The EEF’s review into marking, published last month, has come at an opportune time as we continue to embed and refine our approach to written formative feedback.
Is it groundbreaking? No. Is it worth a read anyway? Yes.
We all know the score with regards to teacher workload – this report from the TUC in February of this year provides some interesting contextualising figures:
The most unpaid overtime is done by teachers and education professionals (with more than half of them working an average of 11.9 hours unpaid every week)
… and I’d wager that there are more than a few teachers who occasionally – or even routinely – do more than this average! While such figures will inevitably continue to colour the perception of many outside the profession, making a challenging climate for recruitment even more so, our focus at the moment is on doing what we can to support those staff that are already in our school to help them find manageable balance.
According to the Government Response to the Workload Challenge, published in February last year, 53% of those who participated in the survey identified marking as one of the areas that represents opportunity to reduce workload (only ‘recording, inputting, monitoring and analysing data’ featured more often in responses, at 56%). At around the same time as this report was published, we started the process of rethinking our assessment policy…
Borrowing from a phrase that I’d heard Christine Harrison use at a conference where she spoke about her work on AfL, one of the guiding principles for a central policy that we knew needed to work across the whole school in a range of contexts was the idea that we wanted consistency of principle rather than needing uniformity of practice. To this, we added the mantra (in relation to written assessment) that it should be done at the right time, for the right reasons (that is ‘to support the progress of students‘ rather than ‘to prove to an observer/ inspector/ line manager that I do it’!), and off we set…
Much of the final document focussed on the written feedback (i.e. ‘marking’) side of things; the classroom-based side of assessment and feedback (i.e. the ‘short cycle’ formative assessment I referred to in this post) is picked up elsewhere through our focus on classroom practice in the learning and teaching programme. It sets out minimum expectations and core principles (whilst avoiding being unnecessarily directive or prescriptive) in terms of frequency of formative feedback and the importance of students being given time to reflect and respond to feedback (DIRT) etc. It also prompted us to make a few potentially risky decisions (for good reasons!), for example removing half-termly data drops, opting instead for a ‘live’ system. This allows subject areas and class teachers to add interim assessment data as and when summative assessments are completed, thus allowing schemes of learning to be planned and scheduled in a way that makes sense for the learning and development of ideas rather than scheduling them just so that the assessment data from that unit can be included in an arbitrary data drop each half term.
Is it all working perfectly? Not yet. However, we are convinced that the principles are the right ones and we are taking every opportunity to remind staff that we want them marking at the right times and for the right reasons: we care about staff wellbeing and we care about the learning experience of our students… if we want our staff to work sensible hours, then we recognise that there may be occasions where compromises have to be made: we want staff to make decisions about judicious, high quality use of the red pen in a way that maximises impact at key times, and ensure that time is prioritised for the planning of great learning experiences across lessons and units.
In this post on sharing effective practice in relation to marking and using this to refine practice across the school (emphasising the long-term developmental focus rather than short-term monitoring of compliance), Stephen Tierney (@leadinglearner) shares some interesting ideas on moving a policy from words on a page to tangible changes in practice. There are certainly some things for us to attend to in this respect over the remainder of the academic year – creating opportunities for staff to see the detail of what is happening around the school and what seems to be working, not only from the point of view of workload, but also from the point of view of what effective written feedback actually looks like: if we’re looking at written feedback from the point of view of economy and efficiency, we have to look carefully at what has the most impact. We have work to do around ensuring it has impact for the students: impact that they are able to reflect on in a meaningful way and can articulate – for their own benefit, but also to others – the specific links between the feedback they are being provided with and the progress they are making.
Clearly, this has to be done alongside ongoing reflection on what the research is telling us, both that which is being gleaned as part of the work of one of our Professional Learning Project groups and also the larger-scale and more robust findings of the EEF’s long-awaited review into marking, published last month. Although one of the key messages from the document is that the evidence is actually fairly scant in relation to the impact of marking, don’t let that put you off reading it – there are still suggestions that emerge from the research that does exist, and many of these are to do with the fine details of how we mark, rather than recommendations that would impact on the broad-strokes with which we have set out the principles of our assessment policy.
“Does our marking approach require our pupils to work to remember or reach the correct answer?” p12.
This is the question that I think struck me most in the whole report. It isn’t necessarily the most significant point, but given our recent reflection on the way we are using summative assessments formatively and the conclusions we’ve reached about the need for students to think hard for themselves, this seems like a potentially useful rule of thumb in terms of considering whether our marking is focussed on surface-level corrections or development of deeper understanding.
The contention presented by the EEF review seems to be that mistakes (something a student can do but has not on this occasion) should be marked as incorrect but left for students to correct themselves, while errors (resulting from misunderstanding or having not yet mastered something) should perhaps be dealt with by providing hints or questions to lead the students to developing a more complete and accurate understanding of the topic at hand.
Although the distinction between errors and mistakes isn’t made in the same way in this transcript from a talk given by Dylan Wiliam, he does place a similar emphasis on the idea that it should be a standard expectation that students are expected to do the thinking:
We suggested that instead of telling students that they got 15 out of 20, the [maths] teacher could, instead, tell them that five of their answers were wrong, and that they should find them and fix them. The important feature of this feedback, like comment-only marking, is that it engages students, leaving them with something to do. This technique was subsequently adopted by English teachers when they provided feedback on students’ final drafts of writing assignments. Rather than correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar, the teachers put a letter in the margin for each error in that line using a G if for an error in grammar, an S for a spelling mistake, a P for a punctuation, and so on. For the stronger students, the teacher would simply put a dot rather than S/P/G in the margin for each error, and for the weaker student, the teacher might indicate where in the line the error was. The idea is that the feedback gives something to the learner to do so that the immediate reaction of the learner is that they have to think.
Elsewhere, in this fairly weighty review of research on formative feedback from Professor Valerie Shute, though not specifically about written formative feedback, there are some interesting comments about the idea of ‘directive feedback’ (providing corrective information) as opposed to ‘facilitative feedback’ (providing guidance and cues):
“Conventional wisdom suggests that facilitative feedback…would enhance learning more than directive feedback…yet this is not necessarily the case. In fact, some research has shown that directive feedback may actually be more helpful than facilitative—particularly for learners who are just learning a topic or content area (e.g., Knoblauch & Brannon, 1981; Moreno, 2004). Because scaffolding relates to the explicit support of learners during the learning process, scaffolded feedback in an educational setting may include models, cues, prompts, hints, partial solutions, as well as direct instruction (Hartman, 2002). Scaffolding is gradually removed as students gain their cognitive footing, thus directive feedback may be most helpful during the early stages of learning. Facilitative feedback may be more helpful later on, and the question is when. According to Vygotsky (1987), external scaffolds can be removed when the learner develops more sophisticated cognitive systems, where the system of knowledge itself becomes part of the scaffold for new learning.”
So, like everything else to do with learning and teaching, it isn’t straightforward (and this is before we’ve even get into John Hattie and Helen Timperley’s work on the power of feedback and the importance of considering the ‘level’ at which feedback is directed: ‘task’, ‘process’, ‘self-regulation’ or just ‘self’…)
It is unlikely to be easy to prescribe for teachers in simple black and white exactly what they should do and when… and nor should we need to, if we have faith in their professional judgement and intuition – based on a detailed understanding of each individual – about what sort of feedback is most appropriate at any point in time for any single student. Perhaps the emphasis should be on making sure that our staff are proficient in working with a range of strategies and that they have an appreciation for the rationale behind which strategies can work and when, then trust them to make the right decisions.
The EEF review makes various other suggestions based on the evidence that is already available, some of it reassuring in terms of the direction we are heading, some of it giving pause for thought and highlighting areas that we would do well to put more thought to… but then if anyone in education reads a report like this and concludes that they’ve got it all nailed already, I suspect we could say that they either haven’t read the report properly, they haven’t really understood it, or they don’t really have a true appreciation of what is going on in their own setting…
Is anything in the report groundbreaking? No, but it offers some tangible suggestions around which we could do some developmental work with staff to ensure we get the most impact for the most reasonable amount of input. I’m looking forward to reading whatever comes next…
As we continue to look outside our own school to learn from others, I’m also rather intrigued by the idea of ‘marking the Michaela way’, which seems like a minimal (to say the least) whole-school approach to marking which could have a lot going for it… A thought provoking read!
A few more interesting reads…