I’ve been thinking about writing something on marking and verbal feedback for a while but put it off because so many people have covered it well already. Joe Kirby (Joe_Kirby), Jo Facer (@Jo_Facer), Katie Ashford (@Katie_S_Ashford), Jonathan Porter (@JHC_Porter) and Toby French (Mr_Histoire) are just a few of those doing great work on it and most of what I’ve done has been based on what I’ve learned from them. Additionally, after deciding to write this I saw that Mr Thornton (@MrThorntonTeach) has made a marking crib sheet that looks similar to what we’re using but is prettier, so anyone looking for a way to apply a formalised verbal feedback policy should take a look at the impressive resources he’s producing.
All that said I’ve decided to go ahead anyway, mostly because some samples of student work I shared on Twitter got some interest and had a few teachers asking how we structure it all.
I’m not going to spend long explaining why I think whole class verbal feedback is a better idea than in depth, individualised marking as this has already been done well. But, briefly, I am in agreement with Joe Kirby who thinks that long hours spent marking all a child’s work is often pointless and that the time saved by not doing it is better spent on other things.
In this post I’d like to describe how we’re structuring our verbal feedback policy and explain why we’ve decided that it is actually more effective than traditional marking.
Structuring Verbal Feedback
We begin by reading all the work students produce in lessons. Not marking exercise books doesn’t mean we have stopped assessing work. While reading, teachers fill in a feedback sheet for the class as a whole. The idea is to note down common strengths and areas for development.
Students who don’t fit the overall pattern are noted down in an ‘outliers’ box. This could be either because the child has grasped everything and needs extension work, or because one child doesn’t understand what the rest of the group has and needs some sort of personalised help. If a student regularly appears in this box we will usually consider set changes.
This form is designed to inform planning of feedback for the teacher and we encourage the use of personal codes and notes. As long as the form helps the teacher work out what’s going well and what isn’t, it is doing its job regardless of whether or not anyone else would understand it.
After reading all the work produced by the class (I’ve found this typically takes about twenty minutes) teachers then use a PowerPoint template to organise how feedback will be given to the class. The template allows teachers to give direct instruction and set meaningful tasks that help students improve.
In the feedback sessions teachers take students through the PowerPoint. They may give individual tasks to students identified as ‘outliers’, or they may set extra reading or schedule a personalised intervention. These feedback sessions finish with the teacher sharing the work of those who did particularly well and, once the ability of the group has been accurately assessed, naming and shaming those who produced poor work, if it was down to a lack of effort. The whole session typically takes about twenty to thirty minutes.
Quality Assuring Verbal Feedback
Our new policy has changed the way in which we do quality assurance. It is now no longer possible (if it ever really was) to look at a teacher’s marking in isolation of their teaching and work out whether or not it is leading to better learning. Instead, department heads make appointments with those they line manage. In these meetings the department head reads the work produced by students and then asks the teacher to go through their feedback sheets, to check there is agreement on the findings. They will also look at the feedback session PowerPoint slides to confirm that the tasks set are effective. The tone of these meetings is collegiate; staff are encouraged to discuss their teaching and the primary purpose is to find ways in which speed of learning can be accelerated.
We haven’t abandoned marking altogether. Instead we have reduced the volume and increased the quality. Now, we mark the six formal assessments students complete each year. These pieces of work are high profile with students told well in advance of how important they are. They assess learning over time (which I’ve written about here: http://bennewmark.edublogs.org/2016/07/14/measuring-getting-better-at-history/) and are marked in depth. Students get both verbal and detailed written feedback on these. This does result in heavy workloads for short periods, especially as these assessments typically take place at the same time, but we feel this is acceptable given the significant overall reduction.
Early results have been, without exaggeration, dramatic. When we began I expected the change to have a neutral affect and that benefits would be derived from using the time we saved more efficiently. In reality we are finding that doing verbal rather than written feedback is resulting in better teaching and learning in itself. Teachers have a more nuanced understanding of their classes and are planning more thoughtfully. Students prefer the new method and the quality of the work they are producing has demonstrably improved. Rather than describe more of this I’ll be tweeting examples of their work over this week and next, in addition to the before and after pictures I’ve put at the top of this blog.
Why has it worked so well?
Teachers give better feedback when they aren’t thinking about marking
Something unfortunate often happens when teachers, myself included, pick up green pens and open exercise books. Our brains switch off and instead of looking for patterns of understanding, we look for opportunities to quickly get ink onto paper. This means that, while errors will be identified, these are rarely those that are really the highest priority. Marking like this makes it very difficult to find anything meaningful in a classes learning, which makes feedback sporadic and patchy. Inevitably, because marking this way is so onerous, the quality of feedback often depends more on the teacher’s energy and motivation levels than it does on the class’s needs. I am sure, at least subconsciously, lots of us know this, which is why many of us dread marking.
It’s more regular
Moving away from written marking is allowing our teachers to provide feedback much more regularly. This means that students better remember the work they have been assessed on and are so better able to understand what needs to be done to improve.
The increased regularity of feedback has also resulted in better planning and teaching. Teachers are now able to quickly see where misunderstandings occurred and can respond immediately. This has accelerated learning and created more purposeful classroom environments.
Students are held more firmly to account.
Imagine receiving a one or two line email every two weeks about your performance at work and that there is never any meaningful consequence for getting a poor comment, or a meaningful reward if your work was good. How long before you stopped caring? The answer will be different for everyone and I know some of us would continue working just as hard regardless. But others wouldn’t. I feel this is exactly what our children were doing under our old marking policy. Of course, we know that we should follow up with those who aren’t really trying but massive workloads, often due to such extensive marking, made this unrealistic in all but the most extreme cases.
Under our new system feedback is rapid and direct. If a student fails to perform then it is picked up immediately and the child is told firmly that immediate improvement is expected. This certainly accounts for the marked improvement in my first example; the student simply didn’t know how much importance I placed on handwriting and general presentation and when he was made aware, he upped his game.
Feedback is clearer when it’s verbal and not written down.
Good PE lessons illustrate this well. A coach shouting feedback to a footballer who’s favouring a foot, or a tennis player running around their backhand can be immediately effective because it is given in the context of the activity. Writing this feedback down and then giving it to the player two weeks later would make it very difficult for them to access, especially if their coach could only write a sentence or two as they had to provide the same feedback to a hundred other players.
Explaining to a class what needs to be done to improve is almost always clearer than writing it down especially if it happens soon after the activity concerned. Verbal feedback is also far more efficient as, in all likelihood, mistakes made by one student are likely to be shared by others in the group. It is nonsensical to write the same comment dozens of time when it could be dealt with once clearly.
Students can get immediate help with content they don’t understand.
This only occurred to me last week. While doing a lesson observation I asked a diligent girl which system she preferred, the old written one or the verbal method we are now using. “This one.” She said straight away. “Because now if you didn’t really understand the last lesson you can just put your hand up and say so. Before you never got a chance to do that; if you didn’t understand something that was that.”
And that’s that.
Almost. The final benefit, possibly the one I’m most excited about, are the near endless possibilities of what we can do with the saved time. So far we’ve managed to completely rethink and re-plan our assessment system and we’re starting a fun, rigorous Classics Club after school. For the first time in my career I don’t feel like my stack of marking could crush me at any moment. I don’t feel guilty about not marking everything because I know the students in my classes are improving faster than when I was. My only worry, and it’s a real one, is that one day I’ll be forced to go back to my old method. That’d make me feel more guilty than not marking enough ever did, because I’m now certain that there is a better way.
Hornets and Butterflies: https://pragmaticreform.wordpress.com/2015/06/06/hornets-and-butterflies-how-to-reduce-workload/ By @Joe_Kirby
Giving Feedback the Michela Way https://readingallthebooks.com/2016/03/19/giving-feedback-the-michaela-way/ By @Jo_Facer
Whole Class Marking https://mrhistoire.com/2016/05/18/whole-class-marking/ By @MrHistoire