Marking in schools: Feedback or Feed Forward?

Any marking policy must have the students at the heart of it.

What happens to all your marking comments?

We teachers spend hours and hours marking pupils work, only to hand all that rich data back to students. What do we hope students will do with the marking? They are likely to compare their marks with other students and either feel good about themselves or disheartened. What about the comments diligently made by the teacher in order for the student to improve? In reality no matter what your lead team have asked you to do in their marking policy these constructive comments are often ignored and regularly go without any action on the part of the student.

How can we direct our students to take more notice of marking?

Strong feedback, is timely, specific, actionable (pointing students in the direction of more information), and useful. Students are given opportunities to re-learn and practice the skill again right away.

To feedback well is to “feed forward.” That is, as teachers we should ask ourselves: How will I use what I learned in the feedback process to inform my teaching? Feed forward helps us anticipate misconceptions and decide what needs to be re-taught and to whom. Too many teachers fail to both a) track their feedback, and b) use the data to alter their upcoming lesson plans.

Many schools in the UK are looking to update their marking policies in light of the recent emphasis by both Ofsted and ISI on student’s books and files as evidence of “deeper learning”, “rapid and sustained progress” and “over time”. I would advocate moving from a marking policy to a feedback or even feed forward policy.  I’m actually not a big fan of educational jargon, so it doesn’t really matter what a school calls its policy as long as the ethos of why we mark is fully understood by staff and pupils alike in schools.

The importance of understanding why we mark

I often ask teachers to complete what appears to be a simple ranking exercise in my training courses to justify why they mark. This often causes a polarisation in groups as some teachers interpret this as why should they mark, rather than why do they mark. There are numerous external pressures in schools which compel teachers to mark in a certain way for a certain audience; many teachers mark because there is an upcoming learning walk or book scrutiny or because it is the school policy to do so. For marking to really be effective it must be seen as part of a process whereby we use assessments to inform the next steps in our teaching, so in essence it should involve feeding forward. Many schools are still stuck in an older model of planning lessons, teaching them and then marking the work when really it should be the other way round. Marking the work allows the teacher to “plan astutely “(to use more Ofsted speak) and then teach more effectively.

The misconceptions of the ‘perfect’ marking policy

The most effective policies are closely linked to learning and teaching policies which describe the ethos of the school and set assessment in this context. They do not expect every subject or phase to follow exactly the same procedures, but rather set an expectation for an approach in each context. It would be very difficult for a maths teacher to provide feedback in the same way as a teacher marking English written work and why should they? In recent years there has been a lot of pressure from Ofsted for schools to demonstrate “consistency”, but Ofsted have now back-tracked on this “ one size fits all” approach to marking ( big surprise!). Good policies also give guidance on the regularity of marking and the often suggest different levels of detail in marking. It would be impossible and unproductive to mark every piece of work in the same depth. An appropriate balance needs to be struck in each subject and school context. For example, some primary schools have one focused piece of written work each week and on the following day allocate timetabled time for feedback and for pupils to respond to marking.

Any policy must have the students at the heart of it. Encouragingly  when asked why they mark most teachers will describe a positive impact it has on their students learning, progress or independence. I’m heartened that individual teachers have not lost sight of this as many school policies and book scrutinies have become box ticking exercises based on hearsay of what we imagine Ofsted will expect when they visit. In reality, we don’t mark for Ofsted or for our leadership teams; we mark because we believe it improves individual students understanding and progression. Ofsted focus on the outcomes of our marking not the format and do not expect a certain style, they will triangulate their decision based on lesson observations and discussions with pupils in an aim to assess its impact on learning and progression. Where teachers set work using clear objectives or learning intentions and success criteria, marking is more focused, more useful to learners and quicker for the teacher. It is often true that those who spend a long time marking were not clear about the purpose and intention of the task in the first place.

Meaningful and sustainable: our guidance for getting it right

In our training courses we look how to put this into practice, to mark smarter, improving the quality and the value-added aspect of marking and feedback without necessarily increasing the quantity. After all, what is the value of marking every single piece of work? As we move towards a “Talk Less/ Learn More” approach to teaching much of the work we produce in class is not really designed to be marked. A Head of Department on a Birmingham course recommended attending our Marking INSET’s to “Get your life back” in a tweet; if the strategies we provide can help teachers reclaim time with their families and friends whilst delivering higher impact lessons then we really are starting to redress the balance.

Strong feedback, is timely, specific, actionable and useful.

5 Top tips for creating the Perfect Marking Policy

  1. Keep it short and simple – so that all staff feel they can adhere to it. The longer it takes to read, the less likely it will be followed, understood or even read!
  2. Keep it flexible- we don’t all feedback in the same way, an English essay is very different from a set of exercises in Maths. Allow people to use their own methods if they prove effective. Leaders help people share ideas not have all the ideas themselves.
  3. Keep it realistic- eliminate unhelpful marking , not all work is suitable for marking, plan keystone pieces of work to mark in depth.
  4. Keep it focussed on the outcomes – to maximise student performance. What do the students think of the policy? Not involving their voices is missing the fundamental point.
  5. Consider creating a feedback or feed-forward policy which covers all forms of student teacher interactions so that all the most effective feedback we give our students verbally is given as much weight and importance as the written form.

 

John Medlicott
Director JMC

JMC currently run two specialised marking courses one designed for state schools: Effective marking and evidencing for Ofsted and a second for Independent and International schools: ISI Excellent Marking and Feedback, both of which can be tailored to match the individual needs of your school or department.

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