From marking to feedback

Author: Andy Sammons
Published: 05/08/2019

MarkingDespite teacher training courses up and down the country churning out copies of Black and Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box (2006), the word ‘marking’ continues to persist in schools.

Far brighter and more experienced colleagues than myself have pontificated as to what ‘progress’ can truly be measured. I don’t intend to pick this apart in any great depth, but there is a rather large (and expensive) misnomer that we need to unpick. And the distinction between formative and summative assessment is the place to start.

Formative and summative assessment

Although formative is basically anything that contributes to learning, summative should give an indication as to the level that the students have achieved. Reflecting on formative assessment for a moment opens up any number of possibilities, which will help to inform you about what’s happening with your students' learning. 

For me, ‘marking’ carries with it rather negative connotations. It makes me think of exhausted, tired teachers slouched over piles of books for hours on end. It’s also suggestive of a very one-way process. Black and Wiliam called it something along the lines of the most expensive public relations exercise in history. Not only that, but it fails to capture the incredible array of tools at a teacher’s disposal to inform us about the learning in our classrooms.

There are plenty of sound reasons why we should be shifting our mindset towards feedback rather than marking: the onus should be placed on the learner to drive their own learning (let’s face it, a sea of red can be intimidating), and – actually – the onus should be on us as teachers to reflect on emerging patterns in our students’ work. I do worry about the obsession with books, by the way, because they’re just one indicator of how a class is progressing, and the way we give our feedback should reflect that.

Let’s reflect back on the summative versus formative distinction for a moment. The key shift to make in our minds is that we can feed back only in a sea of red pen; this is timely, costly, and by no means a guarantee of success. Yes, there are times when a lengthier comment is helpful and constructive. However, I’d argue that those comments are often best saved for summative pieces of work to give the students a summary of your thoughts.

In education, part of the wider discussion is now shifting to teacher wellbeing (and thank goodness we’re beginning to see the death of the ‘hero teacher’ working 25 hour days). There’s far more integrity and bravery to making the right decisions for your students, and feeling confident in your ability to continually fine tune what feedback they require.

So this really is one of those areas of life where less actually is more, and where the (well-chosen) less stressful options are actually far more likely to lead to better outcomes. I hope the suggestion below will give you a useful starting place to begin to reflect on what this might look like in your classroom.

Four ways to turn your marking into feedback

1. Whole class feedback sheets are an exceptional idea – they are genuinely game-changing. Effectively, you do not need to write much in the books, but as you read the students’ books, you make a note of work which is perhaps unfinished or praise-worthy, common misconceptions (things we may have mis-taught or not considered the students might do when they put pen to paper…), or literacy errors, for example. You can then put your time into designing feed forward tasks. Students can also play a much larger role in recognising their areas for development, and you’ll have a note to prod them if the need arises.

2. Turn comments into specific, answerable questions. Rather than simply commenting on work like some kind of stream of consciousness, try to extend the students’ thought processes by asking a question using a stem such as ‘How would this be different if…?’

3. Use vocabulary to sharpen expression. At the bottom of a piece of work, try to get students into the routine of extending their answers by simply writing two or three key words at the bottom. Students then have 5-10 minutes to extend their work and include the vocabulary that you have specified.

4. Code marking. This was another game-changer for me. As you mark, make a note of the areas for development in the students’ work and write no more than a number (starting with 1) at the relevant place of the students’ work. Make a note of the area for development on a separate sheet, so you might have ‘1’ in a student’s book, and on a separate sheet a note such as ‘1. Not explaining a point with enough clarity.’ Add numbers and areas as you move through all the students’ work, and then you can spend your time designing follow-up tasks to promote progress.

Andy Sammons

Andy Sammons (@andy_samm) is author of 'The Compassionate Teacher', and Head of Department in a large secondary school.