The Holy Grail of Marking

Back in 2014 I wrote a piece on why I felt marking was of little value. I believed that the amount of time spent on marking was disproportionate to the impact it gave. I believe this now more than ever, as:

  • If the child can’t read the comment, it’s a waste of time
  • If the child can read the comment, but doesn’t understand what it means, it’s a waste of time
  • If the child understands what it means but has no clue about how to improve, it’s a waste of time
  • If the child understands how to improve but isn’t given time to do so, it’s a waste of time
  • It the child is given time to improve, but is focused on the context of the marked piece of work rather than the knowledge, skills or understanding they were learning, it’s a waste of time

The problem at the time was I couldn’t see a way forwards that didn’t involve lots of comments aimed at individuals. I saw the potential in the use of technology to aid in the quality of the comment, which I wrote about here and here but everything still had to be in a space that was as much about plate spinning for Ofsted, our SLT (which I was a part of) and even parents as much as the children.

There are some schools that ‘triple mark’ with multiple colours, writing copious amounts in each and every book and giving children time to act on feedback on the marked work. This might impact on learning. It might impact highly. But at what cost? This cost:

Marking like this is like trying to squash water. Over and over again.

With marking taking so much teacher time up, it leaves little very little energy to plan, teach and do all the other things that inevitably impact on the wellbeing of staff.

I mention wellbeing here. And of course, there has to be a balance and with this type of marking, that balance is very work heavy. But that isn’t really the point of this post and it wasn’t really the point of this either.

The point of this post is to illustrate a way I believe that we can significantly reduce the workload of marking whilst simultaneously raising the impact on learning. That leaves teachers more time to do other elements of their job. Better (For me, that means spending more time on their own professional development) .

The holy grail of marking. Time + Effort < Impact.

I can’t remember exactly what I read first, but it definitely included this by Clare Sealy, this by Joe Kirby, this by Jo Facer. All three paint a liberating, alternative and dare I say exciting approach to marking.

I then read this and this from There was nothing here that contradicted the type of approaches in the blogs above.

Then I read this and this by The Education Endowment Foundation.

And most importantly (in terms of getting the green light to disrupt the status quo) this, this and this by Ofsted. Even the Ofsted Handbook.

I have left out one hugely influential figure I have taken notice of throughout making sense of all this, Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director, who you must follow on Twitter.

During the last few months I am ashamed to say I have only just started reading Dylan Wiliam’s books on Formative Assessment. I’d read Shirley Clarke’s Enriching Feedback ‘back in the day’ but that was at a time where our school were trying to incorporate a tick list of Assessment for Learning techniques such as Learning Objectives, Success Criteria and Wait Time. As Dylan Wiliam explains, our staff (me included) didn’t really have the ‘why’ we were doing these things, so the quality and impact of them was never going to be what it should have been.

So I read:

  • Embedding Formative Assessment (Dylan Wiliam)
  • Embedded Formative Assessment (Dylan Wiliam)
  • Leadership for Teacher Learning (Dylan Wiliam)
  • Outstanding Formative Assessment (Shirley Clarke)
  • Making Good Progress (Daisy Christodoulou)

Why am I telling you all this? Because all of the above books, videos, resources and blogs have culminated in the approach we are now taking with marking. Indeed, the approach we are taking with formative assessment.

I already knew that marking was just a way of saying ‘written feedback on work in books’ but Dylan Wiliam’s model of formative assessment makes it very clear where marking fits. It is just one possible technique in providing feedback that moves learners forward:

It’s important to point out that Dylan Wiliam at no point suggests there should be no marking or even less marking. Just smarter marking. But if we see marking as just one possible technique, then it is down to us as a school and individual teachers to decide if ‘marking’ is the most impactful technique (Time + Effort < Impact) to use in providing feedback that moves learners forwards.

And in its current form it usually isn’t. So from now on let’s talk about feedback, not marking.

Before going any further it’s important to define what we want the primary purpose of feedback to be: To improve the work of pupils on tasks they have not yet attempted (their future learning). Formative assessment holds critical value in achieving this. Pretty straightforward concept. But how can that be achieved? First and foremost, children must be given time to act on feedback. It just doesn’t need to be comment based feedback written in books.

None of this is rocket science but it is so far removed from what typically happens in many many schools at the moment (children do work > work is marked > children get work back > ignore comments, comments aren’t useful or aren’t acted upon > Repeat). So what if we removed the requirement for teachers to give comment based marking in books? What if we said ‘give feedback the most appropraite way for children to move on in their learning, and give them that opportunity to act on the feedback’.

This completely alters the dynamic.

Teachers can then focus on the formative assessments they make during the lesson together with any work produced that is examined after the lesson. Feedback on these culminating elements can then be given:

  • Orally as whole class feedback at the start of the next lesson (if the majority of pupils have similar feedback, which they quite often do)
  • As a short, focused ‘keep up’ session for struggling children before the next lesson (e.g. during an assembly time)
  • In multiple ways, when there is a wide range of feedback required to be given. There will still be a key element of feedback that will hold value for the vast majority of children (e.g. deepening understanding for some) and so can still be given as a whole class. Whilst children are given 5–10 minutes to act on that feedback, you, a teaching assistant or a peer could be supporting the children who required different feedback, either in groups or individually. It might be that in this situation, a few higher achieving children are given comments in their books as they tend to be able to be more ‘activated as owners of their own learning’ and as such are able to move on with less scaffolding from the teacher. Indeed this would be the opportunity to use technology and direct certain children to an video resource guiding certain children through with greater scaffolding

The combinations are pretty limitless but the focus remains constant. Give feedback that is meaningful, manageable and motivating, impacting highest on learning with the least amount of time and effort needed.

All the above is only looking at feedback after a lesson has been finished. But really, feedback at its best is given during the lesson, so children have time to act on that feedback and impact on their learning whilst they are still in that lesson. Again, this comes in many forms but will predominantly be either peers in pairs or groups, one-to-one or group teacher support, or whole class ‘pit stops’. Again, none of this is rocket science or new but to labour the point a bit more, it would be rediculous to expect written marking when undertaking this kind of ‘in the moment’ feedback. So why would we suddenly switch after a lesson to thinking it would be the most effective technique?

We need to allow our teachers to use their professional judgement on the frequency, depth and details of feedback to give.

Yes teachers will need training to help them continually learn and make better and better choices about giving feedback. I can think of no other area more likely to support this than developing teacher’s formative assessment. By being exposed to Dylan Wiliam’s model and grounding teachers in the why, they will make more informed choices. Choices that can have potentially greater impact on learning. We are setting up a Teacher Learning Community and using Dylan Wiliam’s Embedding Formative Assessment whole school resource to do so. Interestingly, shortly before writing this post, I came across this.

We will be giving teachers choice, flexibility, collaborative and peer support whilst still being under a focused framework intent on improving the quality of formative assessment and with it, the quality of feedback provided to move children’s learning forward.

Teachers also need a framework to aid them in making those choices that will affect their next lesson and children’s potential learning. So we are going to use a ‘Teaching Journal’ as the vehicle to do this. In essence this is a very simple diary style A4 notebook that will act as ‘marking’ for the teacher to help them decide what do in the next lesson.

Every English and Maths lesson, each teacher will complete a journal entry. They are writing for themselves to help them look at the children’s learning cumulatively and make those informed choices about what to do next and how to best give feedback.

Here is an example of an English journal entry:

And one for Maths:

Rather than writing randomly, we have given teachers a structure to follow in each entry of their journal. This has been carefully thought through but can always be adapted over time as we respond to what has worked and what we can do better. For English, the structure is:

For Maths:

It is very important to mention here that not all days will have all elements entered. For example, in English, there may be nobody who needs additional action. There may be no one who is ‘below’ (translated as ‘this learning was too challenging for them and they need a step or two before they can do this’). In other words, it is down to the teacher to decide, the structure just gives us more focus than teachers randomly deciding on what to note down. It is all focused on acting on feedback and impacting on learning.

For lessons outside our English and Maths lessons, we will trust our staff to go through the same process in their head (or write it down somewhere if they wish). Teachers can also add to their English entry for that day with things that are relevant from other lessons (e.g. a couple of spellings or ‘more work needed on subordinate clauses’ noted from a newspaper report written in History).

Yes, the journal will be taken in to look at by the SLT, alongside children’s books. We can check our policy is being followed, yes, but the real use of taking it in is so we can see what impact the feedback is having. This will involve looking at the next day’s learning and seeing if the same mistakes are made over and over again, or as you would hope, the same mistakes are eradicated (we all know it takes more than a day or two for a child to consistently put a full stop and capital letter at the end of a sentence so it may be slowly or quickly eradicated depending on the learning undertaken).

The journal hugely cuts down on the ‘marking’ workload.

However, that doesn’t mean there is nothing in books. We need to scaffold learning for children and that is especially true when children make mistakes. We can do this by giving children guidance in their learning. Regarding feedback, this can often take place in and on the work they are getting feedback on (ie making ‘marks’ in their books). Right at the start of this post I said “If the child understands what [their feedback] means but has no clue about how to improve, it’s a waste of time”. Alongside being modelled and guided by the teacher or their peer, that’s where scaffolding comes in. Indeed over modelling or scaffolding can limit learning as it takes away the thinking the learner has to do, and that is what drives their learning forward. This next section is taken directly from our current (new) Assessment Policy (yes one policy to rule them all — formative assessment, summative assessment and marking):

Scaffolding feedback in English exercise books

  • Teachers may leave work completely ‘unmarked’ to give pupils the opportunity to proof read, edit or move on without scaffolding
  • Teachers may leave a code letter/symbol in the margin of a line indicating a slip or error. This scaffolding helps pupils with identification in proof reading/editing whilst leaving the pupil to work out the position of the slip or error
  • Teachers may underline words/phrases in writing where there is a slip or error. This scaffolding helps pupils with the position of the slip or error whilst leaving the pupil to focus on identification
  • Teachers may code and underline where required to further scaffold for less able pupils

Scaffolding feedback in Maths exercise books

  • Teachers may cross/tick/dot in books which scaffolds where the pupil has made slips (dot) or errors (cross). It is for the pupils to then go and attempt to fix these, where deemed impactful by the teacher. This may be in green pen in their books or together as a class on mini whiteboards or form the basis of the next lesson
  • Teachers may choose not to cross/tick/dot in books, instead they write how many incorrect calculations there are at the top of the work in a circle. It is important that pupils understand this is not a ‘grade’. This creates some scaffolding whilst giving the pupil the responsibility to find, identify and eliminate slips/errors
  • Teachers may choose to do neither of the above when they have identified through their formative assessments/examination of exercise books what the next steps are and have written this in their Teaching Journal ready to feedback to the pupil

Scaffolding feedback in other exercise books

  • It is the norm that teachers will leave work visibly ‘unmarked’ in exercise books. They will, however, feedback to pupils to impact on future learning. This will usually take place at the start of the next lesson, where the next lesson is not the next steps (which is often the case in other subjects)
  • Using their professional judgement, teachers may sometimes choose to use the same scaffolding techniques, as described for English above, when pupils have undertaken a substantial writing task (e.g. Writing a diary entry about ‘life as an Egyptian’)

At the risk of coming to an abrupt end, that’s basically the outline of the approach we are taking to marking. We will focus on giving children feedback that has the potential to significantly impact on their learning. We will scaffold the feedback, where appropriate, to support children. We will ensure that feedback is always meaningful, manageable and motivating.

We are at the start of our journey with our approach but if feels like a burdensome weight has been lifted and replaced with a focus on learning. As Dylan Wiliam’s says, “stop doing things that make little difference, to give you more time to do things that do”.

And I believe we are pretty close to finding that Holy Grail of Marking.

If you would like to see our new Assessment Policy in full, it is available here.