When the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Oxford University Department of Education released the report A Marked Improvement (Elliott et al., 2016), summarising and reviewing the evidence we have on effective marking practices, I started reading with alacrity. Given the implications of marking for teacher workload, and yet the importance of effective feedback for student progress, I hoped – somewhat naively, perhaps – it would arm me with silver bullets that would push my students’ progress while enabling me to throw armfuls of useless marking practice out of the window. I read a thought-provoking, comprehensive review of a wide range of evidence on marking, but the forewarning given by the authors proved to be true: ‘While the evidence contains useful findings, it is simply not possible to provide definitive answers to all the questions teachers are rightly asking’ (Elliot et al., 2016). So what implications did it actually have for my own practice? And to what extent have the paper’s conclusions affected ongoing practice in schools in the 15 months since its publication?

The report effectively questioned aspects of marking that I had dutifully completed since the start of my career, without previously having stopped to wonder how much value they were adding for my students. This included acknowledgement marking: I would frequently write a sonnet of praise to let the student know how they had met my improvement criteria, yet there is no evidence of this enhancing learning. To some extent, then, I have been able to modify my own practice.

The same should be true of approaches that were often embedded at a school level; where practices such as the colour of pen, frequency and style of marking are not supported by evidence and schools, they should surely be questioned. Changes to Ofsted criteria now clearly state that marking style and frequency should be decided by the teacher, and ‘inspectors must not give the impression that marking needs to be undertaken in any particular format and to any particular degree of sophistication or detail’ (Ofsted, 2016). Yet many colleagues I meet, as well as various surveys, suggest that some practices are still prescriptive in schools, highlighting the challenge of changing practices that are long-established, and perhaps also that expectations of parents, students and other stakeholders may hold sway regardless of the research evidence.

What is perhaps most noteworthy is the need for further research to understand what works best for both teacher workload and student progress, and this is something that certainly seems to be changing in schools. There is a greater willingness to trial new approaches and to take a robust approach to evaluating the effectiveness of these. In one local school, a project is being trialled that aims to balance the need to provide feedback with the need to reduce teacher workload. Teachers in the English department provide all feedback verbally, using a range of strategies, exploring whether it is possible to mediate the usual time costs of providing written feedback after a lesson by providing all feedback verbally within the lesson itself. The school hopes that the usual advantages of providing feedback will be retained, and even improved, by the instantaneous nature of the feedback.

At my own school, we are interested in exploring the best ways of actually identifying the impact of feedback, without solely focusing on examination measures. Book scrutiny and lesson observations do not necessarily provide useful evidence of impact; we suspect that a move away from the marking approach taken by the teacher towards a focus on what students do in reaction to this would be a more helpful way of measuring the success of feedback. We hope that by carrying out our own trials, as well as by learning from small-and large-scale trials elsewhere, we can begin to build the knowledge base on effective marking – and thus improve the learning of our students.
 

References

Elliott V, Baird J, Hopfenbeck TN, Ingram J, Thompson I, Usher N, Zantout M, Richardson J and Coleman R (2016) A Marked Improvement? A Review of the Evidence on Written Marking. Oxford: Education Endowment Foundation.

Higgins S, Katsipataki M, Coleman R, Henderson P, Major LE, Coe R and Mason D. (2015) The Sutton Trust–Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Ofsted (2015) School Inspection Handbook. London: HM Government.