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Feedback not marking - teacher workload

Feedback, not marking

29th January 2020

Mrs Humanities reduced her workload by making the move from marking to feedback in the classroom. Here she shares how she did it whilst ensuring students received timely, useful feedback to enable them to progress. 

Let’s rewind to 2015, it’s a Thursday afternoon and the end of the school day; I’m exhausted, a little hungry and all I can think about is curling up on the sofa and watching trashy TV for the rest of the evening. Then I remember the box of books that I need to mark, and a sense of gloom comes over me.

Despite my marking rota, I’ve fallen behind because of the parent’s evening earlier in the week. If I don’t take them home tonight, I’ll have 3 sets of books to mark over the weekend and I can’t face that! Oh, and to add a little more stress to the situation, there’s a book scrutiny next week. SLT will be collecting a few random books to scour to ensure the marking policy is being met – every 4 lessons, successes and next steps, teacher-student dialogue and action on feedback.

Sound somewhat familiar? I’m on the verge of certainty that most, if not all teachers would have had a similar experience at some point in their career.

My first four years in the profession were plagued by this scenario. I took books home every weeknight and would spend several hours marking them to ensure I ‘passed’ the next book scrutiny. Holidays were usually devoured by marking tests or catching up on book marking too.

Marking was my nemesis. I hated it

That all began to change when I decided that enough was enough. I had to find another way! So I started to explore ways to reduce the workload from marking whilst ensuring students received timely, useful feedback to enable them to progress. I tried a large range of marking aids such as checklists and feedback grids along with different peer assessment strategies to find what worked for me and my students.

Overtime, I found myself focusing more and more on the feedback provided and in turn my approach to planning and assessment for learning began to change. I found myself implementing more feedback strategies in class which meant I had less to provide outside of lessons, thus reducing my ‘marking’ workload.

Fast forward to 2020 and I feel as though I’ve developed a skilful approach to the provision of feedback, I’m constantly thinking about where the learning is going, how I will assess it and how I will determine if students have understood. Feedback is woven into lessons with students pro-actively participate in its provision.

My top 5 tips for making the move from marking to feedback in your classroom

1. Plan backwards

First of all, you need to understand the big picture; how what you are teaching now fits into the rest of the topic, year or Key Stage.

Explore the skills and knowledge that requires development over time; How do they fit together? What do you identify as being the foundations for the next stage? Where will they be addressed? Will they be returned to over time and do they gain complexity?

Map it out. From there you can determine which elements require feedback to enable students to move forward and which bits simply require you to check for understanding, misconceptions and the like.

Once you’ve worked this out, you can determine what to assess and what to simply check.

In my department, as a result of planning backwards, we assess formatively every 3-4 weeks and check for understanding the rest of the time through quick book looks, questioning, live ‘marking’ and verbal feedback. We use the latter to inform our short-term planning, whilst the former tends to inform the medium term.

Plan assessment with the end goals in sight.

2. Less is more

Frequent marking doesn’t always equate to high quality feedback; many a time I’ve seen (and given in the past) feedback that simply improves the work as opposed to the learner. Comments such as “add punctuation”, “use a different synonym” or “add an example”, might improve the piece of work, but will the students necessarily take something away from it to apply to their next piece?

Take time to consider what is worthy of diagnostic feedback and how it fits into the next assessed piece. Plot these pieces over the course of the topic, term or year, then consider the feedback that will be relevant to a piece in the future making feedback transferable and actionable in the long run.

My experience tells me we do not need to mark everything as does a number of pieces of research by the likes of John Hattie, Dylan Wiliam and others.

Be selective in what you assess and feedback on.

3. Model success and clarify the goal

A lot of feedback can be avoided by modelling success to students and by providing clarification of the goal.

Through modelling we demonstrate what a good piece of work looks like or the sequence of actions to reach an intended outcome, thus clarifying the goal to students.

There are a variety of ways to model good practice and those that you implement will vary dependent on your subject, age range and your students’ individual needs and abilities.

I particularly like the ‘I. WE. YOU.’ approach. The ‘I’ component involves the teacher providing a modelled example with explanation of what they have done and why. The ‘WE’ component involves co-construction through collaboration. Finally, the ‘YOU’ component leads students to put into practice what they’ve taken away, this maybe a practice before the real thing.

4. Live mark and verbal feedback

As students work, walk the room. Check in on students, ask them questions and seek clarification in their understanding.

So as not to disturb students you may wish to tick and flick to identify successes or dot mark areas for review or correction. Some students may need prompts or cues, single words or terms that help to direct them there and then.

At Key Stage 3, for formative and summative assessments students receive a copy of the feedback grid before they start. As students work, I check in and tick off the successes they have already met and identify with a dot the next steps to work on before they finish. We discuss what it may look like in their work and (most of the time) they act in due course. The feedback is timely and actionable. The feedback after completion then feeds into a piece of work further down the line.

5. Actionable   

For feedback to be of any worth it needs to be actionable; it’s success rests in what students do with it. As Dylan Wiliam suggests in Is the feedback you are giving students helping or hindering? “no matter how well the feedback is designed, if students do not use the feedback to move their own learning forward, it’s a waste of time”.

If students are not provided with opportunities to read, reflect and act on feedback or if it is provided in such a way that they do not understand, it’s not going to be of benefit. Students require time to interpret and apply the feedback. Plan time for this whether it be in relation to the current or future work. The opportunity to act is essential.  

Before I conclude I must highlight the importance of time when making the move. When I started, I had the opportunity to trial many approaches over the course of a year and found that some strategies worked, others didn’t. If you’re going to take the plunge to move from marking to feedback, take time to trial, review and refine strategies to find what works for you and your students. There’s no one size fits all, and so feedback must cater for your subject and context.  

Overall, moving from marking to feedback in my practice, has completely changed the way I plan and teach. It’s reduced my workload and increased student independence (over time). It’s helped me to find a love for teaching that had started to fade. I highly recommend giving it a go.

For more information on feedback check out Victoria’s blog MrsHumanities.com, follow her on Twitter (@MrsHumanities) and wait patiently for the release of ‘Feedback not Marking’ with Routledge in Summer 2020.