Marking and Feedback: How We Assess Students’ Work to Support their Learning
“What mark did you get?”
When I was at school, this was the standard question my parents would ask when a piece of work was returned to me. This could be a mark, a percentage or a grade depending on the subject. This was the standard measure of performance and the key bit of information understood by students, parents and teachers to indicate how well a pupil was doing. But even then educational researchers were starting to question whether this was the right approach.
The reason for this is that giving students a mark or grade on a piece of work conveys relatively little information. It tells a student what they achieved but not why they got that specific level. And it is a long way from understanding how to improve – either in that piece of work or more generally as a mathematician, linguist or historian.
The expectation on teachers to give a different type of feedback grew. Students should receive guidance on how to improve the work. This is known as “formative feedback” as it helps to form students’ learning, understanding and development.
The general assumption was that given a grade and a formative comments students would learn a lot more: they would now understand what grade they got but also why and be able to think about how to improve. However in 1998 Black and Wiliam wrote a highly influential book called “Inside the Black Box” that argued exactly the opposite was true. As counter-intuitive as it seems, giving students a grade and written feedback does not produce better learning and faster progress – but worse! These findings were controversial and there are still people who struggle to believe them 20 years later, but, again and again, research has found the same – given both grades and comments students are less not more likely to act on feedback (Elliott et al, 2016).
Why is this? There may be lots of contributing factors, but our best understanding is that students focus on the grade rather than the comments. If it is a “good” grade (e.g. one they are happy with) their motivation to act on the feedback and to try something different next time, even if it would be an improvement, is reduced. And if it is a “bad” grade (e.g. one they are unhappy about) their effort seems ill-rewarded and their motivation to invest in improvements can also be reduced.
|Examples of Feedback||Impact|
|Well done [name]: B+ – good work!||The student understands what mark they have been given but not necessarily why, or how to improve.|
|B+: to achieve an A you need to include more specific evidence.||The student is told how to improve but many students focus on the grade and not the feedback and so do not act on this advice.|
|Your line of argument is well-developed but needs to be supported with more specific evidence.||The student’s only focus is on how to improve their work in redrafting or in their next piece of work.|
As a result, teachers think carefully about whether or not to give students grades or marks for specific pieces of work. When we want students to learn from the work and to develop as learners we try to avoid this wherever possible, and focus on giving students feedback comments that help them to improve.
What does good quality feedback look like?
The emphasis on students receiving meaningful feedback about their work is an important one. Time and time again, studies show that high quality feedback is one of the most important tools to support students’ learning. The Education Endowment Foundation ranks high quality feedback as the single most impactful tool in its “Teaching and Learning Toolkit”.
There has always been some confusion between the ideas of “marking” (where teachers write comments, traditionally in red pen) and “feedback” where teachers give students information about how to improve their work. The importance of feedback led many schools to demand increasing quantities of marking from teachers. Once again, this did not always have the desired impact. More time spent on marking, or providing evidence of marking, meant less time planning and acting upon the findings of feedback. Furthermore the workload this created and the negative impact on teacher recruitment and retention was recognised by both the Department for Education and Ofsted which, since 2016, have encouraged schools to look for ways to reduce written marking whilst emphasising the importance of high-quality feedback in students’ education.
Teachers increasingly use a range of different strategies to analyse students’ work and give them important information on how to improve. These include, but are not limited to:
- Traditional written feedback – comments written on work telling students how to improve. Students are then expected to act upon these comments and given class time or homework time to do this.
- Whole class feedback – this approach to feedback allows teachers to work to develop students’ skills and correct their misconceptions without writing the same comment thirty times. In this approach the teacher reads the work of their class and identifies common errors. For example, suppose students have all done badly on question 6 which involves understanding a particular concept. Rather than writing out the answer or a comment on every student’s piece of work that they need to review that concept and redo question 6, the teacher may instead spend their time planning an activity to reteach the concept, and to model the answer to question 6. They may then give the students time in class to go over the concept and practice other questions which may draw on an understanding of the idea, until they are confident that the class now understands.
- Coded marking – this approach works well when students understand the main idea but have made errors, perhaps due to carelessness or because they have been focusing their mental energies elsewhere. For example, if I receive a set of written work and a large number of students have failed to use capital letters correctly, rather than writing out “use capital letters” on each piece of work, I may use a code number (4 in my class) to remind students of this and then give them time in lesson to go through and make corrections to their work.
- Assessment grids – for some subjects, normally those which assess large quantities of material in short-answer questions, the most efficient way to analyse students’ work is through an assessment grid that collates the class data. This quickly shows which questions (and therefore which content or skills) individual students struggled with. However it also shows which ideas the whole class needs to review and which they have confidently mastered. Far more nuanced than a simple list of sores, these grids allow teachers to look for patterns in students’ work and plan what needs to be reviewed and when. In some subjects there are computer programmes and assessment tools that produce these data for teachers, so that they can focus on analysing the outcomes. At other times, teachers write their own assessments and produce their own analysis.
- Verbal feedback – the importance of a one-to-one conversation should not be overlooked either. This is an especially valuable form of feedback in subjects where students are working to create or produce something and need guidance during the lesson in order to improve. It involves the teacher reviewing their work, just as they would with marking, but means that the feedback is “live” and allows them to make instant corrections. Traditionally this approach was associated with subjects such as PE, music and art, but it has a place in all subjects where students are consulting the teacher for advice in the lesson.
- Self- and peer- assessment – sometimes students will be asked to mark their own or a partner’s work. Some of our younger students think this is a trick to save teachers having to do the marking but that is not the case. (We need to review the marking students have done on their own work!) What this method does is help students to understand what they did well and what they could have improved. By working with a markscheme to look at their own or a peer’s work, they start to see what the examiner will be seeing and can often spot mistakes in their own work that they didn’t see the first time. This can be a powerful tool for supporting students’ learning.
How do I know how my child is doing and whether the feedback is effective?
In the past students might bring their books home and you could see teachers’ comments in red pen and know that their work was being marked and how they were doing. However, with different approaches in different subjects and at different times, it can be hard as a parent to know what to expect and how to support your child at home. Of course, three times a year, teachers are asked to summarise student progress and produce data to share with them and with you, as parents. However that can be a long time to wait.
Some schools have asked teachers to provide “evidence” of their work as proof for school leaders, inspectors and parents that they are “doing their job”. At one stage there was a craze for stamping students’ work with something that denoted feedback or asking teachers to sign and date books every time they looked at them. This provided some indication of the teacher’s work, but didn’t really demonstrate that the feedback was of a high quality. Nor did it show a lot of respect for the professionalism of the teaching team as a whole!
The best way to understand whether students are getting high quality feedback is to ask them. This is what we do in school to understand how teachers and departments are supporting students and it works very well. However the key is asking the right questions. If students are asked “What mark did you get for that?” or “What grade did you get?” they may not be able to tell you. This could be because the work hasn’t been marked… or it could be because the teachers are using a different form of feedback.
What we like to ask students about their work is something which identifies whether they understand the strengths and weaknesses of their own work. For example:
“What did you do well in this piece of work?”
“What did you need to improve about this piece of work?”
“What are you working on to do better next time?”
“What are you working on to improve in science/maths/languages/history etc.?”
When students can answer these questions it shows that they have received high quality feedback from their teacher and that they have taken it on board. They are starting to understand how to improve their work and are on a journey of development as learners. Whatever form of feedback the teacher used to achieve this, it is this which is the hallmark of successful assessment.