Written subject marking: Whole class feedback, or a whole load of rubbish?

In her first foray into the world of blogging Megan Johns, a humanities teacher, gives us a great insight into how she has made whole class feedback work for her in GCSE History.

Marking. The ghoul that haunts the evenings, weekends, and holidays of teachers in every corner of the country. From all the surveys, studies and bodies of work dedicated to scaling teacher job enjoyment, I strongly suspect that marking would come last every single time.

It’s boring. It’s monotonous. It can also be completely and utterly pointless.

The reason why most hate marking is because of the latter. If a task has no point and does not enrich the learning of the children in front of us, the task loses meaning, and teachers no longer see the worth.

However, unfortunately, for many subjects there simply is no replacement for sitting down and looking at what the students have written. This is why so many schools have now tentatively stepped away from “tick and flick” traditional marking and have moved towards Feedback (or the jazzier “Feed-forward”).

As everything in teaching, when done well, it has a powerful impact on staff morale and student outcome. But when it is done badly… well you know the rest.

The trouble with delivering feedback is that it is very easy to do poorly (again, as are most things in teaching), which brings teachers back full circle to the issue of meaning (or meaningless).

Feedback should be an almost continuous cycle. For written-based subjects, we need to understand whether our students can answer lengthy exam questions. But how do teachers do this is a way that a. Is meaningful, and b. Allows us to have a life away from red pens and exercise books?

Over the past few years, I have experimented with hundreds of different methods of feedback. I have followed many different policies, ranging along the workload spectrum. I have only marked assessments, which fall once every 6 weeks. The issue was, I could not spot structural and skill-based misconceptions until it was too late, and we were moving onto our next topic, making feedback redundant. I have also followed a policy where I marked a full class-set of books for every year group every 5 lessons, with full teacher comments expected. The issue was, I simply could not keep up, and feedback was being delivered so far after the assessment, it once again became redundant.

On my quest for a comfortable work/life balance, I have trialled the good, the bad, and the downright hideous forms of whole class feedback (POV: a room of bottom set Year 7s sat in front of a GCSE Grade 9 double sided essay being told to “do what they did” … what do you mean you don’t understand what to do?)

These are some reflections on what has worked. By worked, I mean allowed both the students and I to keep our sanity, but also, *in a tentative whisper* might have actually taught them something. With the support and guidance of my brilliant HOD, we have experimented with ‘formative assessment cycles’. This follows a ‘read – plan –  teach’ continuum.

An example of a formative assessment cycle:

1. Set extended writing frequently, and set the homework to prepare for it, with clear resources to guide them. Every student should be able to write something, or else what is the point in marking it?

2. Collect in a sample of work. I usually choose my top student in the class, my weakest student in the class, and some from the middle that I am curious about. There is no need to read the full class-set, as after reading 10 books or so you will begin to see the same mistakes and misconceptions flag up again and again. (Tip: Take a note of who you have selected, and ensure you choose different students next time. This ensures the full class will be sampled periodically.)

3. Don’t record scores at this stage. What is the point in collecting this data? Save that for the final summative assessment, from which you will hopefully see the fruits of your formative assessment cycle.

4. As you read, complete a feedback sheet. I use the Positive Teacher Marking and Feedback Record (see below), but you could make your own to be more specific for your subject. I scrawl reflections all over it as I read and use this to design my feedback session. One of my biggest failures at the feedback process was reading the work then assuming “I’d remember what they did wrong” when planning the feedback session a couple of days later. Wrong.

5. As you read, make note of misconceptions, errors, omissions and spelling errors. These will feature in your recall quizzes in future lessons. This is a quick fix. You can then tell students to reflect on their original answer and correct any mistakes they have now learnt as a result of the quiz.

6. Skills-based mistakes are of course more complicated to rectify. One method could be…

  1. Find a student who has a perfect answer (or write one yourself).
  2. Photocopy it and leave it nameless.
  3. Hand it out to students and explain a simplified version of the mark scheme.
  4. Students should pick out where it hits the success criteria, highlighting it as a “we do together activity”. Bonus points if you have a visualiser, this makes the process easy.
  5. Students are then given an answer that lacks something on the criteria.
  6. They repeat the highlighting process, and through Q&A you establish what the answer is missing. You could even get them to hold up what they think is missing on mini-whiteboards for the ultimate whole class response. You then ask students to repeat the process with their own work.

7. The most important part of this cycle is that feedback influences your future teaching. This process is about what you have learnt about your class, and how you incorporate this into your future planning.

The logistics:

The first time I completed this process, it took me roughly an hour to read the work, record the misconceptions and complete the feedback session plan. I am shaving off minutes each time I do it, as I naturally become quicker and more familiar, and can now repeat this process for each of my KS4 classes fortnightly within one PPA.

I will repeat this cycle perhaps twice in each topic, depending on the length of the term. When it comes to the summative End of Topic assessment, I would have read each book, addressed misconceptions and developed their exam skills. I will mark their answers (just writing a score in their book, no comments), and follow the exact same process (complete a feedback sheet, deliver whole class improvement activity).

The root of whole class feedback is that it is completed for the student, and not for leaders to check that learning has taken place. Learning is continuous, and well-done whole class feedback simply does not need any red pen or comments in books. The students’ improved work is the evidence of progress, not your comments or ticks.

Whole class feedback: Do’s and Don’ts

Do’s

  • Modelling is essential in the self-improvement phase. If students knew how to correct their work, they would have done it correctly to begin with.
  • Explicit instruction on what is expected is also paramount. Chunk the activities into short, simple steps that have been modelled first.
  • Prepare for absence: There is nothing worse than having a student who was absent during the assessment sit and stare into space whilst feedback is happening. They are not participating, and therefore, are not learning. Design your self-improvement activities to include students who were not present. This could be giving them a photocopy of another student’s work to improve.
  • Include ‘praise shoutouts’. The best part of feedback is celebrating your students who do well. I make note of the names of students who have completed elements particularly well. I then put up their names on the board and show the section of their work on the visualiser to celebrate their success, and show the rest of the class what excellence looks like. You could then instruct the class to ‘steal’ anything they could put in theirs and add it in their green pen.

Don’ts

  • Spend longer than a lesson on feedback. Short bursts over a few lessons are preferable to this. Improving work is all about maximising effectiveness. Keep it short and to the point. Try to avoid spending longer than 30 minutes on one feedback session.
  • Try to give feedback to multiple extended writing questions in one session. Feedback should be incredibly focused on the most common misconceptions and errors. Similar to coaching teachers, it is difficult to improve too many factors without feeling overwhelmed.
  • Expect students to spot mistakes in their own work, without very clear instruction and modelling. If they didn’t know the first time, why would they know now?
  • Write anything in their books, consistency is key. If you are following a ‘no marking in books’ policy, stick to it. Comments will start creeping back in if you are not careful, and the whole process will become pointless once again. To avoid the temptation, I complete my feedback record sheet in a black pen. This stops me from writing anything in their books.

Further resources:

  1. https://thepositiveteachercompany.co.uk/collections/marking-feedback-and-assessment-record-2020-2021/products/new-marking-and-feedback-tear-off-pad-1
  2. https://adam-robbins.com/2021/11/14/whole-class-feedback-making-the-juice-worth-the-squeeze/

I really enjoyed this glimpse into the most effective way to employ a strategy in a different subject. Thanks Megan!

One thought on “Written subject marking: Whole class feedback, or a whole load of rubbish?

Add yours

  1. THe problem is that students expect marked feedback (maybe their parents too). The suggested tactic: “Don’t write anything in their books” would appear to be a hostage to fortune, particularly with (overworked ?) parents who are not particularly engaged with school but judge homework feedback as crucial

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