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Marking; planning for feedback- identifying then closing the gap. My #TLT15 session

October 24, 2015

My session at #TLT15 was potentially a hard sell. There are so many concerns with the rush for many SLT teams to push very onerous marking schedules on the staff because red pen in books is hard evidence to show the impact the teacher is having on progress over time. Or does it? Or is it merely evidence that teachers have marked their books? Many schools have ridiculous (in my view) marking policies which dictate that books need to be collected in fortnightly with next step comments in all books. This misses the whole point of feedback.
My session aim was to show how marking books (or rather seeing the specific output in a well-judged formative task) was not only good practice but vitally important for many reasons. As I said, a hard sell perhaps.
I started off the workshop by briefly looking at the distinction between formative and summative assessment. The slide below summarises what formative is (and is not) and I borrowed a line from @Edutronic_Net (Chris Waugh) “can we give feedback before the race is run?”


I read a blog (I can’t recall whose blog it was) comparing formative assessment to tasting the soup as it is being made in a hotel kitchen (and being able to adjust accordingly) and summative assessment to tasting the soup when it is on the restaurant table.
One of the key aspects of our job as teachers is to do all we can so that when pupils undertake summative assessments, the gap between what we want them to know and what they do know be as small as possible. Formative assessment provides those opportunities to spot and act on gaps “before the race is run” or before the soup is finished.
In fact, the more I start thinking about teaching in terms of gaps, the better my sharper my planning is becoming. I am more aware of what gaps, misconceptions and misunderstandings pupils may have as we move through a topic and try to foresee problems and incorporate into my teaching.
I was so disappointed to see the following question in an end of topic Maths test (earlier this month):

The Maths test was set by the maths department and I had prepared my students by absolutely hammering the basics. I have a current low attainment set (I refuse to use the term low ability). But I had not taken a good look through the test. I knew that my students could divide with their eyes closed and it was no surprise that most pupils did this.

Only one pupil actually got the right answer (though made a careless error in the calculation stage).


I was so annoyed that I had allowed this gap to go unaddressed all the way to a summative assessment. I should have had the end in mind, anticipated the gap and closed it before this point. This wouldn’t have necessarily have had to have been addressed through book marking but I should have anticipated the gap and closed it before this point. I will obviously try to go through why they were wrong but I am less likely to be successful as pupils are more interested in their percentage and whether they are going to move up a set. We also have to move on.
I then showed these slides to emphasise (as if it was needed) how important feedback is to learning.



The Sutton Trust have feedback as providing an extra 8 months a year. This may seem huge but think how ineffective the learning would be if we just delivered the content and that was that. If feedback isn’t vital then pupils could stay at home watching instructional videos. No checking for understanding, no adaptation of the teaching, no finding gaps to close. Frankly, I’m almost surprised it is only 8 months.
The next slide is from our Marking, Feedback and “closing the gap” policy.

This hopefully shows what feedback is if it is truly effective. The next slide show feedback on a continuum from teacher to learner. When looking at different types of feedback it may (or may not) be useful to place the type of feedback on the continuum.


Some types of feedback benefit the learner more than the teacher whilst some types of feedback benefit the teacher more than the learner. However, if the feedback benefits the teacher it will only be effective feedback if he/she does something useful with it and adapts/modifies/changes as a result so the benefit is placed on to the learner (or learners). For instance I would place Hinge questions (I am a big fan) closer to the teacher end. This is because if you asked a hinge question and 80% of your pupils answered correctly you’d take that as a signal to move on. Handy for you as a teacher but less handy for the 20% that haven’t got it. I would also put the use of an app like QuickKey (I am a big fan) closer to the teacher end. For an explanation of what it is click here.


As you can see from the slide, this feedback tells me that the class were very weak on q4. A good teacher will see this as a signal to reteach the content that underpins question 4. This is of course good practice but 29% of the students have already “got it”. Something like peer/self-assessment (if done well) would be more towards the learner end of the continuum. Each pupil can receive handy feedback on what they did well and how to improve but the teacher will not be privy to all of this so won’t have the overview of how the class are doing.
But Marking? There are many well written blogs flagging up many of the pitfalls with marking.


They include The Marking Frenzy by @TeacherToolkit, The Fetish of Marking by @LearningSpy and What if feedback wasn’t all it is cracked up to be? by @Andyphilipday. A quick google search and the following pictures come up:

(the bottom left is from @katie_s_ashford and she used it to show how crazy her early career marking was).

So why am I pushing for marking?
• It connects you to their learning in a powerful way (I do appreciate how cheesy that statement is but I think it is true). When people talk about knowing their students, seeing some work output is absolutely critical in achieving this).
• It is part of our professional duty.
• If pupils are doing work that is never seen by anybody, ever, why would they bother producing their best.
• Pupils value it. It shows you care about their learning so helps to build positive relationships.
• Pupils’ presentation and effort can be influenced by whether they think anyone will take a look at it.
Does that mean we should mark everything? Of course not. But we should mark and formatively assess some of their work. Be selective and reflective (credit @headguruteacher).
But the main reason that I advocate marking is that I think it would go slap bang in the middle of the continuum.


Marking can be the sweet spot in the middle of the continuum in that it can benefit the teacher and the learner equally.
Nothing informs the teacher more than seeing the output of a well designed formative assessment.
Nothing informs the learner more than quality feedback to close the gap (if it is acted upon).
What is the cost of marking books?
If a set of books of 30 takes 10 minutes each then that is 6 hours.
If each book takes 5 minutes that is 2 ½ hours.
If each book takes 2 minutes then that is 1 hour.
If we mark key formative assessments can we do it quicker? Maybe.
A lot of pupil output does not need to be marked by the teacher. This blog has some strategies which can help to reduce the marking workload.
The next slide, summarising research by Hattie and Timperley was stolen from this brilliant book by @shaun_allison and @atharby (it really is a must buy).


No offence to Hattie and Timperley but personally I feel that it is not always helpful to think of feedback in this way. I think it is far easier to think of the key formative principle when marking as being “fishing for gaps”.



The above graphic is from our Marking, Feedback and “Closing the Gap Policy”. It is important to point out that it is closing the gap policy rather than a close the gap policy. On occasions the gap can be very wide and we need to nudge the pupils onwards (closing the gap) rather than trying to close massive gaps. The arrows (sort of) represent this moving on of pupils.

I then digressed slightly and talked about 2 strategies that I had employed to make my marking of formative tasks more meaningful and more manageable. There is nothing more crushing than giving up a Sunday afternoon to mark a class set of books and see the pupils on Monday morning summarily ignoring the red pen comments. It is soul destroying and is a reason many, many teachers fall away with their marking. Massive time input for minimal or zero impact.
DIRT has helped redress the balance between time taken to feedback to the pupils and the time they spend acting on it. When we formatively assess we spot gaps. We feedback on how to close the gaps. With DIRT the expectation is that pupils will now actually act on the feedback to close the gap. Impact. And combining this with symbol marking makes the process so much more efficient.














Then (finally) came the question that was at the heart of the workshop “Is the gap worth closing?”


If we are going to commit to marking (and I think we should and must) then we’ve got to make sure that what we are marking and feeding back on is worth it (for us and the pupils). How much thought do we give to the tasks that we give the pupils? Does it allow them to display excellence (and if they don’t hit “excellence” then we can give them feedback to close the gap towards excellence)? Are we fishing for the right gaps?
If we looked through schemes of work/learning then I am confident the summative assessments would be signposted. But what about the formative tasks?
Some schools use Blooms or Solo as a planning mechanism. I am a big advocate of using SOLO as it helps me plan my lessons ensuring they have enough challenge and are focused on what pupils will learn rather than what pupils will do. Once the “what” is in place I can then think about how I am going to deliver and what I am going to ask the pupils to do to meet the expected outcomes. In short, SOLO allows “constructive alignment , a deliberate alliance is then made between the learning activities we plan and the learning outcomes we expect.” – see @dan_brinton’s brilliant blog on Better Learning Intentions for more.

Slide45 Slide46 Slide47
So after planning I know I want my pupils to be able to do the following “so thats” (no all, some, most- my expectation is that all can get there):


I then think about the learning activity (and I already have ready made assessment criteria- the so that outcomes).
Last year this was a task I decided to formatively assess because I felt there was potentially some important gaps to spot and close.

Here is a good example I showed on a visualiser the following lesson:


And this was the DIRT task that students had to complete:


Such a key concept. Gaps well worth closing.

Of course, the use of SOLO or Blooms is totally optional. When we plan our formative tasks we should think of 2 things:


If we are going to commit to marking (of course being selective, we cannot and must not mark everything) then we’ve got to make it worth it. Working with the end in mind means we are going to give our feedback at the most opportune point and before the race is run. We don’t waste all our feedback at the end. Working with the end in mind will mean different things in different subjects. In English it might mean an essay on Curley’s wife, in D&T it could mean the making of a designed product.When we step in and what we do at the point of stepping in will be different in each subject.
In content heavy subjects, planning formative tasks that “let you see how the learner is thinking” is a great starting point (disclaimer- I know we cannot actually see how learners think).
Before giving out a formative task to mark, question is it worth it?

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The above example borrowed from @sureallyno would give some rich and varied gaps, all of which are “worth” investing the time to fill.
Last week I decided to give my Year 10 class this 6 mark exam question as a formative task.

I am pretty confident that my set could tell me what type of absorber blocks the three types of radiation. When I saw this question I knew this would let me see how well they could apply that knowledge in a (fairly) novel context.
When I took their books in I was amazed at the variety of gaps. I was surprised just how difficult many had found it. I had only found this out by reading each response. It gave me a better understanding of my pupils and their thinking and it gave me a priceless opportunity to close the gap. I could have set this as an exit ticket and “marked” that but I find that when you take in pupil books (fairly) regularly they maintain high standards of effort in all undertakings in their books.
We then touched on scaffolding.


I used the analogy from @bodil’s blog on providing scaffolding which is less like a stabiliser and more like a balance bike. If I want to assess a pupil’s knowledge on a topic (such as radioactivity) then I need to ensure that what they produce represents how they think. It is important that scaffolding is given, when necessary, to allow students to articulate their thoughts. This may be as simple as going straight to pupil x and giving her a sentence to get started. This may be putting some sentence starters or connectives on the board. The scaffolding should assist them in competing the task WITHOUT doing any of the thinking for them (more balance bike than stabilisers).
To finish I shared the “evolution” of my personal marking journey.

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The highlighting of good work (or what went well) is a fairly new development for me. I was aware that I was so focused on “closing the gaps” that I was perhaps neglecting to flag up what pupils had done well. One way of doing this is to highlight some of the best work and to ask pupils (as part of DIRT) to explain why I had highlighted that particular part. It reinforces the good work and also makes students think. As a Science department we are going to experiment on using highlighters for good work, and for work that could be improved, and this will perhaps be added to the policy next year.
The place where I am in my marking journey (apologies for that pretentious statement) is to continue to question exactly what I am giving as my formative tasks. Are they manageable in terms of workload and will they give me gaps worth closing?

The last slide was just sharing the principles of our Marking, Feedback and “Closing the Gap” Policy. For more about our policy, please click here.


Then time for reflection.

Massive thanks to @davidfawcett27 and @MissJLud for inviting me (and for organising such a special event). Thanks to @GoldfishbowlMM for showing me around and sharing his clicker. A huge thank you to @CristaHazell, @LizBPattison, @basnettj, @GeographyMrI, @Nikable, @LS_Herts and @vip_computing for their “live” tweets. A huge thank you to everyone that turned up for the workshop.
Mostly though, a big thank you to my wonderful wife for going through the session with me a few days before and offering me superb feedback to act on (before the race was run).

  1. Hello. Extensive and good post thank you. Wanted to comment on your earlier annoyance at not having picked up on the division question gap before giving it to your class in the ‘summative’ end of unit test. Been there lots: not being able to go through every question, regretting not giving kids the chance to practice certain question types. My question to you would be: Now you know about that gap (need to round up or down depending on context) and your class have all bar one fallen in to the trap, why can’t you teach them about it next? There is no reason why any test – aside from the terminal exams – cannot be used formatively. In fact I would argue they always should be. You mention the need to move on but what is there to teach that is more important than the gap you have identified? Your class need that now and you know they do so out would be a good outcome for all concerned as a result of that test. Sorry if this comes across as preaching I have been thinking about this a lot and the need to move on at the expense of teaching specific skills is something I have been doing and want to stop! I am also with you on setting. We should never do it. Could you convince your set to trust you in being able to help get better at maths and help get them as high a grade as possible at the end of the year by not giving out test scores? Could they mark or create blank versions of the tests themselves to engage with the correct answers as suggested in embedded formative assessment by Dylan Wiliam and therefore have an idea of their score while engaging more closely with the feedback? Is the idea of them wanting to stay in your set all year a bit too idealistic? Sorry about the questions – your post has obviously made me think lots. Thanks again.

    • Hi Gareth. Thanks for taking the time to read and make a comment. You have asked some great questions and I’d like to have a good think before I respond. Some have certainly made me think. Many thanks, will respond soon,

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