Marking: Why It Doesn’t Work

 Marking

Marking used to fill me with dread…

It consumed every evening and at least one day of the weekend. The workload was unbearable. I had no life and the cycle repeated itself every week until the summer holidays. I hated marking.

Oh, and by the way, it made no difference!

I was ticking and flicking, leaving comments that were far too generic and the marking often went unnoticed or unacknowledged by the students. So, I’ve stopped. Or at least, I’ve stopped doing what I was doing. Now, my marking is less frequent but makes a much greater difference to the progress of my students.

I’ve trialled a few different methods of marking and feedback (they aren’t always the same thing!) to a wide range of classes from KS3 to KS5. I’ve settled, for now, on the one that appears to make the biggest difference, whilst taking the least amount of time to implement. My classes are making better progress and I have my life back!

How to mark and still have a life

Decide why you are marking in the first place

It isn’t agreed by all educators what the purpose of marking is. Some argue it is to point out where the student is going wrong and guiding them back to where they should be going. Some argue it is to build up a relationship between the teacher and the students so that the teacher can understand better how to support them in class. Others think that marking is a way of showing to parents and school inspectors that teachers are paying attention to the work produced by students. Recently, Ofsted has begun using evidence from marked books and folders as a better judgement of progress than lesson observations.

My view is that marking is one method  we can use to cause an improvement in student performance. It isn’t the only method; forms of feedback other than traditional marking can be much more effective, e.g. immediate verbal feedback (one of the most significant drivers of improvement in my experience). It is the ‘causal’ relationship between the marking and the improvement which is the key point here.

If marking doesn’t ’cause’ improvement, then either change it or abandon it entirely.

As teachers, we are sometimes slow to abandon practices that don’t yield fruit immediately. We see value in playing the long game. However, we can also fall into the trap of mistaking the ‘long game’ for plain old-fashioned ‘laziness’.

Question: Are we really assessing our methods over time, or are we just unwilling to change our method and hoping that things will improve?

Only mark work that will significantly help your students achieve their goal

Some work should be marked and other work shouldn’t. We should get students to do both types of work, as they serve different purposes. However, we also need to distinguish between both types of work when planning our lessons. Otherwise, our lessons risk becoming too formulaic, may lack creativity and will fail to engage at least some of the students.

To decide which work to mark, ask this question: “What does the student need to be able to do by the end of the course?

The work should (only?)* be marked if it shows:

  • the student adding to or improving a skill that they need to be able to master
  • the student’s understanding of a concept, story, method, etc that they need to be able to explain
  • the student’s detailed analysis, application or evaluation of a theory that they need to be able to argue

The work (perhaps?)* shouldn’t be marked if it shows:

  • Repetition of previously marked work (with nothing added or amended)
  • Basic consolidation of understanding and which may be below the student’s ‘true potential’ (I hate this phrase but we all use it)
  • skills, knowledge, etc that doesn’t help students in their pursuit of the goals of the course (why would you be doing these tasks anyway?)

*In teaching, nuance is everything – you know when an exception can be made here!

You must give feedback quickly

Students who receive marked work long after they handed it in are less likely to engage with the feedback comments. Make sure that you return their work in a timely manner, so that they can still remember the topic clearly. Immediate feedback has been shown to make the biggest difference to students. The longer you leave it, the less difference your marking will make.

Only make comments that will significantly help students achieve their goal

Generic comments like ‘great effort’ and ‘more detail needed’ are only useful up to a point. They tell the student in a vague way how you feel about their work. However, they do not give any specifics about what to do to rectify any mistakes or omissions. There are different schools of thought on this. We can either go the ‘spoon-feeding’ way and tell our students exactly what they should have done differently. This can include re-writing sentences or adding content that students failed to include, for example. However, this can be time-consuming. For an easier way, read this post on how to implement a marking code, to reduce marking time.

Alternatively, we can encourage more independence in our students by giving them some indication of what they should do, but without the specifics of how to do it or what it should look like. I use a mixture of both but tend towards the latter. Over the years, I’ve found with my classes that if they come to rely on specifics from me, then over time they lose the ability to solve problems for themselves further down the line.

Ensure that students respond to the marking

When students respond to marking it accelerates their progress. When students don’t respond to marking, their progress will be limited. Responding to feedback also leads to higher levels of confidence over time. But not only that, it helps you see more easily what a fantastic difference your interventions are making in their education. Since we are all here to make a difference, maybe this will be why you would move to the marking system I’ve adopted. Another benefit: you’ll have more time for a social life (remember that?). But that’s not all.

You may even learn to love marking. Really.

 

My personal marking policy may be controversial, it might already be in use by you and your team, or it may seem arbitrary and confusing. Either way, I always appreciate constructive feedback.

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Homework: What’s the point?

Homework Project

Does Homework Matter?

Ok, time to get your homework planners out.” [Groans are heard around the classroom].

Is this a familiar scene? Was it just the same when you were at school? As a teacher, do you give the same types of homework tasks over and over? Are your students bored by this? I’ve started introducing some homework tasks that are slightly different to what they’ve been used to. Things that take the students out of their comfort zone.

It’s making a difference.

This week I’m looking at homework – what we do, why we do it and why we should view homework differently.

What exactly is the purpose of homework?

1. Link between lessons

When we plan a sequence of lessons, there should be a common thread running though them. Good sequences of lessons flow naturally from one lesson to the next. Students should be able to understand why one lesson follows from a previous one. Setting homework can ease this transition. It gives the students the opportunity to see the wider context of the topics they are studying.

For example, if planning a lesson on global warming, followed by a lesson on natural resources, you could bridge that gap, helping the students to see why they are interconnected. In this example you could set a task that encourages the students to consider how the causes and effects of global warming could be mitigated by different factors and specify the use of natural resources as one of these factors to consider. This introduction to the topic will show students how the topics are linked and will also improve the starting point for each student the following lesson, enabling progress to develop further and quicker.

2. Opportunity to go into detail without time constraints

Students are required to learn in ever increasing levels of depth and breadth, to satisfy the requirements of exam boards and government targets. However the amount of lesson time that can be devoted to this is not increasing to cope with the demand. Homework is the most obvious solution. But there are so many questions to consider here. How should we use homework? Should we just give more homework? Should we change the type of homework we give? Should we do both? When? For which student groups? When? The list goes on…

In my own experience, there are some specific areas that we could devote weeks of teaching-time to, but we only have days to work with. Effective homework tasks are far better than higher volumes of homework. Not only because they place less pressure on students and teachers (we need to leave time for quality marking too remember!), but many tasks we use are slow to achieving our learning objectives. My advice here (again from my own experience) is to select a niche in a very specific topic area and to ask an open question to the student (e.g. “analyse and evaluate the effectiveness of…”, “how does x compare to y?”, etc).

You could give further support to scaffold the students’ responses if they need it (sub-questions, particular areas to look at, sentence-starters, etc). The open question will enable higher level learning to take place, whilst the support makes the depth of learning accessible to students who otherwise might not develop further. I’ll be writing about Effective Questioning in a future blog post. Subscribe so that you don’t miss it!

3. To ensure progress across a sequence of lessons

Progress is not linear. I’ll repeat that: PROGRESS IS NOT LINEAR! I make this point regularly to colleagues who feel that lesson observations and data points throughout the academic year should be used to monitor quality of teaching. To put my point quite frankly, lesson observations as a way of measuring student progress are a blunt instrument and should be abandoned immediately. More on that in a future post I think! Progress happens at different rates, at different times in the course, for different students. In order to ensure progress over the long-term (the true purpose of education?) students must be able to go beyond what is taught in the classroom. Some topics require much greater depth of understanding, or a broader range of ideas to be considered, before progress can really be ‘achieved’. Independent learning and homework are two solutions to this.

Blogging Homework

Use project-based tasks to deepen understanding and develop skills further

I recently began setting my students longer, more project-based tasks. This meant that they could take time to develop depth and breadth in the knowledge and skills that I wanted them to focus on. One task was for students in small groups to create a “viral video”  on the ethics of animal experimentation (on either side of the debate). I wanted students to develop their responses, but also to try to convince others to side with their view. The students not only improved their argument skills, but they also developed a greater awareness of how others perceive their arguments, how to use language to convey meaning and how to use technology to raise awareness and increase engagement of an issue. These skills will be invaluable to the students in their exam, but also after they’ve left school to work in a whole variety of industries.

Getting students to create or contribute to a blog is another method. In doing so, students begin to develop a long-term approach to the way they present their information, redrafting, responding to feedback, etc. You could create a blog for the class, or you could have the students (individually or in groups) create their own.

Practice independent learning

With so much pressure being put on students and teachers to raise achievement in exams, it can be very tempting to “teach to the test”. The result? Students achieve good exam results, but they have little ability to do anything else – things that would be useful in the “real world” once they leave school.

We deal with this, not by ignoring the teaching of exam technique, but by supplementing what students do in class with guided independent tasks. I’ve seen good examples of this amongst my colleagues, from wider reading lists, to homework menus, to term-long homework projects. The common theme throughout is that the student retains some autonomy over what sources of information they use. They can use as much or as little as they like and they can present their findings via a method of their choosing. The result? Higher levels of engagement, more creativity, the students retain the information for longer and they develop “real-world” skills.

Opportunity to learn outside of the limitations of the classroom

The last thing we want to do as teachers is to limit our students in any way, I’d certainly be horrified by this, as would many parents. However, we often don’t think about the ways our students can be limited. A classroom limits learning. By its size, by the resources available, by the students present and by the teacher leading the learning within it. Homework allows for students to free themselves from these limitations. They can access resources not available to schools, they can free themselves from peer-pressure when doing things their own unusual ways. The depth of student responses improves, as does the breadth of their studies.

But perhaps even more importantly, it can contribute to the teacher’s understanding of what the students are capable. This will influence how the teacher leads the learning of other students, now and in the future. Setting “the right” homework enables students AND  teachers to develop in a significant way.

 

There are tonnes of other ways that homework can raise achievement in our schools, far too many to mention here!

I’d love to hear of any methods you use to increase engagement and deepen learning. As usual, drop me a message!

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Raising Achievement Using Teamwork

Raising Achievement

Question: What do the most successful performers in ANY industry have in common?

Answer: Teamwork.

No man is an island. Not only that but in a world where  teachers connect with each other 24/7 over email, social media, etc, we no longer work in isolation. This week’s blog post is something I’ve been considering for a while now. We work in teams, so how do we make the best use of our colleagues in order to raise achievement?

What does a successful team look like?

If you want to see what phenomenal teamwork looks like, just watch a pit crew in a Formula 1 race. Teams in education are no different and the most successful all have the same essential attributes:

  • Every member has a pre-defined job
  • They all do their jobs extremely well
  • They trust each other
  • They hold each other accountable
  • They hold themselves accountable

Now ask yourself: do the above points accurately describe the teams you belong to? If not, then what can you do to improve your team and to raise achievement?

Teamwork

Five simple ways to improve your team and raise achievement:

1. Know your job

It’s crucial that you know exactly what you are personally responsible for and what others are personally responsible for. Without knowing this, how could you begin to raise achievement? If you are unsure then a useful exercise is to sketch out a hierarchy (most if not all schools are hierarchical), showing the different levels of responsibility of team members from the very top to the very bottom. That way, it will be much easier to hold yourself and others accountable for the whole range of responsibilities. Once all the jobs are defined, you can begin to collaborate more effectively.

2. Actively work with each other

When designing a scheme of work, or contacting a student’s parents or planning a trip, do we actively involve others in the process? Not only is it useful to share workload when completing complex tasks, you will also benefit from colleagues’ experiences too. In their roles, they may well have encountered similar issues to the one you are busy solving. I always find it helps to see things from a different perspective – it also pays dividends to learn from other people’s mistakes!

3. When analysing your own performance, focus on the important details

It’s very easy when things don’t go to plan, that we can make excuses. Studies show that this happens even more often when others are observing – some people just don’t like to take responsibility for things that THEY could have done differently. For instance, a particular cohort of students may have a real issue with completing homework on time and to a good standard. Is this a behaviour issue? is it their organisation skills? Is there a knowledge deficit? Do they lack engagement with their subject? It’s vital to determine the correct cause of the issue, or else you will waste energy trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, whilst the real problem keeps rumbling on.

4. When holding others accountable, ask the right questions

The same studies that show our unwillingness to hold ourselves responsible also show that we prefer to blame others. Teachers MUST hold each other accountable. Without this, we won’t be able to maintain and drive up standards. However, this can be done in a positive, developmental way, or it can become punitive and lead to decreased motivation. When asking colleagues to evaluate their own performance, ask questions that generate practical and useful answers. Framing ‘problems’ as ‘opportunities to develop specific teaching methods’ is another proven strategy. Another popular one is the ‘feedback sandwich’ – give one piece of positive feedback, then one way to improve and then another positive. Remind colleagues that they have more good points than bad, but don’t shy away from being totally honest. Over the long term, it’s important to make sure that colleagues feel supported and encouraged. Even teachers who are completely honest in their self-evaluation won’t feel motivated to fix problems if they feel their positive attributes aren’t valued.

5. Keep in regular contact with each other

This one is my own particular failing (hence why I put it at the end!) but it makes a huge difference when I get it right. Far too easily we can become engrossed in a never-ending checklist of day-to-day tasks. It’s important, now and again, to let others know what you are up to. Also to engage them in a conversation about how they could participate, or how you could help them. In my own experience, it prevents problems down the line, where I’ve ended up duplicating the work a colleague had already done, or where I could have offered help before a problem reared its head. One very short email every week or so is all it takes and the shorter it is, the better!

Success

Call to action!

The best teachers will always act on advice, even if they only focus on one tiny snippet at a time. Don’t get left behind! Take one small step from those outlined above and spend no more than five minutes on it TODAY. You know fine well if you leave it until tomorrow then it will never get done. Be outstanding and raise achievement NOW!

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Goodbye to Grades?

 Grades

Do grades matter?

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?

Celebration

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

Top Tips

  1. Give feedback quickly – the longer you leave it, the less impact it will have on the student.
  2. 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)
  3. Be specific – don’t write “add more detail here”, do write “explain why Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church”
  4. Make positive comments as well as negative ones – e.g. “thorough explanation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave”
  5. 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. 

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Student Feedback – A Useful Guide

Feedback

I’m not the perfect teacher.

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.

Questions included:

  • 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.

Thoughts

Round 2

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.

Ouch.

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!

Checklist

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.

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