Does having grades written on assessed pieces of work help or hinder the progress of students? Many schools in the UK and across the world are beginning to adopt “comment only” marking policies, claiming greater success than with traditional “grading” methods. This week I want to consider the pros and cons of each.
Why we use grades
Students like to know how well they have done so that they can compare themselves to their targets and to their peers. It gives them a clear idea of how hard they need to work in the future to maintain or improve upon their current performance.
Schools like to know where to place students against their targets, so that they can assess the quality of the education they provide, in order to maintain and drive up standards over time.
Parents like to know what grades their children have achieved as it helps them to assess the quality of their school provision and enables them to plan for additional support at home if needed.
Conclusion: Grades work! So why would anyone decide to change?
Pitfalls of grades
Increasingly, evidence from studies around the world has demonstrated that a “comment only” marking policy is more likely to influence a student’s future study habits than a “grade only” or “comment and grade” system. This seems counter-intuitive. Surely, if a student is given more information about their performance then they will perform better in the future? Unfortunately not – they tend to forget about the comments made by the teacher and focus solely on their grade. This takes their focus away from the clear guidance on how to improve and replaces the guidance with a label.
Labelling is often very useful, as it helps us quickly identify and categorise things. However, when we give grades, we hang it around students’ necks like a name badge for the lesson, week, term or even year. This can have hugely demotivating consequences for them. If students have done well, they won’t feel as though they need to try harder. If they haven’t done well then grades won’t tell them how to improve (remember – seeing the grade will cause them to ignore most of the written feedback).
Grades are also not always helpful when assessments are largely formative. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the feedback process is eternal. In contrast, grades are so “final”. They don’t necessarily tell us what grade a student is currently working at, as progression is not linear – it goes up and down over time (but hopefully more up than down).
So, what is better about “comment only” marking?
“Comment only” marking requires students to evaluate the standard of their work, using the guidance you’ve given, helping them to plan for their own progress. For many students, when they see a “B” grade, they think that that will do (and they may even be right!) However, they might not understand how they achieved that grade, particularly in subjects where assessment is done via extended writing tasks. If they don’t know how they achieved the “B” grade, then they are not in a good position to repeat or improve upon that success later on. “Comment only” marking offers a solution to this, by showing students specific things they can do, to achieve marks in specific areas.
“Comment only” marking: Four Handy Tips
Give feedback quickly – the longer you leave it, the less impact it will have on the student.
Be focused. You don’t need to comment on everything – choose the points that will make the most significant difference to the student’s work (probably not spelling in the majority of subjects)
Be specific – don’t write “add more detail here”, do write “explain why Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church”
Make positive comments as well as negative ones – e.g. “thorough explanation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave”
Use the language of the exam board (if appropriate), to help students understand how to show greater quality next time – e.g. “compare this theory to the theories you studied earlier in the course – which is more persuasive and why?”
I’d like to challenge you to have a go at “comment only” marking (where previously you would have included a grade) over the next few weeks. See what difference it makes to students in one class and let me know what you’ve found.
I get at least one thing wrong every day, often at least once a lesson and frequently more often than that. Having said that, I think I still do a decent job of teaching my students. They make the progress expected of them, behave well towards each other, develop their skills and confidence and by the end of the year they are a lot better than they were at the beginning of the year. But that’s just a snapshot, one that is easy to take in the summer term. It doesn’t reflect the hard work that has gone into ensuring that the students are staying on track and making the most of their opportunities. In this week’s post, I want to talk about how I’ve approached student feedback, to refine my teaching little by little over time: student feedback.
What my friend was getting wrong
I have a friend who teaches at another school (it’s honestly not me, although if it was then it would explain a lot!). He was asked at the end of his Induction year, to create a student evaluation questionnaire, in order that he could develop his teaching methods for the following September. He was doing well and was not under any significant pressure to change anything, so was free to design questions in any way he felt appropriate. However, he made a crucial mistake – he thought he was a great teacher and he thought the students shared his view of himself – so his questionnaire became more about confirming his own biases than about gathering new data.
Why do I enjoy Mr. X’s lessons?
What should other teachers do that Mr. X does?
Does Mr. X always want me to try my best?
The results, predictably, were not very useful for two major reasons. Firstly, several of the questions did not allow students to say in detail what they really wanted to say. Secondly, several of the questions put words in the students’ mouths that they would not have used, had the question been asked in a more objective way. This did not create honest feedback, which was the entire point of the exercise.
Full of pride, my friend handed the results to his Mentor, who in a matter of moments dismissed the results. She told him to go back and do it again properly, but this time, he should create a set of questions that were less about confirming pre-conceived notions about himself and were more about looking for ways to improve his teaching.
Mr. X still figured he had nothing to lose, being the fantastic teacher that he believed he was, so he created a much more objective set of questions. They included fewer yes/no answers, giving more multiple choice ones instead. He also threw in some very open-ended questions, allowing the students to give whatever feedback they wanted. After all, he had nothing to fear!
The results were much more useful this time, but not for the reasons Mr. X expected. He thought that the students would again confirm his biases, but this time in their own words. They didn’t. Instead, they showered him with abuse! At least that’s how he felt. They used phrases like:
He just stands at the front and tells us what to do then just expects us to know how to do it when we don’t get it.
He does the same activities all the time.
He tells us things that aren’t relevant for the exam.
He only talks to the smart students or the naughty ones. I just get left out.
We never do group work.
He only does interesting lessons when other teachers are watching.
The Comeback King
To his credit, Mr. X didn’t dwell too long on the feedback, although he did allow it to ruin a perfectly good weekend. He showed his Mentor the results on Monday and this time she laughed. “Well, what were you expecting them to say? Did you think they were your friends? That they wouldn’t dare hurt your feelings? Or did you think that nobody else in the school was as good a teacher as you?”
What would you do in his position? Here’s some advice I gave him (admittedly I heard or read it somewhere – I can’t take full credit for it) and that I keep reminding myself of, whenever I receive feedback from students, whether I’ve asked for it or not!
1. Step back
It’s very easy to believe your own hype or to take criticism personally. When you are given feedback, imagine that it is not about you, but that it is about someone else and you are tasked with giving them advice on how to respond to the feedback. This is tough and in some cases it might even help to wait a day or two after receiving the feedback so that you can regain a good sense of perspective.
2. Choose your battles
Often its the little victories that help make the biggest difference. Chose two or three points to work on and set yourself a date in the near future to achieve them by. Short term is crucial – you need a quick victory at the start, or you could begin to start believing you “aren’t worthy” or that you can’t fix the problems that were so helpfully pointed out by your students. Once you’ve won some quick and easy battles, begin to choose some more challenging ones – but give yourself the right amount of time to address them. Again though, always give yourself as short a timescale as you can afford – do not dwell on the problem!
3. Check your solutions
Don’t we always tell our students to do this? We might be tempted not to here because it’s scary. But how will we know if we’ve addressed the problem correctly unless we test ourselves again? You can use the same questions again, or us a slightly modified set if that would encourage better quality or more useful answers. Just don’t fall into the trap of confirming biases again. Just because you addressed the problem, it doesn’t mean that it is fixed – you might have just highlighted a different problem!
4. Repeat stages 1-3
Feedback is an eternal process, not a conclusion. We should embrace that idea and keep looking for small, winnable battles so that over time we can refine our teaching. If we want our students to love learning and to not fear failure then we must walk that journey with them.
Why is it so difficult to engage boys in the classroom?
“Boys are treated like defective girls”, so says psychologist and author Michael Thompson. I think he’s right. Have you noticed that boys are frequently compared to girls with regards to exam scores, classroom behaviour, the standard of work produced and neatness of presentation? Many boys fail to perform as well in these areas, leading to ‘poor’ performance in formal examinations where it counts the most. Engaging boys to raise their attainment is clearly a huge challenge.
So, are boys just not as good as girls when it comes to formal assessment? Or is the system unfairly rigged to favour girls over boys? Let’s see.
Myth: “All boys are the same”
This is simply not true. Just look at the last group of boys you taught and their wide spectrum of attributes. Boys are often excitable, creative, loud and headstrong. However, there are quiet boys too, who lack confidence, struggle creatively and who seem distant when you try to engage them. There are even quiet boys who are incredibly confident and loud boys who are overcompensating due to their own perceived weaknesses. The difficulty in deciding which “category” they fit into creates a real challenge for educators. Moving away from “categorising” boys at all and instead, understanding how and why we treat them differently, is the beginning of the solution.
Should we just train the boys to be like the girls?
This is more complex than it might seem, but the short answer is no.
Many of the boys I teach read less often and consequently fewer books than the girls, particularly fiction books. Why is this? Is it because boys don’t enjoy reading? No. Is it a lack of quality authors writing for young male audiences? No. Engaging boys differently to girls is crucial and here’s why.
Girls are typically brought up in a different way to boys. Their toys and games are different. The heavily gendered characters and storylines in the cartoons they watch are very different. The societal roles they are expected to play, due to gender, differs significantly.
This causes a knock-on effect. At school, when boys and girls are given the same task to do, they will naturally approach it in different ways, due to the way they have been conditioned by their environment.
Girls are often more collaborative in their approach to tasks, seeking guidance and support, constantly engaging in a feedback loop with their peers and teachers. Girls are encouraged to do this through the type of play where conversations are a key element. Discussion is seen as a positive activity, where active listening and reflecting is considered as important as speaking.
Conversely, boys are often more solitary, waiting until they have completed a task (to whatever standard) to then present their finished product to others for feedback. Once given feedback, boys then get on with solitary work again. Boys are not usually encouraged by fellow boys, nor do they typically seek encouragement. Asking for support is often perceived by boys as a weakness. Consequently, there is very little social incentive to truly discuss, listen and reflect. Egos are fragile and it’s just not worth the risk to their reputation Their style of work and play is therefore heavily dominated by competition and shows of individual strength, be it physically, or through verbal argument.
In general, at least in Western societies, girls are also better prepared for tasks involving empathy, evaluation of evidence and being diplomatic, as those skills are built into the types of “play” activities they participated in when they were younger. Have you ever witnessed the complex social skills demonstrated during a dolls tea party?
Now, compare that scene to a boy smashing a Lego house with a dinosaur. Which skills do you think will benefit those children in a formal examination? Boys are expected to grow up to be brave, resilient, confident leaders who take no prisoners. These are useful traits in many areas but less so in formal examinations.
Five strategies to engage boys in the classroom
1. Stop valuing “girly” attributes over “laddish” attributes
Let’s face it, in most cases neither of those terms is used in a positive way. However, we teachers often forget that stories about aliens destroying a football stadium can have as much literary value as a love poem. We arbitrarily celebrate the types of media that girls tend to gravitate towards and we negatively stereotype the media that boys gravitate towards. The result is that boys become used to hearing that certain things they value are worthless. They might love pirate stories, but after being told that they shouldn’t read them all the time, they eventually stop reading, because they aren’t interested in reading anything else. Boys then lose interest in their favourite things and many lose interest in general.
There is nuance to this view though. By playing to what boys enjoy reading about, we can actually do harm. As teachers, we should be broadening their “cultural capital” and expanding their knowledge of subjects beyond their own experience. If we don’t do this, then we limit the range of examples and consequently the network of ideas, or schema, that boys need, in order to learn new knowledge with ease. The more we teach them new things, the easier it becomes to teach them even more new things. So hold your boys to a high standard and make sure they use academic vocabulary, explain their examples clearly and show detailed reasoning behind their decisions.
2. Be careful how you use competition to engage boys
Boys often love competition. However, this is also a lazy stereotype. Some boys hate it and would rather work collaboratively, rather than in an adversarial way. Not only that but as I wrote earlier, boys need to learn the skills of collaboration in our classrooms, as they often won’t be taught this explicitly in their “home” environment.
Be patient with boys here, it often won’t come as naturally as it does with girls – the boys haven’t had anywhere near as much practice! Competition is great for engaging some boys but you must include opportunities for collaboration within the competitive environment too.
3. Frequently encourage and consistently use feedback
Feedback is crucial for engaging boys. The earlier in their lives that boys learn to give and accept feedback, without any fear of perceived weakness, the better they will perform and the faster they will progress. The feedback must be a continual process, like a conversation – not just an event at the end of a piece of work. As by then, the feedback is too late in many respects.
Once boys are able to use the feedback process more naturally, they will begin to be able to develop deeper self-evaluation skills and may even engage more often in independent learning too. This helps to narrow the gap between boys and girls, as well as between the weaker and stronger boys.
Praise frequently, but based on student effort, rather than on attainment. This way, your boys will feel as though they can take risks and attempt challenging work without worrying about your reaction to a wrong answer. Boys are very good at detecting insincere praise though, so only give it when it is due, or it loses its impact.
4. Ask better questions and more of them
Improving your questioning in the classroom is one of the best ways to raise attainment. The teachers who make a more positive impact on attainment than their colleagues ask more questions and they plan their questions carefully. This drives higher attainment for boys and girls alike. However, boys often shy away from explaining the rationale behind some of their answers. For this reason, it is crucial for teachers to ask boys in particular how they arrived at their answers.
By getting boys to demonstrate the process behind their decision-making, they will clarify their knowledge in their own minds and develop their confidence and resilience. This makes it much more likely that they will buy into the next challenging task, especially if it relies on having strong prior knowledge.
Ask questions such as “why is that the answer?”. Alternatively, show wrong answers and ask boys to comment on “why is this the wrong answer?” By introducing a range of examples and, crucially, non-examples to their schema, you will play to boys’ eagerness to show you up as an authority, while actually building their own reputations as a successful academic student.
5. The Teacher-Student Relationship
In my experience, having a positive relationship with the boys you teach makes the biggest difference. This isn’t rocket science, we should be aiming for this in all of our students. However, when boys are often boisterous, the positive teacher-student relationship we need and they often crave can be difficult to maintain. Keeping this at the forefront of your mind, though, can be the one thing that makes the difference in the long-run.
Don’t expect the boys you teach to be as naturally compliant as the girls. Work hard at engaging the boys, through challenging work and even just by having a conversation with them as they work. Find out what makes them tick and show your interest in their lives. The boys I teach respond particularly well to this and it has made a huge difference to the attitude they show in my lessons and towards their work in general.
Ultimately though, set high expectations and support them in living up to them. If they go off-task after a few minutes, then chunk the learning into short tasks to help them. If they struggle with tasks involving extended reading, then practice and model extended reading frequently, so that they can improve over the long term. Live-model what answers should look like and show how to construct those answers, so that boys know how to start. Visibly investing in these areas will show to the students that you are in it for the long-haul, that you have their interests at heart and in response, they will readily buy into what you are trying to do.
The best book to read on the subject of teaching boys has to be Boys Don’t Try: Rethinking Masculinity in Schools, by Matt Pinket and Mark Roberts. They take the reader through the research basis for their understanding of why boys often underachieve in education and how we can overcome that problem. Their strategies are very easy to implement and frequent anecdotes help you to see how to apply those strategies in your own classroom. It changed my own classroom teaching and the impact has been significant.
Do you have any tips on how you engage boys in your lessons? Leave a comment!
In an ideal world, we would plan a sequence of lessons, teach it according to the plan, encourage lots of revision and then little Jimmy would demonstrate every last thing you’ve taught him when it came to the examination. Unfortunately, this isn’t an ideal world and for many reasons we purposefully deviate from our initial plans. Add to this the fact that Jimmy is burdened with huge volumes of information to recall, analyse and evaluate. There’s also a good chance he isn’t doing any independent learning at home. Critically, Jimmy just does not seem to “test well”, even when under less formal conditions he demonstrates deep understanding and applies skills effectively. Houston, we have a revision problem! But is there a solution?
Below I’ve identified the four key factors , in my own teaching experience, which have had the most significant positive impact on revision and consequently on examination success
1. Prioritise key topics
In any given exam, the question setters want the candidates to demonstrate mastery of particular topics and skills. The questions they have asked in the past are usually* a good guide to what they will expect students to know in the future, so plan accordingly. If for example, an examination board had set out eight topics for students to learn but had only asked questions about seven of them so far, then that might be a trigger to focus particularly on the only unexamined topic as a priority. So, throughout your sequence of lessons, ensure you give extra time to topics/skills that:
Cross over into a number of different examination questions
Look like they are more likely to come up this time
Previous students have struggled with in past examinations.
*Warning: trying to guess the questions in advance is a risky strategy. Sometimes it pays dividends, but it can also lead to damaging outcomes if content is not also revised thoroughly.
2. How to not run out of time
Timing in examinations is frequently used by students as a reason for underperformance. However in the majority of cases that I’ve witnessed, it doesn’t really stand up to any level of scrutiny. Most of the students who cite “timing” as the reason for not finishing a paper actually spent a lot of their time in the exam writing nothing, because they were struggling to recall information. This is not a timing issue, but a memory issue.
3 methods for memorising key pieces of content include:
Peer Q&A – students pair up and test each other using quickfire questions
Cue cards – on one side students write out 3-5 bullet points summarising a topic. They do this for a number of topics, then hand them over to someone else, who will test their memory of the key bullet points.
Jigsaws – students create a 3×3 grid. On one side of each line, they write out a statement, keyword, case study, scholar, quote, etc. On the other side of each line, they write out a corresponding statement, definition, case study conclusion, theory name, etc. On the outer parts of the grid they can write down some red herrings, so that when it has all been cut out, they will find completing the grid more of a challenge. The higher the level of challenge, the more active the brain will be and consequently the more likely that students will be able to recall the information quickly enough.
3. Practise, practise, practise
Usain Bolt is the 100m world record holder. How did he become this? Clue: he didn’t just spend all of his time reading about running, drawing diagrams about running, creating calendars about when he will run in the future and watching other people run. He practised running. Over and over and over and over. Bolt knew that in order to ensure success on the day when it counted the most, he would have to work just as hard on days when it (seemed like it) counted the least. He will have “failed”, by his own standards, on so many of those practise runs that it would make many runners give up. However, he just saw these failures as another way not to do things on race day. Gradually, he cut out these mistakes and by the end of his training, he didn’t make errors anymore. He trained hard so that the race would be easy. Many of his competitors will have trained easy, but predictably their race was too hard. Students must approach their revision for examinations in exactly the same way.
Top performers in all professions have something in common. They typically have a morning routine during their training, which doesn’t change on the day when they need to perform under pressure at the highest level. This is true for athletes, politicians, soldiers, singers, entrepreneurs, actors, etc, etc.
Far in advance of the examination, give students an opportunity to reflect on their own morning routine and to evaluate its advantages and disadvantages with regards to their performance later in the day. Having students do this on a regular basis will help them find their own routine which works for them. Once they find their routine, encourage students to stick to it as closely as possible, particularly on the day of their examination.
In my own experience, students have benefited from this as they approach examination day. Fear of the unknown is the worst of all. But if we can our get students to reflect about every minute of their day, then some of that fear will dissipate. Some students might even see examination day as just a normal day like any other. After all, they aren’t doing anything differently.
Please share this post with other teachers – this is the “business end” of the academic year and we all need all the help we can get!
Students love using technology in the classroom. Not just because an iPad makes a change from pens and paper and not because it’s “less work” than other traditional methods. They enjoy using an iPad, or other technology because it’s what they do outside of the classroom – they are “digital natives”. Student use iPads, apps, video streaming, social media, etc, 24/7. They know within seconds that a sports star has signed a new contract, that a spoiler for a film has gone public, or that a celebrity has just been photographed doing something exciting.
Students receive the information, evaluate whether they like it or not, share it with others and comment on vital pieces of that information at length. Media outlets and tech companies are streets ahead of many schools in the way they deliver content. If we want to increase engagement and demonstrate relevance to our students, then we must find a vehicle for content delivery that is just as immersive as the student experience beyond the classroom.
To some teachers, this thought can be daunting. Particularly for those who aren’t too tech-savvy. But if you are already reading this blog (and hopefully signed up to the email subscription!) then I’m probably preaching to the choir. There are devices and apps for everything you can imagine, with more and more being released every week.
Here is a practical guide to using iPad apps, to enhance your existing teaching methods.
1. Content Delivery
YouTube: Film an explanation or demonstration. Students can use this to learn key information at the beginning of a topic, revise for a test, evaluate their own work or the work of others. May require more than one take – but fantastic as a permanent revision resource for students to use at home!
Explain Everything: Copy text and images into the templates in the Explain Everything iPad app and let it create an animated presentation to show to students. Easy!
iMovie: Students can research information about a whole topic and create a movie trailer based on their research. My students created a disaster movie trailer, based on research they had done on the causes and effects of global warming and humanity’s response to it. They loved watching each other’s and can still remember a great deal.
WordPress: I’ve already posted about my (not so secret) love of blogging, but I’ll keep doing it until we’ve all had a go! Seriously, why not? (Top tip: post a link to an article, then tell students that their homework is to submit a short response – but they can’t repeat anything another student has already mentioned. They will all try to complete their homework as soon as possible, rather than leaving it to the last-minute!)
Dropbox: Students can work remotely from each other and drop files into the same shared space. It syncs in real-time too, so they can see how each other is editing their project. Brilliant if students are all contributing via mobile devices with limited access to a hard-drive.
Twitter: Write a tweet (a comment no longer than 140 characters), include a # (hashtag for those of you still living in 2006) and tell your students to follow (search for) that # and tweet their reply, making sure to include the # within their reply. Excellent for sharing online content and debating it beyond the classroom.
What do these technologies have in common?
The clue is in the Vanilla Ice quote at the top of the post – collaborate. Students collaborate on social media, when it comes to sharing links to a funny video, to comment on a photo, to react to a shocking news headline. They engage each other in a debate – sometimes to further their own agenda, sometimes to follow someone else’s. Collaboration is the most fun and engaging part of many lessons – are our traditional teaching methods set up to provide opportunities for this? The apps above definitely are. They enable collaboration to happen with ease – they are a central feature. So…
Your iPad mission (should you choose to accept it):
Ok folks, it’s that time again – have a look at what you can try out THIS WEEK (be honest – if you say you’ll do it next week then you probably won’t ever do it). Borrow an iPad or even a set of them so students can make a movie trailer, create a walk-through of an experiment and upload it to YouTube, set up a Twitter account and start a conversation.