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Three Steps to Learning Heaven (Marking & Feedback)

posted on November 6th 2018 in Headmaster's Blog

In my last blog I outlined ‘three steps to learning heaven.’ Three key areas of school life that any school needs to take a long hard look at if it is going to become exceptional in its culture and learning outcomes.

These three areas are as follows:

  • Curriculum content (i.e. what pupils spend their time learning)
  • Assessment (i.e. how we measure pupil progress and feed back to pupils and parents)
  • Behaviour (i.e. what we expect from pupils in terms of politeness, resilience and self-discipline)

Last week I wrote about curriculum content. This week I focus on marking and feedback (what teachers call assessment).

Marking is usually the single area of teaching that absorbs the most teacher time and yet pupils rarely, if ever, adjust or improve their approach to learning as a result of written feedback from teachers. The truth is that most pupils (even those who are very diligent) do not pay much detailed attention to marking. Pupils will focus on the mark or grade they have received but will rarely read the written feedback in detail. Even if they do read the detailed feedback, they struggle to remember it or put it into practice the next time they have to produce a similar piece of work. These reactions are not unique to school pupils, they are universal regardless of age. Most of the time people improve their performance at work through face-to-face discussion, examples of good practice and hands-on improvement of their own work. And yet, teachers feel compelled to spend hours each week producing detailed written marking, even though they suspect that this is a pure ‘box ticking’ exercise.

A similar problem exists with reports. Schools often insist on very time consuming full reports from teachers, even though the resulting reports are often far from revealing or straight forward and are often of little real value to busy parents who are not themselves educational professionals. Last year we took the unprecedented step of getting rid of full prose reports completely, on the basis that they are a waste of teacher time and often end up concealing more than they reveal. The job of reports is to provide a quick, honest and easy to understand snapshot of pupils’ progress for parents, if you try to make them do anything more than this they become a blunt instrument. If teachers have concerns or observations that they need to discuss in-depth with parents this can and should be done as required on an informal basis.

The other problem lies with the way in which homework is set. Traditionally, most homework involves opening our books or notes and using these to produce a piece of written work over a longer period than you will ultimately have when examined. Under such conditions most knowledge is not remembered because there is no demand to retrieve it, you are simply copying it. The other problem is that you are not practising and building up your ability to write or type at speed. Having spent most of the year doing homework under these conditions, around Easter the poor pupil is suddenly told that they have to produce revision notes (even though they have been writing notes all year) and is faced with loads of timed work in class even though they may have built up the habits of a very slow writer.

The truth is that for anyone to make improvements to their methods of working, build their knowledge and develop their examination technique, written feedback and traditional homework tasks are of very limited value, what they need is the following:

  • Very clear verbal feedback accompanied by examples
  • The opportunity to revisit and improve work on-the-spot, immediately after receiving such verbal feedback
  • Tasks that force them, over time, to adopt the sort of habits and skills that are required of them

With this in mind, we are bringing in three changes to how we set homework and assess work at Loughborough Amherst School.

1.     We split nearly all homework tasks into a period of revision and a written task under timed, closed book conditions, thereby developing knowledge in the long-term memory, and helping to build good exam technique, day-in-day-out, from an early age.

2.     We are moving away from too much written marking of individual work and shifting the focus on to much more verbal feedback to whole classes, along with class-wide feedback sheets and frequent use of DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) tasks. Research clearly shows that giving verbal feedback and getting pupils to review and improve aspects of their work on-the-spot is considerably more effective than giving written feedback and hoping that the pupil will pay attention to it and put it into practice the next time they attempt a similar task.

3.     We demand more pupil attention to and discussion of their previous work (however painful they may initially find this exercise). Otherwise, past mistakes are simply filed away, and what is the point of making mistakes if you don’t go back to them and learn from them?

Over time, these changes will result in pupils who are more knowledgeable, more resilient, and much better prepared for the experience of examinations, and teachers who have more time to concentrate on teaching and on interacting with their pupils, rather than spending time writing feedback that is rarely read and cannot be effectively absorbed.