Black Box Thinking for Teachers

Black Box Thinking for Teachers

What is “Black Box Thinking”?

Black Box Thinking is a philosophy which allows learning to emerge from mistakes.

The phrase was coined by Matthew Syed in his excellent book of the same title, where he examines performance and critical self-evaluation in sport, aviation, politics and many other fields. He took the term from the “black box” flight recorders fitted to aircraft, which contain vast amounts of data, to be used to inform future improvements. They are used extensively, but especially following poor performances. These could result from human error, failures of systems and procedures and unexpected events.

How does black box thinking apply in education?

In education, just as in aviation, we continually train ourselves and others, ensuring consistently high performance. But despite the time put into this training, students can still underperform in exams. Schools and inspection bodies collect this data, containing a wealth of information to guide current and future performance. But I’m not certain that we use this information effectively.  After all, which information should we act on and how on earth should we act on it?

When teaching doesn’t work…

A few years ago, Steve, a friend of mine working in another school, called me on A Level Results Day. He was in shock. For the last few years, his students had achieved excellent exam results and he was considered by many to be an “outstanding teacher” (I hate that phrase!). This year, however, a number of his students had “failed”. By “failed”, he meant that they had passed, but had significantly dipped below their expected grades.Steve had to account for this dip in his post-results analysis that he had to present to the Headteacher. But only two months earlier he had predicted much higher grades. How could he have got it so wrong?

In essence, he had assumed that because he had always been right about his students in the past, he was able to draw similar conclusions about his current students. Unfortunately, he was looking at the wrong data or at least interpreting it in the wrong way.

Steve’s current students were not in any way “weaker” than in previous years. Nor had his teaching changed much. But he HAD missed one crucial point. The STUDENTS were different. He had forgotten to take this into account. This caused him to infer that the data he had used effectively last year was just as relevant for this year’s students. Steve was wrong.

When the “data” doesn’t add up…

We are all familiar with the use of assessment results to inform our understanding of how students progress towards their targets. However, those results do not “measure progress“. They are a proxy, something which may indicate progress but which is not synonymous with it. Steve believed his assessment procedures to be rigorous. He used a range of assessment questions from the exam board’s past papers. He was a seasoned examiner and was a competent judge of student responses. But he was ignoring something crucial. Steve focused entirely on improving the skills and techniques used in answers to exam questions. It made no difference in the end.

Steve recalled some of the papers from the exam board to see what had gone wrong. He assumed that the students had ignored the techniques he had taught them. How could they have forgotten the special mnemonics they had constructed together? Had they not written using PEE paragraphs? Did they follow up each of their ideas with a brief evaluation of it? Did their conclusions not follow the highly prescribed formula he had repeated time and time again?

The papers showed Steve what had really happened. The students didn’t know the content.

As much as they had tried to structure their writing, they just didn’t have enough subject knowledge. Steve expected a deep evaluation of quotes and he’d even taught the students how to go about discussing multiple interpretations of keywords and phrases.

But the students hadn’t memorised the quotes.

It got worse. The case studies in the exam were supposed to trigger students to consider socio-economic theories, court cases and historical events.

But the students only understood the ones they were tested on in class and so hadn’t read widely enough to answer the questions in the actual exam.

Why do your students fail?

Your students succeed and fail due to many factors. They may lack knowledge and understanding of a theory, method or event. They might not have ‘memorised’ the information they need. Their skills of analysis and evaluation may undermine the depth of their understanding. Steve considered all of these possibilities but was still at a loss to explain the underperformance. The truth was, that these weren’t the only factors that were at play. It’s often more complex.

Let’s look at why three particular students failed:

Student A had recently been dealing with a bereavement of a close family member. This had taken its toll on the student, who had performed well up to that point. In the final run-up to the exam, Steve had believed that this student would cope well with study leave, having demonstrated for almost two years that he could work well independently. However, in this instance he was wrong. The student was unable to focus at home, in the way he could at school, in part because he was constantly surrounded by distractions relating to the passing of his relative. Whilst his bereavement would not be much easier at school, at least he may have found some space to concentrate a little better, or for longer periods, enabling him to perform better than he eventually did on exam day.

Student B had a poor track record regarding her attendance. But despite this, she still managed to perform well in her assessed essays. As it turned out, she was close friends with a student who had written the same essays in the previous year. She re-worded these essays and in some cases had even memorised them by rote, for closed-book timed assessments in class. By doing so, she evaded the attention of staff who were actively looking for students requiring intervention. Since her grades were good, they didn’t consider her to be at risk of failing. Her problem though, was that in the exam she was not able to adapt those memorised answers when the question changed ever so slightly. She pulled the wool over many eyes, including Steve’s and failed outright.

Student C was a high performer. At GCSE she had achieved all A* and A grades and had done so with little visible effort. Throughout A Level, however, she had not always enjoyed the same level of success. Essay grades ranged from A* to C. Steve had been hot on the case with this student and had accurately identified where marks were being gained and lost. He gave thoroughly detailed feedback to the student, who was able to redraft the essays to an excellent standard, following the advice he gave. But on the day of the exam, her marks were inconsistent across the paper. Why had she performed so well in some areas, but so poorly in others? As it turned out, the detailed feedback had made no difference. Why? The student hadn’t had to think hard enough for herself as to how to improve. In the end, her highest marks came from the topics where Steve’s feedback was much more limited in detail (despite the formative essays being of an equally low quality to others where feedback was detailed). In this instance, the student had performed badly overall because she hadn’t become independent enough. She was still overly reliant on the teacher to help her to improve, even in the final weeks and days before the exam.

Action points for “Black Box” teachers

  • Assess regularly. Balance scheduled tests with unscheduled ones to accurately identify true levels of understanding.
  • Use rigorous assessment methods (past paper questions, etc)
  • Give feedback that strikes the right balance between being too detailed and not detailed enough
  • Create and maintain a ‘culture’ of student independence
  • Reward resilience and genuine effort, rather than high attainment alone
  • Test knowledge and understanding in creative ways, to avoid “scripted” responses
  • Formalise how you will act on the data you collect. Checklists are a time-efficient way of developing set procedures. (More on this in a future post!)

Final thoughts…

Learning from failure is sometimes the only way. I would love to hear your own stories of “Black Box” thinking. In the meantime, you can take a look here at Matthew Syed’s Black Box Thinking (my Amazon affiliate link).

Please leave a comment on this post or send me a tweet (@guruteaching). I’ll get right back to you!

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Why Podcasts Improve Learning

Why Podcasts Improve Learning

Why do podcasts improve learning?

A podcast is an audio recording which delivers content verbally, as opposed to the content being in text form. By adding podcasts to your resource bank for students, you will inevitably engage students who, perhaps, don’t engage fully with text-based resources. Podcasts improve learning by delivering content in a manner which suits some students better than textbook use.

This is certainly my experience. Recently I was invited to try out the podcasts offered by Audiopi. I was blown away by the high quality of the content delivery. But also by how much information I retained, even some days later. I’ve always struggled with retention of information when using texts to learn. I would have to put in hours and hours of intensive study, only for my performance in tests to be “inconsistent” as one kind teacher put it! I don’t want the same experience for my own students, so I’ve introduced podcasts.

When using the Audiopi podcasts to learn new content, I found that even just listening to them once, whilst making brief notes, I remained attentive and could recall the information easily days later. (I listened to the History ones, as I’m an enthusiast but not a subject specialist in this area. Listening to the excellent History podcasts enabled me to assess more accurately whether I was biased by my own subject specialism.) The ability to rewind and re-listen to the Audiopi podcasts, as many times as I liked, further allowed me to go over some ideas over and over until I understood them. This helped a lot!

Audiopi

To enhance the experience of the content delivery further, the Audiopi podcasts improve learning by using sounds and music to excellent effect. This can be a very tricky thing to achieve. Many podcasts I’ve listened to had music playing in the background, but it was irritating, distracting, or just didn’t ‘fit’ with the narrative. Audiopi succeeded in this regard. I would definitely recommend subscribing to them if increasing engagement or depth of study is a particular focus of your department.

Currently, Audiopi offers a range of podcasts aimed at GCSE and A Level students for the following topics:

  • English Literature
  • English Language
  • History
  • Biology
  • Physics

The first podcast in each Audiopi series is free and you can listen to examples of all their tutorials too. They also have some examples of podcasts on their YouTube channel here, so you can even try before you buy!

Is the success of podcasts supported by research evidence?

Yes! Researchers at George Washington University reported that podcasts improve learning. They do this by reaching students who do not necessarily engage well with textbooks.  Using podcasts also helps to supplement textbook use for students who are already engaged by those texts. For more information, you can read an article on their research here.

Do you recognise those students in your own class? If so, then you should seriously consider using podcasts, especially in the run-up to exam season.

 How could I use podcasts with my students?

I typically use podcasts as a Flipped Learning resource in preparation for a future lesson. Sometimes I use them as an independent learning resource to aid comprehension, add depth of content and to revise from. In both of these cases, students have told me that they prefer learning this way, as opposed to using textbooks. The reasons are many. But the most significant are that students enjoy listening and can do it anywhere, even on the school bus! Secondly, they have to be more cognitively active in order to make notes. This is because there aren’t textbooks to lazily copy from, which we know is an inefficient way of studying.

To help podcasts improve learning, you could also use transcripts as a text-alternative or to supplement the audio recording. You could even use the transcripts to develop comprehension-based activities. I’ve certainly found that with my own students, the depth of knowledge increased substantially after podcast use, compared with textbook-only study. My students made rapid progress and they improved their examination performance too.

To begin searching for podcasts, take a look in the iTunes store, websites such as the BBC, or even (for more advanced students) some university websites. Failing that, just Google the subject or topics you are looking for and add “podcast” to your search query.

Some free podcasts to get you started…

  • Geography: GCSE Bitesize Podcasts
  • Law: BBC Law In Action
  • Chemistry: A Level Chemistry Revision – Chris Harris
  • Economics/Business: BBC More Or Less
  • Politics: Politics Weekly – The Guardian, The Bugle
  • French: Coffee Break French
  • Religious Studies/Philosophy: Philosophy Bites, BBC In Our Time
  • Spanish: Spanish Obsessed With Rob And Liz
  • General: LSE Podcasts, TED Talks

Final thoughts…

I would love to hear about your podcasting experiences and would be happy to answer any questions you have about starting a podcast. I’ll blog about that another time. Just leave a comment at the end and I’ll get right back to you.

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Disclaimer: This article is not an advertorial. For total transparency, I received access to one Audiopi podcast series, in return for a review by me for their website. This article was written entirely independently and not as any form of “payment” for the podcast. I wrote this article simply in response to my positive experience of listening to the podcast. 

Giving Effective Feedback

Giving Effective Feedback

Giving effective feedback is a balancing act

My students are about to receive their mock results. For some, this will be a time for them to feel relieved that their efforts so far have paid off. For others, they won’t be happy with their result. Ultimately though, the result itself doesn’t really matter. It’s how my students respond to their result that counts. The hope is that my students will find that balance between fear of failure and over-confidence, to best prepare them for the final exams. In this post, I explain the methods used to ensure that my students respond positively, so that they will achieve their desired result in the future. Giving effective feedback is a tricky business and the stakes are too high for us to do it badly.

Why target setting is priority number 2

As teachers, we constantly set targets, whether short or long-term, aspirational or realistic. Target setting is absolutely necessary, but it must be well-informed and fully explained. Otherwise, your students may not understand those targets immediately.

In many cases, my own students have seen their own targets as too high, too low, or completely arbitrary, before the targets are explained. If I didn’t explain the targets to them, then they risk putting insufficient effort in, to achieve their target. The explanation, though, must contain the ‘bigger picture’; this is priority number 1. More on that in a moment.

Students’ lack of engagement with targets also seems to be caused by their own perceptions of themselves as learners. They often see themselves as an “A grade” student, for example. This makes it harder for them to come to terms with any grade that doesn’t fit with that label. Following a positive result, they can then become lazy, thinking it’s in the bag. A negative result can leave students thinking it can’t be done. It’s vital then, that we spend time, before giving feedback, to help students understand what they should be looking to achieve, both in the short and long-term. They need to know and be constantly reminded that ‘progress‘ is not linear and that their path to success will not be a straight one.

Students need to see the bigger picture

One exam result can seem like the entire picture to some students. So, in order for targets to be meaningful to your students, they need to understand their own situation. By this, I mean that your students need to be able to see what their current level of achievement looks like, compared to their past achievements. Have they dipped? Plateaued? Accelerated? Where is it going?

They should also be made aware of how far a student like them should be expected to achieve by the end of the course. I often cite examples of students from previous years, who have achieved similar mock results, but have then gone on to have even greater success when they have followed a specific plan. I then share that plan, breaking it down into practical steps, which when followed, led to my previous student achieving the desired result.

By making the steps simple, my current students are able to see further progress as realistic. This provides them with the motivation required to increase performance in preparation for the exam. Because the feedback conversation is focused on future achievement, rather than past failure, my students’ mindset is far more receptive and they tend to react more positively.

Students need to feel supported

Many students will know that a poor result is their ‘fault’, but guilt and remorse will only make them dwell on negatives. This distracts from the positives and creates a barrier to forming a solution-focused mindset. So, ensure you are giving effective feedback by using as many comments as possible about what your students have achieved. By beginning the feedback conversation in this way (and feedback must be a conversation, not just one-way) your students will be encouraged to feel as though they have a platform to build upon for future success. They will also see you as being on their side, rather than just being there to find fault.

Many successful schools use the “What Went Well / Even Better If” structure to ensure positive feedback. Here, students are left in no doubt that their successes, no matter how limited, have been recognised and rewarded on some level.

Top Tip: A good way to enhance the WWW/EBI system is to share with the whole class a range of WWW comments that you have given to the group. This then provides students with concrete, achievable examples that they can strive to emulate in future assessments.

Preparing students to receive feedback

This week I’ll be giving my students a brief questionnaire to fill out before they are able to access their results. The purpose of the questionnaire is twofold. Firstly, I aim to prime the students with as much positive-mindset thinking as possible, so that their result will be seen as just one step on the way to future success. I want to build resilient learners. Secondly, I want the students to be able to see what practical steps they can put into place, to get them from where they are to where they need to be.

Here are the questions I’ll be asking:

  1. What do you stand to gain from success in this subject?
  2. What is your end-of-course target?
  3. What practical steps did you take to move towards your mock exam target?
  4. Which of those practical steps paid off?
  5. What was your target for the mock exam?
  6. If your two targets are different, then explain why.
  7. Which practical steps would you change or not use again? Explain your reasons.
  8. How close do you think you will be to your target?
  9. If you achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
  10. If you don’t achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
  11. If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself three months ago, what advice would you give?

I may change the wording of the questions, or even add/remove some of them. However, what I want to do is to create a dialogue with each student about their own journey. The questions are really just conversation-starters.

Planning your next steps

After giving feedback on the mock exams, it’s crucial that you put a plan in place to ensure that every single student can be monitored and so that their performance on exam day is not left to chance. The plan should be specific, realistic and time-bound if it is to work. But most importantly, the onus should be on the students to solve the problem. All you are doing is giving them a blueprint to follow and dates by which you will measure their success on agreed criteria. Your role is an advisory one. You certainly shouldn’t be expected to re-teach content, especially if your students are perfectly capable of independent learning!

Steps you can put in place:

  • Students should respond to feedback as early as possible – create improved answers or redo the mock exam from scratch.
  • Set aside specific times for on-to-one conversations with each student (if logistically possible). This should happen as soon as possible.
  • Share results with colleagues in other departments and the Head of Year to see if there is an issue beyond your subject.
  • Students create an action plan for the final exams: exam dates, when they will begin revising, successful revision methods, when they will be assessed throughout the revision period to see if it’s working.
  • Book another one-to-one for 6 weeks time to see how students have got on individually. Did they bother to stick to the plan? Where’s the evidence? Did it work? How do they know? What do they now need to focus on? Is parental involvement necessary at this point?

Finally…

Don’t judge yourself as a teacher, according to the exam results in front of you. There’s a good chance that you weren’t in control of more than half of the factors that affected your students’ performances on the day.

Besides, by now giving effective feedback, you will make a huge difference to your students.

You can be proud of that.

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Measuring Progress: A Pointless Exercise?

Measuring Progress

Why measuring progress is overrated

Last time you were observed teaching a lesson, did your observer focus on ‘measuring progress’ in their feedback? What exactly did they mention? Did you believe them? Did you feel proud or ashamed of the feedback? Did either of you ‘grade’ the quality of the teaching or even the teacher? Was the amount or rate of learning measured? Was the observation a positive, or even a useful experience? Teachers across many schools have had experiences such as these. It is one of the factors contributing to a crisis in recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers across many countries. But it is a factor that can be eliminated very simply. Ban lesson observations from discussions on student progress. They simply do not work.

What does ‘progress’ even mean?

In this post, I hope to convince you that measuring progress in lesson observations is a waste of time. There, I said it. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Yes. Why? Because students in every school are at risk of a second-rate education. This is due largely to teachers altering their lessons to ensure short-term success within a lesson, at the expense of better progress over the long-term.

There, I said it. Do I have a chip on my shoulder? Yes. Why? Because students in every school are at risk of a second-rate education. This is due largely to teachers altering their lessons to ensure short-term success within a lesson, at the expense of better progress over the long-term.

This problem is exacerbated even further during lesson observations. In many schools, the ‘rate’ or ‘amount’ of progress within the lesson is still being ‘measured’ by SLT and external inspectors alike. However, the problem with aiming for short-term success is that the long-term needs of the students are put aside. This is simply for the sake of teachers trying to demonstrate excellent progress in front of observers. After all, nobody wants to be judged as anything less than brilliant! Observations are a snapshot, a small-scale sample. They simply cannot be used as evidence of student progress.

Fortunately, many high-performing schools are taking on board ever-increasing levels of educational research, in order to raise the achievement of students. Organisations such as the Sutton Trust have researched what factors make the greatest difference to learning. Schools have developed Learning Improvement Plans in response to this research. Now it’s time for Senior Leadership Teams (SLT) to examine whether or not lesson observations are useful enough in improving student progress, to justify the problems they also generate.

So, what’s wrong with measuring progress?

To really understand this question, it’s important to go back to first principles and to ask these fundamental questions:

  1. What is the purpose of education?
  2. What role should teachers play in education?
  3. What role should students play in their own education?
  4. What else matters?

1. What is the purpose of education?

The ‘purpose’ of education, in my mind, comes down to one simple idea. Education should aim to provide a person with the knowledge and skills to ensure they are able to flourish and succeed once they have left education. In order to achieve this aim, educators should measure progress. But only when it helps education over the long-term. We should evidence the development of students’ knowledge, but there are far better methods than old-fashioned lesson observations. Monitoring student folders is far more accurate. It can’t be staged and it allows teachers to teach in their own way, using their own professional judgement to guide them.

Artificial situations have also been created by teachers, in order to ‘demonstrate’ their own teaching ‘skills’. But a teacher’s aim is to promote learning as their first priority! The cause of this mismatch in priorities is that in too many cases teachers feel they must ‘perform’ to the latest standards, or use the latest methods ‘preferred’ by external inspectors or SLT.

Finally, too many teachers provide students with everything they need in order to pass an exam. This can be useful, but only insofar as it equips the students with the skills they need after leaving school. However, students are often so spoon-fed that they don’t know how to learn or how to solve problems even though they managed to achieve good grades in their exams.

A good education system should create resilient problem-solvers. A focus on measuring progress, however, often makes teachers less likely to spend enough time on challenging tasks. This is because the task may not provide positive ‘progress’ data in time for the termly data-window when assessment results are submitted. Instead, many teachers favour shorter and less rigorous tasks, where they can demonstrate repeated intervention, rather than allowing students to learn resilience.

2. What role should teachers play in education?

There is often a debate about whether the teacher should be the ‘sage on the stage’ or the ‘guide on the side’. I don’t think it matters, so long as you change it up now and again. Students need both direct instruction and the freedom to tackle things in their own way. That way, they benefit from having an expert in the room and from having the space to be creative in how they learn. A focus on measuring progress in a lesson can sometimes interfere with this process, creating unnecessary constraints on the structure of lessons.

Teachers should be able to teach in whatever way they like, so long as by the end of the course, students are able to demonstrate that they can achieve well in the exam and go on to lead successful lives. After all, isn’t this what matters most to our students?

3. What role should students play in their own education?

Learning how to learn is arguably the most important skill a student can learn at school. It happens when we give students a variety of levels of challenge, over time, with varying levels of support. Independent learning is crucial, whether through homework or through students’ own wider reading around the subject. Students often overlook their own role in their own education. Therefore it is vital that we teach students explicitly about their own role in the learning process.

Unfortunately, though, students often overlook their own role in their education. Therefore it is vital that we teach them explicitly about this. I would even argue that it should be done before you begin teaching subject topics. That way, it won’t be viewed by the students as a simplistic reaction to a badly completed homework, or as a trendy add-on following a course we’ve been on.

One consequence of creating a culture of independent learning is that some students will do it extremely well. Sometimes my own students will turn up to a lesson, having taught themselves the topic at home.

4. What else matters?

Teachers are in education for the long haul. So are students. Observers should be too, but often they become distracted by short-term thinking, rather than planning for the future. The consequence is that lesson observations are added to the workload of teachers and SLT.

However, a quick cost-benefit analysis shows that the number of hours put into lesson observation schedules does not make enough positive difference to long-term teaching, to justify the expense. Teachers are worn out. SLT are worn out. We can’t really use the ‘data’ gathered as it doesn’t really measure progress accurately. Our paperwork is then filed away for external inspection teams. This is so that SLT can at least be seen to have tried to monitor and make an impact on student progress.

Meanwhile, lessons are taught with ‘education’ as a secondary priority.

But there is one last nail in the coffin of lesson observations: external inspectors now take less and less account of what they see in lesson observations when making judgements on progress. Sir Michael Wilshaw, an experienced headteacher and the head of Ofsted (at the time of writing), has frequently bemoaned the way that many teachers feel they ought to measure progress, often several times per lesson and especially during inspection visits. Bite-sized chunks of learning are used too often, at the expense of students taking their time on more challenging tasks. I mentioned this earlier, but you can read more about his experience in this Telegraph article.

In essence, Wilshaw views the process of measuring progress as a much more long-term one. Progress ‘measurements’ should take into account long-term data trends and evidence of students making progress over time. The individual lesson observation plays such a superficial role in the measurement of progress, that we might as well abandon it altogether.

So there you have it. If you want to measure progress then leave lesson observations out of it. They are quite frankly, not fit for purpose.

Recommended Reading

If you want to know more (from a true expert on the subject) then I recommend the brilliant book Making Good Progress (Amazon affiliate link) by Daisy Christodoulou.

Here, she gives practical advice in simple terms, based on extensive research. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better book on this subject. It’s had a huge impact on the way I teach and I know I’d be a poorer teacher without having read it.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. Leave a reply below or send me a message @guruteaching on Twitter.

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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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