Rethinking marking

I will forever remember the academic year 2020-21. Not for the lockdowns, or the bubbles bursting; not for the lateral flow tests or constant sanitising; not for the masks and visors, or contact tracing. No, as memorable as Covid has been, I will remember, with relish, the year marking as we know it we came to a standstill.

Concerns around contamination and the transmission of Covid meant my school policy was that teachers should not handle student books. We could leave books to decontaminate for 48 hours before marking, then leave to decontaminate for 48 hours before returning – but, given that feedback is most effective and worthwhile when it is timely this didn’t seem to be a solution. SO how do you mark when you can’t touch or write on a child’s work? And how can we utilise our experiences of Covid (assuming touching books will occur in the future!) to help us keep this reduced workload moving forward?

First we begin by reframing what ‘feedback’ and ‘responding to feedback’ looks like. The old student response of ‘I will do this, thanks’ on a marking sticker, or a hurried attempt to correct a mistake with little care or attention, sadly does not constitute an effective response to marking. Likewise a tick and flick or effort comment means nothing with regards to academic progress, and a strength and target is only useful if it is linked to the learning objective; so the child can identify what they have done well and what they need to do to improve – assuming they understand what is written. However, the most effective form of feedback is verbal and immediate, focused on what the student can give you as much as you can give them.

Therefore, like the chicken and egg cycle, planning and marking are inextricable from each other. Plan for the misconceptions, plan for the questions you need to ask and plan for the opportunities to assess understanding and skill level. In the lesson itself use independent task time to look at the work and supply it with verbal feedback. As you go around make a note of the common misconceptions and examples of excellence. Use these to inform the planning of the next lesson – building in WAGOLLs and whole class feedback on misconceptions.

The cultural shift for this to be successful needs to come from how we monitor effective marking and feedback. As we know, Oftsed use a triangulation approach: looking at planning, student books and speaking to the child, and it is the speaking to the child that we should really be looking to, for a measure of how effective our feedback truly is. Looking at a book should indicate the planning is sequential and enables the child to make progress week on week. Speaking to the child should indicate what the child understands about their progress. They are typically asked to talk about what they’re learning, why it’s important, what they need to do to improve etc.

Therefore the feedback they give you is absolutely critical in determining how effective your feedback is. It is children that close the feedback loop and their work that determines what we do next. In order for this to be successful, we need to check how students are interpreting their feedback: ‘What did you understand from what I just said? How will you use this feedback in your next learning steps?’ Building in metacognitive reflection points is a helpful way of encouraging students to record this – not for written evidence but for them to consolidate their learning more firmly.

In this way feedback truly becomes the previously elusive ‘dialogue’ – a continuous cycle of finding out and subsequent feedback. Student voice becomes a natural part of both teaching in the classroom and in the monitoring of learning – with the focus on the learner and not on the teacher. 

The teacher should bear in mind that their planning and verbal feedback should consistently be aiming to enable the children to answer the question:

  1. Where am I going?
  2. How am I going?
  3. Where to next? How can I improve?

In the classroom this looks like:

  • Utilising prior learning – addressing misconceptions and identifying excellence
  • Clarifying learning intentions and criteria for success – co creating success criteria
  • Planning for effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning
  • Providing verbal feedback that moves learners forwards – clarify interpretations of this feedback
  • Activating students as teaching and learning resources for each other – self and peer assessment and coaching
  • Activating students as owners of their own learning – metacognitive reflection activities

This is a huge topic but I would encourage you to begin implementing this in the classroom by putting the students at the centre of your concept of feedback  – putting as much onus on planning for opportunities to receive feedback from students as give it and adapting your planning in response to this feedback, both in the lesson and in the next lesson.

Sarah Eggleton is Assistant Headteacher and Head of English at Stretford High School.