Posted in Pedagogy

Making Your Mark [Written Feedback & Marking]

Marking has been one of my professional targets pretty much since I became a teacher. That’s not to say that I haven’t got better through the years, it simply means that I still haven’t reached the stage where I am happy with my output.

Part of the problem with marking is the psychology behind it. When we all began our teacher training one of the first things we heard was: “having to mark all that work must be exhausting!”. Hence we fully expect it to be exhausting; if it isn’t then we are clearly not doing it well enough. Furthermore, we witnessed with trepidation the moment when the teacher whose classes we were now taking handed us the book box and gleefully stated, “all yours!” whilst they skipped away without a care.

I am exaggerating of course; in fact all of my mentors during my PGCE were incredibly supportive and it’s thanks to them that I came out the other side in one piece. The point I am struggling to make is that marking is always seen as an additional chore, whereas I believe for it to be successful we need to start making it work for us.

If we continue to mark the way we have always done, viewing the process as a method of overseeing that students are simply doing the work, ticking and flicking books ad nauseum, then I think we’re missing a trick. This is a repetitive and tedious misuse of our time, furthermore the students get very little benefit from it. I recall occasions when I have verged on ticking pages just because I feel I should have, without even giving the content a cursory glance – a dangerous thing indeed.

So if we are to make marking a more pleasurable and worthwhile experience what can we do to ensure this?

Firstly, plan in advance when your marking opportunities will be. If you take in a class set of books and they have spent the last three lessons doing speaking and listening activities and making notes, then what do you expect to be able to mark of value? It is far better to think, I will get my students to complete that extended activity on Thursday which I can mark by their lesson on Monday. That way you have something meaty to get to grips with and can base your marking around that one activity.

At this point I think my standpoint on ‘ticking and flicking’ needs clarifying – I say: why bother? I certainly think it is important to read through your students’ books and take on board the notes they have made. But why do they need ticking? If you think it is important to prove you’ve read a student’s notes then I would counter with: who for? Students might like to see lots of ticks, but I doubt there is any evidence that it helps them make progress. Perhaps it is for your line manager then? I imagine, however, they would sooner see well constructed regular feedback that students are engaging with than a whole book full of ticks.

Ultimately, flicking through a book and ticking pages to indicate you may have read them is simply a waste of your time as far as I am concerned – please feel free to correct me if I am wrong!

I believe that effective written feedback is produced off the back of a piece of work that you fully intended to mark, thus ensuring that it helps work towards the skills and content required to make progress. This therefore alleviates the problem of not knowing what you’re marking for. Always know what it is that you’re hoping to see from students, that way your feedback will help them achieve these expectations.

As an English teacher I often have the problem that I may have a whole class set of quite lengthy pieces of work to provide feedback on. This in itself is a difficult task to even approach; you have to set aside a certain amount of time to ensure that once you’ve begun you can get the lion’s share of it completed. I have developed a couple of strategies to deal with this.

For instance, don’t mark the whole piece. As an example, I recently asked my Year 8s to complete a short story; on average the length of each story was about 3 to 4 sides of A5. I asked students to highlight their best work from the story, no more than 15 lines, and then asked them to do the same for their weakest work. Beneath their writing they had to rationalize their choices.

When I came around to marking, I simply provided feedback on these cherry-picked sections, It allowed me to not only mark their best/worst work, but also gave me an insight into what they thought constituted good work. This empowered me to share with students that neat work isn’t necessarily your best work, and we discussed success criteria.

If I had provided feedback on all of the work students had produced, it would have taken roughly 2 to 3 hours to mark all of the students’ work. By focusing my feedback on the highlighted sections it took less than an hour and my comments were far more detailed and specific.

Ultimately, that’s what I have learned from my experiences lately – marking smarter makes your feedback more detailed, more relevant, more timely and also saves you hours upon hours of less efficient work.

No matter how you provide feedback to your students, it only becomes useful if students engage with it. Instigating a dialogue between the teacher and student via marking is incredibly powerful and should be the goal for all of us. It is powerful and effective as students know that their work is being looked at; like teachers, when students are being scrutinized they raise their game.

Furthermore, if you ask students to respond to your feedback then you know they’re taking it on board – do you really want to spend a good portion of your afternoon marking for no one to ever look at it?

My school uses a pro forma to try and help accomplish this across faculties. It is called the STAR feedback system, (it may not be original, who can tell?).

S: Success – What was good about this work.

T: Target – How this work can be made even better.

A: Ask a question – As a question for your student to answer based upon your feedback or assign them a task.

R: Response – The students respond to your question.

This has certainly helped me improve my marking and is also a useful tool for framing peer and self-assessment, especially if you tailor the resource to the task.

Like many of my posts I like to end with a brief summary of the 5 key points to take away from this:

1. Marking is planning. As Didau states here, effective marking should essentially form the planning for the next lesson, give time to reflect on what has gone before.

2. Mark smarter, not harder. Don’t trawl through their books finding things to mark, decide in advance what you’re marking and constrain your feedback to that piece of work.

3. Never tick and flick. ‘Maintenance marking’ as I have heard it called is only ‘feedback’ if you are helping students reflect – a tick does not achieve this in any way shape or form.

4. Forget about gimmicks. Avoid the ‘use this colour for this and that colour for that’ approach to marking; essentially you should be able to mark without spending an age setting yourself up to do so with the right resources and equipment.

5. Little and often. This is the crux of it all. If I have just saved you hours of marking time by saying you do not need to mark every page and you can focus feedback on specific sections within work – then really there’s no excuse for not being able to provide feedback at least a couple of times a term.

But you know what? It’s still going to be my target next year. I am not there yet despite the progress I have made this year – the thing with marking is it’s not something that will ever be ‘perfect’; but it sure can be close.

Mr P

Posted in Pedagogy

My Pedagogical Bucket List

A wise colleague referred to something this week that resonated with me, it was regarding the idea of a sort of teaching ‘bucket list’. We’ve all got ideas we’d like to try in teaching but either never get around to it or talk ourselves out of it. This blog was something I’d been wanting to do for instance, and as my partner was out of town the free time allowed me to go for it.

How can a teaching bucket-list make us better teachers though? Well, I still recall my interview for a place on my PGCE course at Bath Spa university, in which I said, “I like the idea of teaching, as it seems to me you’d have to be constantly learning, that really appeals to me!” Like all teachers though, at times I have run the risk of losing this passion.

I consider myself an innovative and proactive teacher, but often when the pressure of results, appraisal and planning is looming, you can give in to the temptations of ‘routine’ and the comfort it brings. 

My teaching bucket list is therefore designed to ensure that I continue to reflect and always ensure I am trying to be better at what I do; if I’m to have high expectations of students, I need to hold myself accountable to the same standards. Routine might ensure consistency, and an amount of it is essential, but too much routine is the enemy of innovation. Innovation is crucial to effective T&L as well as CPD.

So what sort of things can go on my bucket list? Well, I’ve never organised a trip. Embarrassing I know! But I’ve always just gone on other people’s trips. I refuse to be an educational Remora fish any longer! This is quite an easy thing to achieve and also quite self-serving, so although it might make it on to my list I think I need to be more ambitious.

Try teaching ‘a lesson without PowerPoint’ I recall my PGCE tutors saying, well, I can and do that regularly. I find it both liberating and strangely chaotic. Without the warm glow of an IWB I worry I might lose them all completely. So, what if I upped the ante? How about teaching a week without PowerPoint? Like my teaching brethren of the 90s I imagine I’d have to become far better at other methods of communication. A definite contender then!

A bucket list for teaching isn’t about setting myself targets, let’s face it, appraisal covers that. This is more about forcing me outside my comfort zone and trying something I’d usually either never think of, or would shy away from. In this vein, when I created the rest of my bucket list, I tried to ensure that it was unique to me and what I need to embrace more. As such, if you want to try this, don’t just copy mine, think about what would put you out of your comfort zone. We all know students learn best when they’re being pushed at a high level – let’s try putting ourselves through the ringer then.

My Teaching Bucket List

  1. Arrange a trip. Any trip. But plan it, lead it and make it a success.
  2. Teach for a week without using PowerPoint in any lessons.
  3. Observe an Art lesson.
  4. Volunteer to lead a CPD session.
  5. Teach for a term with my desk facing the wall, forcing me to not hide behind it.
  6. Team teach with a colleague and discuss the lesson afterwards. But the colleague can’t be an English teacher.
  7. Be proud of my marking.
  8. Visit another school’s English department and look at a different way of doing things.
  9. Clean our English department office. Not really to do with teaching, but it is really in need of a tidy!

Feel free to share your own lists. Think I’ve forgotten any good ones?  

Posted in Assessment Policy

Life Without Levels

When I first heard that levels were being abolished the implications escaped my initial blasé attitude. ‘We’ll just end up doing the same thing’, I mused. How wrong I was.

Less than a month ago I encountered the resource my school had invested in as a foundation for our own venture into a world without levels. I went home with a migraine and verging on tears. I’d spent hours trying to interpret a behemoth of a spreadsheet that included every single function a teacher could possibly need without actually being functional.

Since then, colleagues responsible for spearheading this have clarified that it’s just a starting point and definitely needs tweaking. They’re teachers like me, of course they have, no one would believe that in its existing form it would serve the purpose required.

However, my initial terror served a valuable purpose; it inspired me to not be a ‘nimby’ style teacher, moaning about everything without actually doing any research or work into a viable alternative. So that’s exactly what I did. I spent hours trawling the net looking at EduBlogs and resources shared by teachers like myself going through the same process.

It didn’t take long to realise that most English faculties across the country had decided to make the most of the fact that our new GCSE specifications and assessment objectives are available and use those to plan backwards.

Planning backwards is not a new term, nor is it revolutionary. By looking at where we want students to be when they’re in Year 11, we simply plot a course back to Year 7 to see what steps they need to be making along the way.

I therefore, like many others, decided that three sets of Assessment Objectives, (AOs), for Years 7, 8 & 9 would be a good way of ensuring a natural progression from Year 7 to 11.

Didau states that, ‘consistent progress’ is more desirable than ‘rapid progress’ – he and I agree on this. I wasn’t going to design a million criteria to track the minute nuances of understanding of students. I simply wanted 10 basic skills, (or AOs), that students work towards year after year, with each year’s objectives being a natural step up from the year before.

Tracking progress here is simple – they are either achieving the objective or they’re not, this can be recorded using a basic RAG rating. In Term 1 therefore it’s unlikely you will see lots of amber and green, but you’d better hope that’s changed by July or you’re doing something wrong!

Whether we like it or not though, progression needs to be evidenced, (and to an extent quantified), in order to prove that we’re doing right by our students, and to make future predictions on outcomes.

The system we’d been given as an example used steps of progress, (1 to 9 naturally), for all of the criteria they had created off the back of the new NC. You’d therefore be grading students against at least 80 (!) criteria throughout the course of a year. This would be based on class assessments and teacher’s judgements.

My problem with this is how shallow your judgements would be if you need to make so many: in the course of a year would you have any opportunities to revisit skills if there are so many?!

This is why we scrapped this concept and replaced the tiered skills with simple objectives you’ve either met or you haven’t. But how do you know what progress a student is making in relation to their prior attainment and that of their peers though?

I suggested, with a heavy heart, that end of year tests would eradicate this problem. They would be based upon the AOs, use GCSE-style terminology, award a grade from 1 to 9, and be a level playing field across the year group. If these were made more challenging each year, one could also quite accurately predict a student’s success at GCSE if you used a flat-line progression map. E.g. A grade 5 in Years 7, 8 and 9 would show progress, (as a 5 would be more difficult to get each year) and would probably indicate that is the grade they will achieve at GCSE.

So much for a life without levels eh?

Now, this might seem like we’re making a rod for our own backs and that we’ve become the thing we used to detest, but bear with me.

What are the benefits?

  • Levels were never designed to be a label stamped on children, students don’t need to be told what level they are all the time, and we shouldn’t feel we need to tell them – a new system where students are not told ‘grades’ or ‘levels’ ensures they focus on the important thing:

What am I good at? What do I need to improve?

  • With a curriculum shift we can develop higher expectations sooner. I’ve made the Year 9 objectives, Year 8 ones and so on and so forth. We can improve GCSE results exponentially if students are becoming GCSE ‘ready’ by Year 10, with KS4 being an opportunity to learn advanced content.
  • Staff will use a system effectively and with discipline if they see the advantages laid out before them.
  • Using a spreadsheet to track students’ ability to achieve the AOs we can spot trends in teaching and learning:


As you can see, with students’ individual records going horizontally you can see their overall progress, as well as AOs vertically – allowing you to develop CPD opportunities to help your team with gaps in their knowledge.

However, I have not been naive, there are certain obstacles to overcome, namely:

  • Our system needs to provide the same level of feedback and detail as all other departments; we cannot be perceived as the ‘weak link’.
  • Current SoWs will need to be tailored to ensure that the AOs are being covered in specific lessons/units, there needs to be enough coverage across the curriculum.
  • Time-Effective: Our system needs to be manageable. Teachers need to become as au fait with the AOs as possible to address gaps in understanding quickly and effectively. This is impossible with an overly-complex tracking system.

I am not arrogant enough to presume this system is perfect, nor am I adverse to suggestions, so please comment if you have any thoughts! However, I went from being a teacher who was struggling to interpret a spreadsheet to one whom was making his own from scratch. In retrospect this is exactly what SLT wanted – they weren’t giving us the answers, they were helping frame the questions.

I apologise if this article has seemed overly detailed, it’s very difficult to convey via a blog, but I can summarise everything into 5 top tips:

1. Don’t just stick to what you’ve always done. GCSEs are changing whether you like or not, you’re going to need to adapt.

2. There are lots of models and frameworks available out there, both free and at a cost. But don’t just think money is the answer, time and many conversations with your department are the only solution – put it this way, the person who made that spreadsheet you downloaded has never met one of your students, so do you trust them with their future?

3. Keep it simple, and time effective. It doesn’t matter where you work, you will have colleagues who are diligent and those who are less so; by making the system easy to use, everyone can use it, and furthermore, get good at using it – which is far more important.

4. Decide what fits in with the ethos of your school. I am lucky enough to work in quite a flexible institution and I know that all other departments will be creating a system not too dissimilar to mine. If yours does not fit the mould though, how will students and parents make sense of it?

5. Know one thing: This matters. Think of all those times where you have been asked to work on an initiative or idea you know will disappear after a month or so, it was time wasted and well all  know that. This isn’t one of those times – the work you do now will pay off dividends in the future. Don’t settle for second best.

That’s it for now, I hope this has allowed you gain an insight into how your department can cope in a world without levels. Please comment if you would like to share your own experiences.

Posted in Uncategorized

A Product of Our Learning Environment: The 5 rules of displays

During a recent meeting with the head regarding whole school literacy, he led us away from the safety of his office and around the school. He was cleverly pointing out that many of the classrooms simply weren’t kitted out for helping students become better writers and readers. Key words were sometimes displayed, if so there was no continuity from one classroom to the next. Not a single classroom I’m sad to say had any connectives displayed to help students  structure their longer writing tasks.

Eventually we came to the room of one of the school’s more dynamic teachers, (not a slight on the staff, he’s clearly brilliant), and it stood out from the crowd. Although a technology room, key words were displayed, literacy marking symbols were proudly on show and it was obvious the displays were being used.

This struck me as so obvious I wondered why my own classroom didn’t look this good.

Since then with the help of colleagues I have tried to reinvigorate my room to model what others can achieve in their own learning spaces.

In focusing on what makes classrooms effective in improving both literacy and teaching and learning, I realised I had given myself 5 rules with which to work by:

  1. Nothing is useful unless used. Seems obvious, but take a look around your classroom, how often do you or your students actually utilise a display or poster on a daily basis? If it’s rarely used then why not replace it with something you’d refer to more often?
  2. The classroom is the frontline of the battle to improve literacy. I wanted to ensure that students would be able to glance up and within an instant be supported in their spelling of key words or use of connectives. After being introduced to it, I went with VCOP to ensure this.
  3. Students’ work was rarely a good use of classroom wall space. You’ll note here I’ve specified the classroom wall space; student work can be shared with Twitter or Facebook, put on show in corridors, printed in newsletters and it will receive more attention than if it were simply put on your wall. Furthermore, how often do we put work up after we have taught a unit? At which point it is now old news, and unless you are using it as a model then probably superfluous.
  4. Consistency is not the same as uniformity. My work on displays soon became a talking point and other teachers took the baton and ran with it, I suggested VCOP as a literacy model and other staff adapted it for their subjects and areas. However, all our displays looked different. Students could go from one room to another and know how to access the tools, but they weren’t being forced to deal with five copies of the same room. It’s important to put your own stamp on it, make it your own, but ensure that  the foundations of good displays are consistent throughout.
  5. The better I make it now, the less I’ll have to change it. I realised that if I worked hard at making a fundamentally useful tool to aid my teaching then I would probably end up using it from day to day. If this were the case, why would I ever want to remove it? Of course you may want to freshen it up, adapt it, even move it to a different wall to keep the kids on their toes, but why would you lose such a useful tool? The benefit here is clear, it’s easier to motivate reluctant colleagues if they think you’re lessening their workload in the long run.

I’m sure I’ll adapt these as I go on, but I’m noticing a difference already, and it’s a good one!