking policy say? Have you/your leaders inadvertently NOT followed the sentiment from the last sentence of the OFSTED quote – have they, in fact, driven teachers to greater workload? Or, as I’ve seen in some cases – with the best will in the world and with a deeply professional aspiration – perhaps you yourself cause work because you don’t want to give your pupils ‘too little feedback’?
- Pupil praise is fundamental to self-esteem, building resilience and encouraging pupils to work towards greater heights of educational excellence, BUT… the vast majority of professional, well-intentioned, assiduous and encouraging teachers do this as a matter of course – in EVERY lesson. Why, then, do we need to formalise this in writing (particularly for lower age/reading ability pupils who, frankly, won’t necessarily take the positive feedback anyway)?
- Progression – and here, we really do hit what I feel the TRUE purpose(s) of marking and feedback is – a) to ensure those that need practice/remediation can receive personalised tasks to complete their learning, and b) to stretch/challenge/deepen those who have already shown the required level of accomplishment. To this end, whether you go for ‘green polishing’, ‘purple thinking’, ‘think pink’, ‘two stars and a wish’ (or any other of the myriad, catchy and fashionable approaches I have seen) tasks, there ARE some key fundamental elements that can ensure pupil response AND help minimise teacher workload. I have outlined these below.
What could marking look like?
- Avoid praise statements: ‘well done, Bob, you have….’. The chances are, Bob already knows what he has done…he did it. These are usually wordy, low-impact, generic statements that don’t often tell the pupil HOW or WHY they were successful – and therefore have little chance of consolidating or improving learning.
- Avoid ‘LO’ statements: ‘You have achieved the LO of…’. Most schools now use printed LO strips, with success criteria. A simple tick/highlight of these (when the class have been told this is how positive feedback will appear) will inform the pupils of WHAT they have achieved. They really need to know WHY and HOW in order to replicate and develop their successes. Re-writing LO statements take up a very large amount of teacher time. Let’s do some quick maths:
- Marking once per week in each of maths and literacy = 2 marks
- IF each mark averages 5 words = 10 words per week
- IF each word averages 10 seconds (thinking and writing time) = 100 seconds per child
- Average 30 children per class = 3,000 seconds per class, per week
- 39 weeks per year (ignoring ‘big writes’ etc.) = 117,000 seconds (32.5 hours on marking per year – that’s a lot… and I bet most of you reading this mark a lot more than that!
- Using these averages, reducing ONE word, per child, each time you mark, will save 5 hours per year – that’s half a working day for the average teacher.
- DO aim for brevity… an imperative ‘do now’ or ‘please do’ statement has been demonstrated time and again to have far greater impact (and a more detailed pupil response) than ‘please watch your spellings’ (to which the frequent pupil response is ‘OK Miss’).
- DO try to focus clearly on either consolidation:
- ‘Please re-write this sentence [highlighted], adding a subordinate clause’
- ‘Please re-work this [maths] problem’
- ‘Please write [this word] in four short sentences’
OR on development:
- ‘Try this problem next’
- ‘Write a “do”s and “don’t”s sheet for…’
- ‘Change 3 adjectives for clearer effect’
- ‘How would you re-write this if your audience was a parent instead of a child?’
I appreciate some of my suggestions are lengthier than my mathematical marking example, but if you can save lots of time elsewhere, you can afford to be more wordy, when you know it can have a clear, direct and developmental response.
In conclusion, take a look at what you do. Take a chance to have these conversations in school. Be creative, be thoughtful and keep the three key principles in mind:
- What will really help my pupils move forward?
- How can I do this in as few words as possible?
- Who am I writing this for?
Follow this link for some interesting thoughts on teacher workload and marking: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/teacher-workload-poster-and-pamphlet