Rehabilitating marking

A cursory online image-search under the word ‘marking’ reveals a sea of images that speaks volumes: frame after frame of tired, dejected and frustrated teachers slumped over mountainous piles of exercise books with no end in sight. Marking has always been the poor relation of teaching. Less creative than planning and less exciting than explaining the big ideas, it is a necessary but draining part of the job – complained about at length at tea stations in staffrooms up and down the country.

Aims and scope

In 2015, it was exactly these images and conversations we wanted to erase. We wanted to change the narrative around marking by moving our feedback policy forwards in line with emerging research, all whilst keeping a keen eye on staff wellbeing and the impact on workload. At this point, we still had quotas around frequency of marking per subject linked to how many hours they were taught. We still used review days and work scrutinies as part of our quality assurance calendar to help monitor its effectiveness. By 2016, we were taking steps to privilege student action, recognising that ‘if students do not use the feedback to move their own learning forward, it’s a waste of time’ (Wiliam, 2014). We used CPD sessions to explain the importance of designated independent reflection time, and introduced a policy where students had to highlight how they had applied feedback to ensure they were moving forwards in their understanding. This felt like a good first step and the policy was adopted and adapted successfully across the school. But we also knew that there was more to do.

Our methods

Creating a research-informed policy

In What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology (2016), Didau and Rose highlight the importance of feedback that creates momentum and propels student understanding, stating that ‘if we’re concerned with improving learning rather than just boosting current performance, feedback should make students think’ (p. 84). This allusion to ‘desirable difficulty’ – popularised by Robert Bjork – highlights the necessity for targets that cause students to struggle before succeeding, and made us think carefully about explicitly ruling out feedback that needed minimal response or thought from the student. We started thinking about marking more as feed-forward, foregrounding the need for significant student response based on ‘meaningful, manageable and motivating’ targets (Didau and Rose, 2016, p. 87).

This research made us think more about reframing our policy to focus on how feedback was being set up, rather than enforcing a timetable mandating frequency over quality. We started to realise that if we were going to try to make sure that all feedback in the school was ‘received, understood and result[ed] in students making progress’ (Didau and Rose, 2016, p. 86), we needed to release it from a restrictive quality assurance calendar and place the emphasis instead on ensuring that feed-forward happened at logical points in the learning sequence, positioned to ensure that the ‘feedback aims to enhance student learning, moving students along a growth pathway’ (Brown et al., 2012, p. 971).

Inherent within this was the importance of the timing of feed-forward. The research is split on when feedback is best received, with the revisions that can happen during the learning process competing with delayed feedback after a period of independent practice. We decided to borrow from both approaches, with a year of CPD focused on responsive teaching  – essentially ‘interactive formative assessment’ (Brown et al., 2012, p. 970) – briefing staff on AFL strategies like hinge questions and misconception-seeking – whilst continuing to refine methods for providing ‘feedback relating to processes […] or complex tasks, [where] delaying the feedback allows students time to attempt the task without interruption’ (Brown et al., 2012, p. 971).

We considered all of the recommendations outlined in Barak Rosenshine’s ‘Principles for Instruction’ (2012) and wanted to marry his espousal of deliberate independent practice with the need for student success in the classroom. As Andy Tharby puts it: ‘successful classrooms are those in which students become used to getting things right. It is hard to imagine how this could happen without skilful and regular feedback.’ (Tharby, 2014)

For this reason, we ensured that we wove a thread of praise and recognition through our feed-forward policy, working on making students feel successful so that their curiosity and motivation to act on targets remained high. We wanted the targets we gave to be structured with a keen eye on pitch, in the knowledge that ‘we are motivated by problems that are both challenging and attainable’ and that ‘teaching needs to stretch but not overwhelm pupils’ (Didau and Rose, 2016, p. 122).

The value of metacognition

Having thought carefully about how we as teachers framed, timed and worded feed-forward targets for maximum impact, we also wanted to ensure that we did not neglect the development of student metacognition in the process. If we subscribe to the gradual release model of teaching, in which we move from direct instruction through guided and peer co-construction towards independence, it is clear that we need to give time to how we can build students’ abilities to effectively review their own work. In acknowledging that trial and error is often how we make progress, we are shining a spotlight on the need for time spent developing metacognition, working in line with research that ‘indicates self-regulation feedback leads to greater student engagement, effort, and self-efficacy, making it the most powerful type.’ (Hattie and Timperley, 2007 p. 94).

In light of the Education Endowment Fund’s advocacy of the ‘very high potential impact’ of metacognition, we have taken steps to embed it into our marking policy and the fabric of the school community. We have introduced a ‘books home’ week, in which students take the chance to review their learning using a guided process and to set meaningful targets for how they will improve. Additionally, we have aligned our whole-school CPD focus on retrieval with guided independent study time during student guidance time, all structured to help students ‘believe that they can do something about their current performance’ (Didau and Rose, 2016, p. 82).

Our policy in practice

Confident in the rationale driving our policy, we presented it to staff at an INSET day in January 2017, sharing the research and showing examples of the kind of feed-forward marking we wanted to develop. We gave examples of success criteria grids with linked DIRT (deliberate, independent, reflection time) actions, whole-class marking, progress symbols and time-efficient marking codes. We made sure that we spelt out the ‘why’ driving this change to our policy, putting the focus on student-centered outcomes (in terms of results and skills) and staff wellbeing. Importantly, we gave space for departments to take the policy and innovate around it. For example, our art department drove some excellent work around ensuring impactful verbal feedback in practical subjects through their bookmarks, which helps students to condense verbal feedback given to them into salient action points. Equally, our history team experimented with formats for impactful whole-class feedback, creating templates that live-modelled ‘spotlight moments’, drew attention to common misconceptions and scaffolded a tiered DIRT task menu, without placing a single mark on a student page. Both of these shifts are evidence of staff spending less time on ineffective marking practices and instead foregrounding strategies that accelerate and deepen student understanding. To compile all of this excellent work, we used our Tuesday briefings to share and refine our practice, building a folder of templates and resources to share knowledge and protect wellbeing.

Our findings

In the two years following the introduction of the policy, we have celebrated record exam results and seen the ability of our students to reflect on their learning soar. Staff have innovated around the policy, and lesson drop-ins show teachers expertly navigating the nuances of feed-forward, both responsively in the moment and later in quiet reflection.

Looking to the future

As our policy developed and embedded across the school, we observed how students were increasingly able to talk in detail about how they were improving their work and how they were progressing, without relying on summative assessment marks. Without an enforced marking timetable, staff were able to teach in more responsive ways.

What we have now is a sustainable policy that prioritises student success, progress and staff wellbeing. Developing our work on metacognition and independent work is the next step, so that ‘through this process of gradually assuming more and more responsibility for their learning […] students become competent, independent learners’ (Didau and Rose, 2016, p. 98). The vision is that increasingly our students will have the skills to monitor and evaluate their own learning with as much confidence as their teachers.

References

Bjork, R.A. (1994). “Institutional Impediments to Effective Training”. Learning, remembering, believing: Enhancing human performance.

Brown GT, Harris LR and Harnet, J (2012) Teacher beliefs about feedback within an assessment for learning environment: Endorsement of improved learning over student wellbeing. Teaching and Teacher Education 28(7): 968–978.

Didau D and Rose N (2016) What Every Teacher Needs to Know about Psychology. Melton: John Catt Education Ltd.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77, 81-112.

Rosenshine, Barak (2012) https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Rosenshine.pdf (accessed on 01.03.19)

Tharby A (2014) Feedback: Let’s build it in, not add it on. In: Reflecting English. Available at: https://reflectingenglish.wordpress.com/2014/11/22/feedback-built-in-or-added-on/ (accessed 21 February 2019).

Wiliam D (2014) Is the feedback you’re giving students helping or hindering? Dylan Wiliam Center. Available at: https://www.dylanwiliamcenter.com/is-the-feedback-you-are-giving-students-helping-or-hindering/  (accessed 21 February 2019).

Education Endowment Fund (2018) https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/tools/guidance-reports/metacognition-and-self-regulated-learning/ (accessed 1 March 2019).