Sunday, 30 March 2014

In pursuit of the holy grail: the ten commandments of frequent, high quality marking

1. Thou shalt know your audience
What the gloriously word-packed A3 APP epics did for us English lot was remind us that we are pedagogical professionals who can cope with the wordy and wieldy if it helps with the slippery task of assessing a child's reading, writing, speaking, or listening. Children can't.

It is this that has lead many schools to a solution that - in my mind - suits neither audience: an over-simplified list of criteria for teachers; three* intimidating lists of hurdles for students.

What is needed is to separate the two audiences. Be clear when you are recording your diagnoses for yourself and the teachers who will see the child on the next leg of their academic journey. Be clear when you are writing feedback for that child in order to help them make progress.

A pertinent example of this distinction is the annotation of controlled assessment tasks. Students must receive bag-loads of formative feedback but, come the final CA task, the audience for the marking of the final piece is distinctly the examiner. This is necessary both in terms of systematically deciding on a final mark, but also to communicate the thought processes that have reached this decision to successive moderators. 

*reading, writing, speaking and listening

2 Thou shalt give praise
It doesn't matter how you praise students in your marking, so long as you do it  - and tell them why you're chuffed to bits with them. Depending on my state of mind/the time of night/just how frustrating it has been to crack this particular skill with this particular student, my marking will include:
  • Attitude to learning/effort grades
  • Smiley faces
  • Stickers of various persuasions (green 'on target' dots, our in-house PLTS-style stickers...)
  • Superlatives and a hefty dose of hyperbole (my green pen's even been known to utter a 'WOW!')
Never would I want to homogenise that reaction through a repressive whole school policy; a teacher should be free to choose their own vehicle to communicate their joy at seeing a student make progress.

3. Thou shalt diagnose like a doctor...
...and then prioritise like a professional. Check out that alliteration, kids.

Good marking takes so long because it involves thinking. What is this student doing well? What do they need to do better? What is THE most important one or two things that are going to have the greatest impact to their success in English? 

Got them? Good. That's what you need to communicate in your feedback.

4. Thou shalt not rely on students to set their own targets
Which is not to say that both self and peer assessment don't have their place. But there is an outer limit to the ZPD (see I did learn something on my PGCE) which means that students will reach a point where they simply don't know how to get better.  Even if they think they do. And unless their buddy is operating at a level which is usually attained through degree and post-graduate training, it's unlikely they're going to be able to help them either. Fundamentally, it needs a professional - see number 3.

5. Thou shalt word all targets as questions
It's a simple idea that was introduced to me by an outstanding (not the Ofsted version of this word, just simply bloody brilliant) teacher at my first school. The theory goes that asking a question demands a response. Like much good practice in the teaching profession, there's no empirical evidence to support whether this makes even the slightest bit of difference to whether a response occurs, but it's the intention that to me makes this so wonderful.

With zero additional effort, you're establishing that marking is fundamentally a dialogue. If nothing else then it reminds me to respect commandment number 6.

Note: I love the idea of marking work using only a highlighter for this reason. Like an irritating younger sibling it shouts out: "Here! Look over here! What did you forget? You can't leave me here like this!"

6. Thou shalt give students time to respond
It doesn't need to be given a shiny acronym like DIRT, although reading about it on Twitter has given me the kick up the backside I needed to make it a formalised and regular part of my teaching, but time does need to be set aside for students to read, digest and respond to your marking. 

7. Thou shalt use peer and self-assessment
So, if highlighters are the nagging younger brother of marking, peer and self-assessment must be the nit-picking auntie. "Little Jimmy have you forgot that target? Have you? Go back, look at it. Try again." By this I mean that here is the perfect mechanism for ensuring response to marking is not a quick ten minute job at the start of the lesson, but is regular, focussed and ensures students are accountable for their own progress.

In practice, the way this works in my classroom is that we tend to use peer and self assessment with the same criteria for the whole class - with individual targets adding personalisation and a link to the 'bigger picture' of an individual student's progress across time. For example, if we're looking at 'writing to argue' we may have learning outcomes related to the use of persuasive techniques, but a child's individual target might include being able to use capital letters accurately. That, for them, needs to be an eternal learning outcome: until it's met. Therefore...

8. Thou shalt not set additional targets until the last set have been met
In my role, I'm pleased to say, I often have the pleasure of seeing high quality, diagnostic feedback through work scrutiny. Two pages later and the same teacher has again given praise and sharply identified areas for improvement. Another page and again their green light shines like a beacon giving a further target...

Picture the scene: you're a Year 11 student suffering all the anxieties and burdens of a life in our Goveian exam system. Your English exercise books is returned. You read your teachers comments, sucking in the praise like a hoover. You read the target. You turn the page: another target.  And another one. This helps no one.

Two targets for reading at a time. Two for writing. One for speaking and listening. Do this and you stand a chance of them actually being met.

9. Thou shalt keep it simple, stupid.
I'm going to stick my neck out (contravening my own whole school policy) and say I'm not a fan of WWW/EBI. Similarly, you won't find me waving a flag for targets that require any sort of key. And I'm no cheerleader for marking codes. Anything that puts another layer or process between students receiving your feedback, understanding it and acting on it won't get my vote. Particularly as the students who are most likely to need the feedback are the very ones who can't or won't spend the time working out what the hell it is you're trying to communicate to them through your Latinate symbol.

I like to communicate feedback with good, old-fashioned words. And the fewer the better.

10. Thou shalt use shortcuts if they have a greater impact
Like many, I am currently counting down the days until Year 11 leave with all the fear of a mother hen watching her chick emerge from its egg-shelled cocoon for the first time. Two days before their final mock examination I was faced with a set of 32 responses to that pesky question 4 which there was no hope in hell of marking in time to give them feedback. Then a student said, "Miss, can you just check if mine is OK?" and the fog lifted. In this context, that was all this called needed to know. Have I got it? Is it alright? So, within ten minutes, I had two piles: OK  and not OK. Ten more minutes and I had 5 personalised notes written to the 'not OKs' explaining that they'd benefit from lunch/after school revision and giving them a quick one-liner of what they needed to work on. All of them turned up. All received feedback. And, I hope, as a result all did better than they might've in that mock exam. It's a quick trick I'll be using again.

Of course another 'shortcut' that I must name check here is verbal feedback. I won't be goaded into buying a rubber stamp with the moniker 'verbal feedback given' by the Ofsted-police. For me it's simply enough to know it happens. Every lesson. Every day. And if you talk to any of my students they'll fill you in.


  1. Some really useful stuff here. Thanks for the post. It made me think/re-evaluate.

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