A for effort

Methods of marking have shifted from the traditional 'must try harder' to the modern 'didn't you do well?' But how effective are the new Mr Nice Guy tactics? Stephen Manning reports

Satisfactory. Must try harder. See me. C minus. And, most of all, lots and lots of red ink. Children labour over work and what do they get in terms of feedback? On the other hand, teachers fear crushing their pupils with the sledgehammer of criticism.

So where is marking heading? Things have changed in recent years, shifting away from the negative and towards including the children in the process.

"The trend in primary schools now is for the teacher to mark alongside the child, talking through the marking as it happens," says Chris Davis, former headteacher of Queniborough Primary School, in Queniborough, Leicestershire.

"What it takes in extra time it makes up for in effectiveness. I think this kind of positive intervention is the most effective at age eight or nine, when children are capable of producing a decent piece of writing."

Positive marking - highlighting what is correct or minimising potentially discouraging criticism of errors - has also made inroads into the classroom. One strategy used is What I Look For (Wilf). "You make a positive comment about the work, then re-state the learning objective by writing, for example, 'what I'm looking for is punctuation'," says Chris.

The overriding concern is that too much criticism turns pupils off. "If you tell children they are not doing well, a few will be motivated to improve, but the majority will disengage," says Dylan Wiliam, deputy director at the University of London Institute of Education.

Professor Wiliam was co-author, with Paul Black, of Inside the Black Box, a 1998 pamphlet that pioneered assessment for learning by arguing that grades give pupils no concept of how to improve. Instead, they advocated comments and more in the way of peer assessment during the learning process rather than at the end of it.

But parents and educators do not always agree on how the child's errors should be handled, and schools are under more pressure now to report directly to parents.

"The idea that grew in the 1970s and 1980s was not to correct every mistake, but to select and concentrate on one," says Anne Barnes, education officer at the National Literacy Association. "This is fading now because of the emphasis on teaching spelling. Good teachers will still select in this way, but some parents are surprised if they see homework with uncorrected mistakes. They think it's teacher laziness or incompetence."

So - less ink, or just less red? "Green ink is more fashionable than red, because of the latter's negative connotations, but I wonder how long that will last," says Chris Davis. He recalls a visit about six years ago to schools in China, where they mark that which is good rather than bad. The work was covered in red ink, but then red is a very positive colour to the Chinese.

Unsurprisingly, it's the Americans who may have mapped out the future - one in which computers carry some of the burden, at least at secondary level.

But can it work for something such as English homework? Dylan Wiliam thinks it is both inevitable and beneficial.

"Boys, in particular, don't write enough in school, because they don't get enough feedback," he says. "Consequently teachers don't want to set it, because they can't mark it all. But if part of the process is automated, they will be getting enough feedback and will want to write more."

Professor Wiliam was formerly research director at the Educational Testing Services, the American examinations body whose software Criterion is one of a number in the US geared towards the automated marking of text such as English or history essays.

The new technology is fine-tuned to recognise poor writing, such as the repetition of words, or even calculating the probability of two words appearing together in a sentence. It is presumably a matter of time before Britain follows suit: Pearson, which owns Edexcel, the exam board, is piloting similar software for secondary checking of exam marking.

But the prospect of hyper-sensitive robots weeping over children's poetry as they mark it is not yet in sight. Such technology would at most be suitable for persuasive or factual essays, allowing teachers to focus on assessing creative writing.

"For summative assessment, grading of essays and homework, machines might as well do it," says Professor Wiliam. "But computers will never replace insightful teachers in formative assessment, or how to improve. Computers can check the spelling, teachers can assess characterisation or the coherence of the narrative. I think in maybe 10 years that will be the norm."

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