The high impact of effective feedback on learning is consistently emphasised in educational research (Hattie , 2009), yet providing pupils with timely, personalised and accurate feedback on a consistent basis is time-consuming. Fifty-three per cent of teachers responding to the Workload Challenge cited the detail and frequency of written marking required by their schools as a burdensome task (DfE, 2015), yet the research evidence for the specific impact of written marking is minimal (Elliott et al., 2016)).
At The Olive Tree Primary, where I am Chair of Governors, we wanted to preserve the benefits of personalised feedback while reducing teacher workload. We have therefore been piloting a new approach to feedback over the past 12 months, using voice feedback delivered over mobile devices instead of written marking. Our students still use pen and paper to write, but ‘handing in the book’ this is now done by taking a photo and submitting it to the teacher. Each student has their own folder on the teacher’s device that the photos save to, so it is very easy for the teacher to navigate through the work. If Wi-Fi ever fails, documents can be sent using the AirDrop facility. Teachers are then able to respond to the students’ work by leaving multiple voice notes on a document, as well as highlighting individual errors by annotating the photos. Students can respond with voice notes and typed revisions, and can upload an improved piece to the same folder using their device.
Recognising that consistency was key to the new approach, we provided all teachers with extensive training, not just on the logistics of how to use the mobile technologies, but also on the key components of effective feedback – that it should be timely, clear and understandable to the student, and should provide strategies to help the student to improve (Hattie, 2009).
Reducing teacher workload
Over the past 12 months, teachers have responded positively to the new approach, noting that it takes them significantly less time to give high-quality verbal feedback over the device than it did to write their feedback by hand. In an anonymous online survey, 75 per cent of teachers agreed that voice feedback had reduced workload. Before the introduction of voice feedback, 41 per cent of teachers at The Olive Tree were spending seven hours or more a week marking. After the introduction of voice feedback, only eight per cent of Olive Tree teachers were. The number now spending less than three hours a week leaving feedback increased from eight per cent to 33 per cent. Not only does this enable our teachers to have a better work–life balance, but it also gives them more time to plan inspiring lessons and adapt existing resources in response to the work that the students have already produced.
Timely and responsive feedback
The intervention was designed with the aim of improving ‘the quality of the interaction’ between the student and the teacher, which ‘is at the heart of pedagogy’ (Black and Wiliam , 1998). The teachers have spoken about an increased ability to ‘connect’ with their students when giving feedback, in a manner that written feedback does not allow. Giving verbal feedback allows for the use of emotion and emphasis, and is particularly beneficial for students with low reading ages, EAL students or those who may simply struggle to decipher the teacher’s handwriting. One teacher has commented that the best thing about the new approach is that they are ‘able to tailor feedback for each child, which is particularly helpful for those with SEND/EAL.’ Students can listen to the feedback multiple times and revisit the feedback after many months. The use of ‘notifications’ means that the students see feedback immediately, without needing to log in. Ninety-two per cent of teachers agreed that voice feedback had a greater impact on student progress than written feedback, and 75 per cent believed that students preferred the voice feedback.
We believe that technology is at its most powerful when it brings people together, and we have also used the voice feedback to build relationships between students, teachers and parents. Parents as well as students receive notifications when a ‘voice note’ is added to the student’s work, prompting conversations around learning at home. Parents can now see, in one place, exactly what work their child is producing at school, and what he or she can do next to further improve. This enables parents to engage in conversations around learning – and it is this, rather than simply parental involvement in schooling, that makes a difference in children’s achievement (Harris and Goodall , 2007).
The main challenge we have faced has been embedding the new approach consistently across the school. Many teachers were enthusiastic adopters from the outset, and we identified outstanding practitioners from different key stages to form a working group. This group modelled best practice, offered support to any teachers who were unsure of how to use the voice feedback in their classroom, and devised a feedback policy in which voice feedback became a ‘non-negotiable’. This has helped to embed the new approach in every classroom and make voice feedback part of what we do.
For technology to have a transformative impact in the classroom, ‘it is critical to move the focus beyond the technology itself, to how technology enables teaching and learning’ (McKnight et al., 2016). We believe that the pilot of the voice feedback approach on mobile devices has done this in our school, allowing us to retain the benefits of personalised feedback while reducing the time that teachers spend on marking.