Making Marking Meaningful Pt I

So, you teach English. It’s 7pm. The planning is done. However, in front of you sits a pile of 32 Y10 books, each with an essay on Romeo and Juliet, and a bottle of wine. Question: which should you open first? How can you ensure that you are ‘marking regularly’ in a way that means you can have a healthy work-life balance and that the marking makes an impact on pupils’ learning? Teachers across the country face the same pressure with regards to marking and workload and, in response, there are some very thought-provoking blogs and resources created by teachers designed to make marking both more manageable and more effective. You may not agree with all they say, but they’ll make you think about your practice.

One blog that you should certainly read, offering a very particular view on marking and feedback, is by David Didau, ‘The Learning Spy’ (www.learningspy.co.uk). In his blog on ‘What should written feedback look like?’ he argues that, “written feedback should result in more work for students than it does for teachers” and goes on to say that, “of course schools should strive for the best possible outcomes for their students, but not at the cost of staff well-being.” Didau also points out that feedback should always have a, “meaningful impact on learning”, by providing prompts or questions that push pupils to think and “work for the answer”. He goes further than those, such as Dylan Wiliam, who argue that grades get in the way of instructional feedback, by suggesting that praise can also get in the way (see example on this in his blog): “If you’ve written feedback, don’t undermine yourself by slapping on a grade. If you really want to tell a student what went well, don’t then waste time how to make it even better. Praise this work and give feedback for improvement on that.” In essence, Didau is concerned with trying to make marking both more effective and more efficient at the same time. So, how can this be achieved? What happens when it goes wrong?

Take a typical “Two Stars and a Bl***y Wish” example (see Didau’s examples of written feedback in the above blog). Didau, like John Hattie (in ‘Visible Learning’) questions whether is it useful to point out to pupils that they have met the basic expectations, or whether the pupils will actually feel motivated by such praise. Importantly, he points out that it has a huge cost in terms of teacher time to do this for 25-30 books and is possibly time wasted when the focus on what to improve would be more helpful. In one example, it is the code and comment labelled A (for ‘action’) that is useful because, worded as a question, it stimulates thinking. The pupil has had time, or has made the time, to find the answer and respond. The trail use of green pens for pupil response at CVC may have been helpful in making it obvious that this kind of dialogue is taking place (especially to an inspector rushing through books making rushed judgments), but it is the kind of prompt, hint or clue given by the teacher, phrased as a question, an incomplete sentence or suggestion that will help make sure that what is written by the pupil in response has an impact on learning. If you read Didau’s blog, you’ll clearly see that he is not saying that it is always pointless to point out what pupils have done well and that you’re impressed. Often this praise is actually more powerful when said to pupils as you hand back work, or as a passing comment in the corridor. What Didau is arguing, however, is that where teacher time and effort is demanded, it is best spent focusing on feedback which, “enhances or improves students’ understanding”.

In both the blogs mentioned above, Didau sets out two questions to consider in reviewing marking policy and practice, which have been used for discussion in faculty meetings at CVC when devising marking policy and looking over marked work as a team:

  • How will I know if this marking will have an impact on students’ learning?
  • How could I have achieved this aim more efficiently?

Below are some examples from blogs and from existing practice here at CVC that have helped to make marking more effective and more efficient. Thinking about the above questions and whether such techniques could be helpful to you and your team will help to improve marking practice and, hopefully, reduce the workload. The Teacher Learning Community group on marking and feedback helped to devise this summary based on the excellent practice around the country:

  1. Dish the DIRT: In his excellent book, ‘The Secret of Literacy’ (Independent Thinking Press, 2014), Didau (yes, again!) explains how he dedicates a specifically planned part of the lesson to Directed Improvement and Reflection Time, in which pupils act on feedback, ensuring that it makes an impact. Since you will have written feedback for each individual, this is likely to be the best form of differentiation in the lesson, Didau argues. However, make sure they are responding by thinking hard and improving the work and not simply rewriting your targets/suggestions/ questions in their own words.
  2. Pupil Proofreading: don’t mark pupils’ work for every SPaG error that exists. Instead, make the pupils do that first by requiring them to proofread the work according a given set of criteria (perhaps beginning with the literacy marking scheme but extended to, for example, some key subject words). Okay, so they won’t spot them all but, by using a checklist before handing in each assessment piece, they should learn the rules more deeply and it will save you time on so many corrections.
  3. Code-breaking: Rather than end up writing similar comments on each piece of work for common errors, use codes assigned to particular targets/comments (phrased as questions, unfinished sentences or as instructions). The code (a letter or number), rather than a whole comment, can be written in the margin where the improvement is needed. For example, A=How did this cause…; B=Can you give another example of… In the following lesson the DIRT time is used to share the meaning of the codes, which pupils have to first write out (or a typed list is given to them) before they then respond to the ‘comments’. This saves time in writing the same feedback, it gives more work for the pupils to do and helps pupils to improve their work in very precise ways.
  4. Highlighters: get the pupils to use a highlighter to show you where they most need your help and feedback and focus your marking only on those highlighted areas. Alternatively, use the highlighter to do the marking by using it to indicate, to the pupil, an area that needs improving. In the following lesson build in an activity to help pupils to understand why an area has been highlighted but which makes them to think hard. This might take the form a list of common errors where pupils have to work out which one is an issue for their work, before going on to improve the work. In this sense, marking becomes lesson planning. Two birds. One stone.
  5. Oral feedback: do we really need to write everything down? If marking is a ‘dialogue’, then surely a conversation is both effective and efficient. However, will the inspector know this has happened? I know some use feedback given’ stamps and pupils have to write down the comment. This saves time, but make sure it has an impact on learning whereby pupils have to respond in a meaningful way (thinking hard, improving work).
  6. Moodle and Flubaroo: you can quite easily set up, as some faculties at CVC already have, quizzes, test, multiple choice Qs, cloze passages using online systems such as Moodle (which powers the school website) or Flubaroo to put together self-marking and automatically-reporting tests for your pupils. These tools can be set up in a number of ways allowing you to restrict the number of attempts at each question, offer hints, give immediate feedback and to grade pupils’ work in a variety of different ways. Clearly this saves lots of time for marking, gives quick feedback and helps pupils to know which bits of knowledge they need to go away and learn again.

Summary for improving the efficiency and effectiveness of marking: ask question don’t describe (in comments), keep it brief, find useful shortcuts, focus your marking rather than mark everything, build feedback response into lessons as planning,  give pupils time to answer the questions and complete new tasks, separate different types of feedback, challenge pupils to think harder.

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