‘To do marking and feedback right takes three days for every two weeks of teaching. There is another way’

One former history teacher sets out his vision for rethinking the way teachers deal with their near-impossible workload

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Marking. To some, the bane of their life. To others with a fetish for highlighters, the color green and stickers, a weird kind of joy.

It’s well-established that effective feedback is one of the biggest drivers in increasing student achievement. This fact has inspired the establishment of an wing of educationalists who spend time coming up with novel ways of increasing the importance and quality of marking.

Written feedback and student responses to it has become the holy grail of school improvement. This clamour has resulted in tracts of ideas and policies: green pens instead of red to ensure the feelings of sensitive students weren’t hurt, two ticks and a wish, feedback boxes, definable targets, highlighting errors and in recent years, ensuring students respond to written feedback. The latter resulting in the rather amusing phrase "triple marking", sometimes resulting in students drawing smiley faces next to the words "great work" and teachers spending a fair proportion of their working lives playing a word game resembling Consequences. As a result of all this, “work scrutiny” has superseded the “one-off lesson observation” as the primary means of evidence gathering in schools.

Time-consuming and life-sapping

So what’s the problem with all this? Most significantly, written feedback only maintains its effectiveness when it is high-quality. How specific, immediate and measured it is, along with how learners respond to it, have been cited by researchers like Hattie as crucial factors. Most teachers are fully aware of this. However, putting the guidance into practice can be an uncompromisingly time-consuming and life-sapping process.

By reasonable estimates, one high-quality formative comment could take up to one minute to compose. So, for just one meaningful comment on one piece of work for one class set, you are looking at a time frame of at least 35 minutes. To enable further comments, a concentrated reading of the student’s work needs to take place, so throw in anywhere between one minute and five minutes per book for that. We are now up to anywhere between one and three hours for one set of books. That’s without marking for literacy and responding to previous student comments. For an English teacher with a full teaching allocation at high school level, you might be looking at a ballpark figure of between 15 and 30 hours of marking and assessment over a two-week period based on a full timetable. So let’s call that in the region of three 9-5 working days to find from somewhere, every two weeks.

So, in response to this reality, the majority of teachers who want some semblance of a life will do one of two things. The first is to not write anything on large tracts of student work and then write something more extensive on a particular assessed piece, say at the end of a half-term. The second is to "mark lite"; to write something that is sometimes more superficial on everything. It’s debatable how much impact either of these approaches actually has. The research that has been done presumes that high-quality, written feedback is being given consistently and frequently, and that students are responding to that feedback with a religious regularity. However, if it’s not, how much impact is it all having?

This is not a debate about whether written feedback is effective, because like any other feedback form, it can be. This is a recognition that because of the intense time pressure on the standard class teacher, written feedback might not be anywhere near as effective, meaningful or impactful as it could and should be. So, with this in mind, there is a very strong counter-argument.

It revolves around the use of time. Take that same English teacher. If you took those 15-30 hours and said; “use it to plan lessons, create resources, read around your subject and get a good night’s sleep”, what impact might that have on student progress and therefore attainment? On teacher wellbeing and therefore retention? Even on student engagement in lessons and therefore behavior? Written feedback would be predominantly replaced by verbal feedback, along with a much more prominent role for self- and peer- assessment. Only the essentials like mock exams would be “marked” in the traditional sense of the word.

It is my view that through this approach, the quality of lesson planning and lesson delivery would go up. Does that then lead to the presumption that student outcomes would go up, too?

Radical minimal feedback policy

The problem is, we don’t know what impact this change could have. We have no idea. Why? Because no one’s tried a radical, minimal written feedback policy over time and perhaps one of the key reasons for that, apart from a sincere belief in the fundamental goodness of written feedback, is the intense pressure to evidence everything in some way, shape or form. So, when the inspectorate arrives at the school gates, there is something to show them. Exercise books are awful handy here. Work scrutiny has seemingly replaced the lesson observation as the chief calling card when backing up assertions about teaching and learning standards. Despite their differences, these two measuring methods have some commonalities, chiefly the fact that both are based on interpretation and both require judgement to be made. Both have pitched unfortunate senior leaders against furious teachers and unions against headteachers.

However, it carries on, because every school leader knows that it’s impossible to quantify any tiny nuances in a young person’s ethical or moral code that have come about as a result of an educational establishments work. There is no way to "spreadsheet" that. It’s useless for the sake of evidence. Does this also explain why verbal feedback doesn’t get quite the same attention as its written equivalent within education?

The ironic thing is, if a minimisation of all written feedback was school policy and exam results were incredible, then that school would be hailed outstanding, innovative and a trend-setter. But principals know that if that same experiment yielded some kind of temporary trough or downturn, and they didn’t have a "portfolio of proof" to present, the guillotine would fall. A deep vault full of bits of paper has become an essential Alamo for the under fire leadership team, such is the complete lunacy that this "results business" has yielded. 

Is it time to re-evaluate the place of written feedback within education? Is it time to look at the proportion of time it takes versus the impact it has? Is it time for schools to perform some radical experiments, whether the government supports them or not? Teachers are starting to ask the question openly.

Food for thought at the very least.

Tom Rogers tweets as @RogersHistory and runs rogershistory.com

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