Marking and feedback is a hot topic at the moment following further guidance from Ofsted that they don’t expect to see a particular type or frequency of marking/feedback on student work – it’s for schools to decide what is the best method to help students improve.
One of the biggest groans from any teacher will be the frequency at which they are expected to mark and give feedback (usually written comments with coloured pen responses) to students. This is generally dictated by a schools marking/feedback policy. Verbal feedback is probably the most useful type of feedback as the frequency of this is relentless on a day to day basis. But what about the frequency of assessed student work…
Should the frequency of feedback be dictated by a central policy?
A quick poll on Twitter suggests this approach is common practice. But are we wrong to adopt this approach?
What are the advantages for dictating the frequency of feedback in a policy?
- It may encourage some consistency and ensure it happens with some regularity.
- It may be easier to check that it’s happening.
What are the potential drawbacks?
- It potentially creates artificial assessment opportunities that meet the frequency (as laid out in school policy) rather than assessing and giving feedback where appropriate to aid and improve learning.
- Its a huge workload for teachers especially in subjects such as humanities where you might teach an entire year group and have to mark / provide feedback for 100s of books every few weeks. The amount of work required here is likely to diminish the effect of feedback.
- It may promote a culture of valuing the evidence of marking / feedback instead of having a broader understanding of how feedback helps students to progress their learning.
- Teachers become confused with the idea that working endless hours to evidence marking (often more than a school policy dictates) is whats requires to show they care about student learning (when it may well be holding it back).
Are we wrong about stipulating the frequency at which teachers mark and give feedback to students? Is this having a detrimental effect on workload and staff wellbeing? Should we allow teachers to mark/feedback more than a policy dictates?
What could we do instead?
What if the frequency of feedback was directed by departments at critical points during sequences of lessons where it will enable teachers to understand more about student performance and enable them to give useful feedback on student performance? This could be planned into a schemes of work by identifying in meticulous detail what will be assessed, how feedback will be communicated and when students will be given time to act on the feedback from the teacher. It might look something like this in the first instance…
Long term (reduce teacher workload increase student learning):
The long term plan above shows where assessment takes place in sequence with learning over a long period of time rather than every 3 weeks (or some other arbitrary number). This could reduce teacher workload by specifying in detail when assessment, feedback take place (teachers should do no more or less) and potentially make marking/feedback more impactful for student learning. It would give clarity of the amount of marking/feedback to teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders. The focus for development could then be on the quality/effect of the feedback on student learning rather than the amount of feedback given.
These assessments could also be accumulative so that they build knowledge over time:
Short term (reduce teacher workload increase student learning):
- Verbal feedback every lesson, in the moment close to student learning – correcting common misconceptions and modelling great performance /meta-cognitive approaches to tasks.
- Rather than ‘flashy starters’ embed retrieval practice into the beginning of every lesson as routine to help build memory. Teachers can address gaps immediately (whole class feedback), re-teach and ask students to re-draft / improve work every lesson (without having to mark). This also allows you to interleave knowledge over long periods of time (the retrieval practice doesn’t necessarily have to synchronise with the main objective of the lesson).
What about the mock exams?
With the rise in the number of mock exams students sit (regular testing is not something I immediately oppose) across key stages, how would the marking and feedback of practice papers fit in? If the purpose of sitting these practice papers is to generate a grade/score then there’s no getting away from marking them. But the amount of information they yield about what students know and don’t know could provide weeks of possible feedback on different bits of knowledge which might reduce the frequency of marking. For example if year 10 sit a mock exam in the first week of term 2 and it takes 2-3 hours to mark a set of papers, provide question level analysis and input data, then that time invested should replicated in the amount of work students have to do in response to the gaps in learning identified by the mock exam. This could manifest itself as a series of homework tasks, retrieval practice starters or entire lessons (D.I.R.T.) given over to improving knowledge. The amount of feedback a teacher could give over the coming weeks could mean that they are not required to mark (written comments, e.t.c.) any further work for the rest of that term.
In summary there’s an opportunity to…
- create a system that not only increases the amount of quality feedback students receive (which will in turn progress their learning) but contribute to reducing teacher workload so that students experience more happy and energised teacher.
- clear the murky waters of ‘book scrutinies’ and have real clarity from each department about what is the best method / frequency of feedback within a specific domain of knowledge, that aids learning. This could be evaluated regularly to ensure that the type/frequency of feedback stipulated by the department is having the desired effect and ensuring that all students are improving their work.
- clarify for students, teachers, middle and senior leaders precisely when and how feedback will occur inline with what students are learning and in a way that will best serve a particular domain of knowledge.
I asked Sean Harford (Ofsted National Director of Education) via Twitter for his thoughts and this was his response…
Thanks for clarifying Sean!
If homework is ‘a blind act of faith’…
If completing homework is different to completing classwork…
If research suggests is has minimal impact on student learning…
Is it worth the hassle?
‘A blind act of faith.’
Tom Bennett eloquently described homework recently as a blind act of faith. Think about that for a moment. It’s probably true. Homework is set and the moment it is teachers are making assumptions that students have the following:
- time & space at home to complete the work.
- the necessary resources (i.e. computer / internet access, pens, pencils, e.t.c.).
- the background knowledge to understand and attempt the task.
- somebody to help.
- see the value and have the motivation / desire to attempt the task.
The response to these assumptions will vary from student to student and for some students the responses will vary at different points during the school year. With this in mind it’s hard to anticipate what return on learning teachers and students will get. It’s for these reasons (listed above) that homework tends to be very different to work carried out in class, as teachers can provide / support students to complete tasks. It’s also for these reasons that a gap can open up between students who have these conditions in places and those that don’t.
Homework also has an impact on family time. This is something outside of the schools control. It’s also time that cannot be refunded. If homework is not scheduled by the school across the curriculum it can lead to huge amounts being set all at once followed periods or little or no homework. How does this help student learning and wellbeing?
Tom mentions a couple of bits of research in his post regarding the effectiveness of homework on learning and although some studies suggest a positive impact, it appears to be variable at best. With this in mind why do schools put some much effort into setting / marking homework if there’s little return on student learning? The question to ask is: under what conditions is homework useful, effective, yields some return on student learning?
Quality of homework?
This is something I have fallen foul of early in my teaching career, setting weird and wonderful homework tasks with little regard for student learning. Tom Bennett perfectly sums up the dangers of losing sight of the purpose of homework here:
Writing a poem about how you felt about litter was one of my favourites, but there were countless other examples. Writing a letter from Jesus about what it was like to be on the cross. Making “wanted” posters for Mr Hyde for English teachers. Colouring in the Great Fire of London for history. Writing scripts for roleplays about Greek medicine. Building volcanoes out of paper mache for geography. I mean, come on. These kind of activities indicate a purposelessness that we need to say goodbye to for ever in teaching. Set meaningful homework, or not at all. It’s their time you’re wasting.
Discovery homework and tasks that don’t relate directly to student learning are of questionable relevance. Part of the problem here could relate back to a schools homework policy that puts pressure on teachers to set regular homework to meet a frequency target rather than when it’s needed to aid learning. Also, is there an agreed standard for homework or are teachers left to their own devices to set whatever they like under the broad umbrella of ‘homework’? Would less teacher autonomy here actually benefit student learning and decrease teacher workload?
A possible solution?
I’m not against homework and set it regularly, but with it being a blind act of faith what can schools do to improve its return on student learning?
- Practice. Use homework time for students to practice (quizzing, reading, writing, maths) rather than extensively challenge them (especially when teachers are unable to guarantee conditions / resources for home learning). The information we have from great organisations such as the Learning Scientists suggests that regular retrieval practice (just one example) is really useful for establishing learning and transferring information into long term memory.
- Routine. Schools could create a homework timetable so that students, teachers & parents are absolutely clear about when homework will be set and when it will be due. I have seen this work well in schools where teachers set homework every week on the same day and have a routine for collecting homework so that it becomes part of the next lesson, which has resulted in very high completion rates from students. Other schools have adopted similar approaches but have applied this across the whole school:
- Reducing teacher workload. Quizzing is a great method for retrieval practice and there are plenty of systems available such as Show My Homework, Socrates (free), Edmodo (free) that allow teachers to create (and share with colleagues) self marking quizzes. These can be spaced out (and re-used) over weeks and months to aid learning. I’ve used Show My Homework in my department. We collaboratively planned 2 quizzes each per term (takes about 10 minutes to create one) and share them with each other. Show My Homework automatically marks and tracks homework completion / scores for us which enables us to focus on address the gaps in lessons.
- Homework clubs. How can schools support students who struggle with the time, space and resources to complete homework at home? A simple solution is by offering homework clubs that enable students to access the necessary resources to complete homework.
Is homework worth the hassle? If the quality of homework yields a good return on student learning and it doesn’t create unmanageable workload for teachers, then yes it probably is. Creating a culture where students value deliberate practice is likely to develop good habits that will enable students to be successful.