Keren Gunn explore how to develop her pupils understanding of what 'better' looks like by conducting a piece of action research with her A Level English Language group.
As an English teacher for more than twenty years I have spent a considerable amount of my life marking. I have seen the changing educational landscape over that time, with regards to trends and fashions in marking and feedback practice - and what has been seen as effective or “best” practice. In my current role working with trainee teachers, or those relatively new to the profession, I am acutely aware of how much time it can take for those early stage teachers to develop the skills required to “mark” effectively, recognise grade boundaries - or what constitutes the different stage in a learning journey - and to give effective feedback that promotes progress and learning. Reflecting back on my own teacher training I can recall very little specific guidance being offered on how or what to mark as part of the university element of the course and it was during the - in those days - rather short weeks of in school practice that these skills came into much sharper focus. I remember though, it was often all about the grade or the mark - not about the formative feedback that was being given. As a Teaching School it is our responsibility to ensure that we are up-to-date with the most current research and are acutely aware of the importance of ensuring the well-being of all our teachers.
Why is Reflecting on Marking Important?
As an academy we have seen a significant change in our marking and feedback policy over recent years where we have moved away from marking everything in a student’s book - what is referred to in the recent publication on Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking (March 2016) as “tick and flick” to a policy where students complete “Formally Marked Work” every fourth lesson in the cycle which is then followed up by a DIRT task (Directed Improvement and Reflection Time).The idea then being that students can follow up on misconceptions and be extended and developed by the personalised feedback that they are given. The teacher can then re-mark, or respond, to the DIRT task in turn in the next round of marking enabling a dialogic process to take place. This is supported by on-going formative assessment during lessons which often takes the form of self or peer assessment, as well as regular verbal feedback as part of effective teaching and learning. This change in policy is supported by the recent Ofsted “mythbusting” document where it states: “Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its assessment policy. Marking and feedback should be consistent with that policy, which may cater for different subjects and different age groups of pupils in different ways, in order to be effective and efficient in promoting learning.” (Ofsted 2015) The crucial points here being that the onus is on the school to develop an appropriate marking policy that is consistently applied and above all has an impact on learning and progress.
This change in focus has been embedded in the academy for several years and is consistently applied for the most part. Teachers mark work, give feedback and students complete their DIRT tasks. The results of this change has been evidenced in part by our improved progress and achievement data at Key Stage 4 and 5 and in our recent Ofsted inspection outcome (Outstanding 2015). Looking outside the academy there seemed to be little research into the effectiveness of “triple marking” at post-16 level. The concept of “deep marking” was also questioned in Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking (March 2016) where the report says: “ From a review of the educational literature, there appears to be no broadly agreed definition for this term or any theoretical underpinning of its educational worth” and “Deep marking also seems to have been supported by an assumption that marking provides a more thorough means of giving feedback and demonstrates a stronger professional ethic, as well as improving pupil outcomes. Deep marking often acts as a proxy for ‘good’ teaching as it is something concrete and tangible which lends itself as ‘evidence’. In some cases, the perception exists that the amount of marking a teacher does equals their level of professionalism and effectiveness. These are false assumptions.” (March 2016).
This report was quite challenging and as I read further it stated that marking should “serve a single purpose – to advance pupil progress and outcomes. Teachers should be clear about what they are trying to achieve and the best way of achieving it. Crucially, the most important person in deciding what is appropriate is the teacher.” Clearly this consideration presents a question for Leadership Teams as they need to ensure a consistency in their institution in terms of marking policy and feedback, but here that was not my main focus in this research. My main intention was to research whether dialogic marking in post-16 teaching was effective and purposeful and did it meet the suggested aims of the report to be: “meaningful, manageable and motivating”?
Whilst there is a significant amount written on lower key stages in terms of marking and feedback there seems to be a dearth of research post-16, and as that is where a significant amount of my teaching lies I decided that would be my main focus. In going back to the first principles concepts that “there is a need now to move further, to focus on the inside of the ʺblack boxʺ and so to explore the potential of assessment to raise standards directly as an integral part of each pupil’s learning work.” (Black/William Inside the Black Box 1998) I was looking to explore my own belief, corroborated by Hattie’s findings that feedback is the most significant effect factor on a learner (Hattie? date), and is, as Andrew Tharby posits “a balance of quality, selective formative feedback with well-trained peer and self-assessment. If we want great lessons planned and executed consistently then marking must be selective; with a process that builds in reflection time for students” (2013) - and I wanted above all to consider how the students felt about this process and whether they could see the purpose and effectiveness of it.
As an enthusiastic adopter of Triple/Deep marking (and having seen what I believed was a positive effect of this) I was keen to know whether this was actually having a significant effect on the students - and I knew that this was going to need a longer period of research. The EEF study (2016) found that “The evidence base on the impact of student responses is limited. Most available studies are from higher education and use student survey responses as the measurement of impact, rather than directly examining attainment. In some cases, it appears that studies have taken for granted the fact that pupils will be given time to consider and act upon feedback, which may explain why the evidence base on this aspect of marking is underdeveloped. However, given the range of forms of pupil response practiced in schools, it is clear that more evidence in this area would be valuable, for example by testing the impact of marking with questions to be answered in class time.”
The study also recognizes the conflict between the effectiveness of “deep marking” and managing workload when it says “While no high-quality experimental studies appear to have looked at this question, surveys in schools and higher education settings consistently suggest that pupils do not engage with or find it hard to act on the feedback they are given, and that pupils value the opportunity to respond to feedback. …it appears that there is a strong case for providing dedicated time to consider and respond to marking in class. As noted above, it would be valuable to investigate the most effective ways to use this time in more detail: if pupils simply use class time to provide superficial responses, then this is unlikely to improve outcomes.” It further states that “Setting aside class time for pupils to consider and respond to marking should not increase marking workloads unless teachers are required to mark responses... Unless some time is set aside for pupils to consider written comments it is unlikely that teachers will be maximising the impact of the marking that they have completed out of class time.” Furthermore, there could be significant impact on workload by the use of such marking practices, therefore, we need to know if they are effective or not. So given that this type of marking takes a significant amount of time and energy on the part of the teacher - does it have an impact on the learner?
Reflection On My Own Practice
I have tracked both my year 12 and 13 classes across the last four terms. The data that I used was provided by student assessment points and interim assessments, together with reflective journals and student voice (mark/ /feedback/comments and DIRT tasks). At the start of the year I marked the work according to the marking policy then determined that for two “FMWs” I would give comments only on their work. Students did not like this when surveyed as they wanted to know where they were on the ladder of levels in order to gauge their progress. Although I wasn’t able to give them specific grades at that stage because the boundaries had not been set by the boards there was a sense in their feedback that they wanted to know where they were and I used my professional judgement based on previous years of teaching A Level. I then reversed the strategy and just gave them a mark. This was not well-received by students as they did not like the lack of comments: “How do we improve if you don’t tell us?”. This is confirmed by the EEF:” No evidence was found showing that only awarding a grade, with no formative comment, leads to pupil progress. While few recent studies have looked directly at the impact of purely summative marking, this appears to be because a consensus has formed around the idea that grade-only marking does not give pupils the information they need to improve. A British study in the 1980s found that pupils who were only provided with grades made less progress than pupils provided with other types of feedback” (2016.)
It was clear that this could be detrimental to progress so following ethical principles I resolved to progress directly to the third stage of the process which was to use full scale triple marking. I would give a mark/grade; comment and clear target (s) for improvement followed by the DIRT task to complete in class which is then marked and given back. The key difference in my practice here was that the DIRT tasks were much longer - up to 45 minutes or the whole lesson; were completed in class (not as homework as I had sometimes previously done) and were then marked during the same class so that the “triple” marking phase was not adding to workload and the feedback was immediate and took a written and verbal format.
This had become a key focus for me following the Year 13 January mocks in particular. These had identified some concerns in terms of exam technique as well as knowledge and understanding and therefore this approach was adopted on a weekly basis for the components of the course that I was teaching. We had a strict routine which required a very disciplined approach from both teacher and students in order to meet the deadline and turn-round of essays. We had a mutual agreement. They did not miss any deadlines and I would ensure that essays were marked for the next lesson (which often fell the following day). Over 90% students met all their deadlines across the 30 essays that they completed in the time period - completing two essays per week - that the research followed and the data showed that in these weekly assessments it indicated progress across the levels of the mark schemes.
I then surveyed the students to ask them what they felt was most effective in terms of feedback and marking and the response was unanimous that a mark/grade; comment and clear target (s) for improvement followed by the DIRT task to complete in class which is then marked and given back was the favoured form of feedback. “I know what I need to do and then by the marked DIRT I can see if I’m doing my improvement to a high level”; “I can see where I can gain more marks and push myself”; “It tells me what to work on whilst setting myself a target of a higher mark” were some of the comments on the feedback.” Others really valued the verbal feedback at that point as well “by having the chance to discuss feedback I can ask any questions about the marking that I am unsure about”.
There are some issues to consider with regards to the intensity of this process. The class was small (12 students) and therefore the numbers made the process manageable. The maturity of the students may well play a significant role in their understanding of the impact of what they are doing and therefore gives greater buy-in to the process. In terms of outcomes the most significant was the marking of the DIRT during the lesson which meant that the workload was manageable.
Students were given a range of other teaching techniques including model answers; essay planning skills; shared planning; exploration of the mark schemes; exam board sample essays and examiner reports. The marking encompassed additional challenge and differentiation to stretch and challenge the group as well as providing highly personalized responses across the ability range.
This then became effectively a targeted intervention strategy following the mocks using marking and the grades of the group improved between the formal mocks in January, April and finally the A Level exam in June. One student, for example, who had only achieved a grade C in the mocks progressed to a Grade A by the final examination.
The questions then are, how will to take this forward? From my research I would suggest that it is the personalisation of the feedback and the effective response that makes the difference. It is therefore down to Leadership teams and schools to consider how to make this work within their own contexts.