Marking and Feedback: Is Whole Class Feedback the Answer?

By Jared Cawley

@JaredCawley

For two years, I was the lead teacher of assessment at Junior School Leidschenveen, and part of the cross-school assessment team across the entire British School in the Netherlands. I found myself in a unique position. Not only balancing the demands of a full-time class teacher, I was in a position of leadership on the ground, allowing me to fully appreciate Barry White’s famous song title, ‘Practice What you Preach’.

As we all know, marking and feedback plays an integral part of a teacher’s working day. It provides important information on what a student has understood; an opportunity to identify pupil misconceptions; next steps and how to move learning forward.

Is this what we observed happening in the classroom?

With such an opportunity, I was part of a team who had the ability, knowledge and influence to change our school’s Marking and Feedback policy. We had the agency to create a policy and ethos that could encourage teachers to use their time more effectively, and in turn, directly influence student progress.

As a teacher, marking students’ writing was one the most time-consuming tasks. At the end of each day, a pile of books were spread across my desk ready to be spell checked, examined for fronted adverbials with commas, grammar issues, improvements with tense, use of success criteria, cursive handwriting and many others elements to be scrutinised, followed by a next step for the student to action. This was an opportunity to determine if our efforts were having the intended outcome. What would a change look like and was there enough evidence to support a change? Could whole class feedback be the alternative to individual written comments teachers provide when marking and giving feedback to students?

Frequently, marking and feedback creates great divides amongst teachers and senior leaders, causing lively debates on who the marking is for, levels of accountability and questions of how effective marking and feedback is. Potentially one of the biggest problems marking and feedback causes is how hugely time consuming is it, and how much it adds to a teacher’s workload. In 2014, the Department for Education asked over 44, 000 teachers, support staff and others, what were some of the causes to their unsustainable workload. The report found that marking was the largest contributor (Gibson, Oliver, & Dennison, 2015).  More recently, a 2016 report written by the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group (ITWRG), found that written feedback on student’s work had become disproportionately valued, and the quantity of written feedback had become blurred and confused with the quality. The same group noted that marking and feedback should be driven by professional judgement, that there is no ‘one size fits all’ way to mark, but shared that all marking and feedback should be ‘meaningful, manageable and motivating’. 

buried under grading and marking

It seems that there is no singular solution to this problem.  What is clear is that marking and feedback has manifested into an unmanageable part of a teacher’s working day. Most importantly, there simply is not enough research or evidence to support it’s worth in time and hard work. Since implementing Whole Class Feedback as a way of marking, a pile of books on my desk is more inviting, less time consuming and far more manageable than individual written comments.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018), an educational charity supporting teachers defines feedback as:

information given to the learner or teacher about the learner’s performance relative to learning goals or outcomes. It should aim towards (and be capable of producing) improvement in students’ learning. Feedback redirects or refocuses either the teacher’s or the learner’s actions to achieve a goal, by aligning effort and activity with an outcome.

Similarly, the ITWRG (2016) describes marking as:

      an interaction between teacher and pupil: a way of acknowledging pupils’ work, checking the outcomes and making decisions about what teachers and pupils need to do next, with the primary aim of driving pupil progress. This can often be achieved without extensive written dialogue or comments.

Even though both definitions give confident descriptions on what feedback and marking is, there is a lack of clarity to what this looks like in the classroom. Every teacher may be delivering or interpreting their school’s marking and feedback policy differently. Consequently, there are several limitations to really understand how effective a teacher’s marking and feedback is, or what impact it is having on a student’s learning and progress. Dylan Wiliam, a renowned professor of assessment, says the most important thing is that marking and feedback should cause thinking. It should cause a cognitive rather than an emotional reaction (Wiliam, 2011). For teachers, it is a matter of delivery, what strategies and types of marking and feedback is happening, which determines how effective that marking and feedback is, in order to drive pupil progress. 

Written feedback plays a huge part towards a teacher’s workload, and as discussed above, the time involved in providing written individual feedback was significant enough that more evidence of its effect felt appropriate. Wiliam notes that ‘the first fundamental principle of effective classroom feedback, is that feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor’ (Wiliam, 2011). In the case of written comments, it was the opposite. The teacher was working harder than the student.

Elliot et al. (2016) conducted a review of written marking and feedback and found the quality of existing research and evidence low and inadequate. This is concerning, considering the importance of marking and feedback, and how hugely time consuming it is. The review found a small number of studies which had been led in small scale or higher educational settings. This means that these findings were difficult to relate to a primary or secondary school setting. With such little research or evidence to support the effectiveness on written feedback by teachers, many schools and educators have been searching for alternatives or other ways to deliver written marking and feedback in lessons. As a cross-school assessment team, it was important to find other ways that helped teachers manage their workload and ensure that we were using their expertise efficiently and effectively. As a team we determined that we did not know how impactful their written comments were for students’ learning.

Tom Sherrington, in his book, The Learning Rainforest, talks about whole class feedback as an alternative to the laborious task of writing comments on every student’s piece of work. He describes whole class feedback as being a ‘radical change in established teacher culture’ (Sherrington, 2017), as well as having a positive impact on teaching and workload. Briefly, the method involves:

  • Read all students’ work and making notes on one a piece of paper
  • Make comments on technical errors; areas of improvement; common spelling and grammar errors; particular examples of excellence; and students who need special attention.
  • The following lesson, run through comments; give students redrafting tasks to address common issues; check spelling; edit and improve in a different coloured pen.
  • Show examples of excellence and talk individually to the students who need special attention.

Sherrington points out that this method is very quick to do in comparison to the procedure of writing individual comments on each student’s book, in the hope that students will read, interpret, and effectively act. Furthermore, it is a more manageable, impactful way to give feedback to a class. Using this method, there will be a steady flow of improvement in student work.

In summary, marking and feedback contributes heavily to a teacher’s workload. At present, there exists an inadequate amount of research, evidence and too few robust studies that can justify either way the amount of time teachers spend marking and how effective this is on pupil progress. There are so many unanswered questions that teachers have, and simply do not have answers to. With that said, using Whole Class Feedback as an alternative is proving to have a positive impact on the children that I teach. As a result, this may be part of the answer to what effective marking and feedback looks like inside the classroom. Now that this method is one of the strategies used in my school’s marking and feedback toolkit, I hope other teachers will benefit from this less time consuming and impactful way to battle their own piles of books.



References

  • Sherrington, T. (2017) The Learning Rainforest Great Teaching In Real Classrooms. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
  • Wiliam, D. (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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