Marking for Feedback – The Beginning

Having assumed my current role as Head of Maths, it has been a busy first term, with a fair amount of change being introduced. In this post (which also happens to be my very first one, ever) I will endeavour to reflect on the work that I have done on ‘marking for feedback’. This was one of the very first things that I decided to revamp in the department. Why? Well, for the following reasons:

  • It had been highlighted as an ‘area for improvement’, prior to my arrival.
  • Having reviewed the current policy, it just didn’t feel right (yes, I know what you’re thinking – the power of emotional intelligence. Goleman @DanielGolemanEI would be proud).
  • But most importantly, because according to the Education Endowment Foundation (T&L toolkit) feedback is one of the most effective ways to add impact to student progression.

I must be honest, I didn’t actually formulate a policy as such. This is because I believe that policies should be a reflection of effective practice. Here is something deep that I have heard many times from my esteemed teacher, Professor Awadalla Youssef:

Policies don’t make us, we make the policies.

In order to achieve this I wanted to first get staff on board with something that would actually work for us and would be valuable. So, instead, I set out some ground rules in our very first departmental meeting. These would later be refined, in a more focused CPD session:

  • We were not going to mark more than one piece of student work in a week. (Context: In my school, we operate on a single week timetable and all five year groups have five or six lessons of Maths, every week).
  • The focus of that one piece of marking would be to diagnose misconceptions and to offer specific feedback in addressing these, followed by appropriate question(s) for the student to attempt. In cases where students had shown a sound understanding on the topic, the teacher would provide relevant ‘challenge’ questions to further stretch students’ understanding and application).
  • We could certainly view other pieces of work (that teacher curiosity), for literacy and general understanding, but would not actually mark it. (Context: This was mainly to get away from the ‘tick and flick’ culture, which can be misleading for students. Especially in cases where there may be fundamental errors in student work, but it may have been ticked anyway. What message does that convey?
  • Students were to be given specific time to respond to the feedback. This is a big one. Why waste time marking and writing comments, if the student is merely going to look at them (and in my case, mock my ‘below the standard’ handwriting)?!
  • Homework would be marked by students, using self-assessment or peer marking. We could still mark this as our ‘one a week’, provided it was every four or five weeks apart (Context: This was on the back of introducing a universal homework system, where students would be asked to work through a range of questions. The objective here was to reinforce familiarity with key skills, by constantly revisiting them).

How did my team react to these changes, in the absence of a detailed discussion or sharing of a vision (and bearing in mind that this was my second day on the job, in a new school and with a new team)? A mixed reaction, I guess. Some were ecstatic to hear that we were no longer going to be marking every piece of work. I became their hero. Others were devastated at the prospect of not being allowed to write on every piece of student work. I had probably dropped many levels in their estimation. There were also some genuine concerns about homework not being marked by the teacher (I’m sure you will have your own thoughts on this). How did I manage to justify these changes, which at the time seemed rather extreme? Well, I tried to keep it real:

  • Teacher time is valuable and what we do has to be practical and sustainable.
  • The feedback we offer has to have impact on student progress. Otherwise, what is the point?
  • Students should definitely be working harder than the teacher.

This only allowed me a brief introduction into this new way of marking that we were going to start working towards. My aim had always been to tackle this in more depth in our next departmental meeting, as part of a carefully structured CPD session. So in the next few weeks, all I could do was try to gauge (detect) how well these changes had been received. Yes, there is definitely an upside to being an avid 007 Bond fan. I certainly did manage to hear (detect) some positive feedback. I also managed to walk in on one of my colleagues whilst ‘in the act’ of marking way more than what we had agreed. For some, I guess, marking ends up becoming an addiction.

All along I had been preparing to deliver training on ‘marking for feedback’ and must admit that my inspiration for this session had been this post by Ross McGill @TeacherToolkit. Below are some of the highlights from the training, which helped cement what had already been introduced:

  • We were able to drill down to the true objective of marking – student progress. There was a healthy discussion around who we mark for, which included a number of stakeholders. This gradually shifted towards who we ought to mark for. For me, this point is key as it then drives the way in which we approach marking and feedback.
  • I shared some of the research by Education Endowment Foundation into the impact of feedback on student progress, especially in closing the gap for Pupil Premium students. Approximately 50% of our school population is Pupil Premium.
  • Having successfully trialled the ‘Yellow Box’ technique for feedback, I encouraged the team to try it out. It definitely did raise some interest as a few of my colleagues gave decided to give it go in subsequent weeks. This has since caught on amongst many more members of the Maths department, as well as a
    few from other subject areas!
  • A discussion on how we shouldn’t hesitate in directing students to re-draft a piece of work, if it doesn’t meet our expectation. This could be in relation to the way in which a question had been worked through or simply to do with its presentation. It helps in creating a culture of high standards, which of course is what we want from our students. This has worked really well for me as students have begun to actually take heed of my warnings during lessons.
Some initial examples of ‘yellow box’ being used to feedback on student work.

It wasn’t long after this that we were inspected. Although still in its infancy, feedback in the Maths department was commented upon. This only increased my determination to continue this journey that we had now embarked on.

It was also around this time that I read an interesting post (so interesting that I can’t remember where it was from), which forced me to reflect on my recently delivered CPD session. As teachers, it is an expectation that we allow our students the opportunity to put into practice what they have learnt, thereby allowing new concepts to sink in. On reflection I realised that I had only shared, what I believed to have been effective examples of diagnostic comments with my team. How could I expect this alone to alter everyday practice when my team had not had the opportunity to develop this, let alone embed it. So in our next meeting we spent a dedicated portion of time developing diagnostic comments, discussing them and offering each other feedback on how to improve these. This was done using real examples of work from student exercise books and proved to be a very productive session.

Examples of staff engagement in developing comments to feedback to students. Thanks guys!

In a recent book review some real positives, pertaining to this initiative, have come to light. Included amongst these is the use of the yellow box, the consistency with which students respond to the feedback and the challenging questions, through which students are being asked to demonstrate their understanding.

This is, indeed, only the beginning of our journey in refining this element of our practice. Next steps include sharing more of that good practice that is really beginning to come through. Perhaps now is the time to formulate that policy…

I would love to hear your thoughts on my endeavour thus far. How can I improve? What am I missing? Please feel free to leave me a comment below.