Forget the marking, start talking

New research suggests that pupils achieve more when they think about what they are learning. So teachers need to stop seeking the right answers from the 'bright' pupils and start asking more useful questions. Julie Henry reports.

DO you spend hours diligently marking work and writing helpful comments on pupils' essays? According to leading assessment experts, you are wasting your time. A new study published this week, which backs up a earlier research, shows that giving students marks out of 10 does not improve their performance.

Marks and comments together are equally pointless. When students get both, the first thing they do is look at the mark. Then they look at their classmate's mark. They hardly ever look at the comment.

The marks-out-of-10 assessment method is an entrenched part of the British education system, strongly influenced by the pressure of external tests. That needs to change, according to Working inside the black box by professors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam of King's College, London University. The study follows their influential Inside the black box, published four years ago.

Both pamphlets advance the idea that marks and frequent testing should be replaced by assessment for learning (also known as formative assessment). Teachers found the techniques made a real difference to their teaching and encouraged even the most taciturn pupils to speak in class. As well as making the classroom a much livelier place, they also brought quantifiable improvements in standards.

The King's College team of five spent more than 18 months working with 24 maths and science teachers in six schools in Medway and Oxfordshire. Staff were given six-and-a-half days' training on how to transform their teaching style and then offered constant support. At the end of the project, pupils in these classes achieved national test and GCSE results which were half a level or grade higher than pupils in "normal" lessons.

Central to the change in classroom practice was questioning. Research has shown that many teachers leave less than one second after asking a question before they answer it themselves or ask another. The only questions that "work", therefore, are those that pupils can answer quickly and without thought. As a result, dialogue is superficial.

One teacher who took part in the study said: "I would frequently be lazy in my acceptance of right answers, and sometimes even tacitly complicit with a class to make sure none of us had to work too hard.

"If the question-and-answer session wasn't going smoothly, I would change the question, answer it myself or seek answers only from the brighter students. There must have been times where an outside observer would have seen my lessons as a small discussion group surrounded by sleepy onlookers."

Waiting longer for pupils to answer a question is not as easy as it sounds. One teacher described it as "painful". But after months of breaking the habit, he noticed that most students would give an answer and an explanation without prompting. One teacher banned pupils from putting their hands up. All were expected to be able to answer at any time, even if the response was 'I don't know'.

Pupils were also asked to brainstorm in pairs for three minutes. Teachers found it helped to reveal misconceptions and gaps in knowledge.

Professor Black said: "Pupils come to realise that learning may depend less on their capacity to spot the right answer and more on their readiness to discuss their own understanding."

Another essential part of the process is to get pupils to set goals and assess what they must do to reach them. Peer-assessment complements this self-assessment. At one school, homework was checked by the teacher and another pupil. The thinking behind this is that pupils speak the same language and if they do not understand an explanation, they are more likely to interrupt or question a fellow-student than a teacher.

Professor Wiliam said: "Students are much better at spotting weaknesses in other people's work than in their own and much tougher on each other than any teacher would be."

Assessment for learning techniques are definitely of the no-pain no-gain variety. As one teacher put it: "The kids are not skilled in what I am trying to get them to do. The process is more effective in the long term. If you invest time in it, it will pay big dividends."

In the short term, however, there are tests and exams to sit, results to be totted up and league tables to be published. The Office for Standards in Education wants to see mark sheets, and parents understand and expect marks out of 10.

There are also sceptics about the programme within the education world. Calls for tests to be replaced with teacher assessments have been jumped on as a workload issue by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

And to traditionalists, the programme sounds suspiciously like a return to the "woolly", child-centred methods of the 1960s or a misguided attempt to protect low-achievers from harsh, external judgments.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, said even young children were aware of the pecking order, whether they were explicitly told about it or not. But Professor Wiliam said: "Children need to know where they are by GCSE but we are talking about de-emphasising grades in the early stages to get more pupils engaged. They don't need to be reminded about it every day.

"This is in fact a hard-edged approach. It is about working smarter. We also know that when it happens, it works."

His message seems to be getting through where it matters. Representatives from the Department for Education and Skills, the Government's exam watchdog, the Teacher Training Agency and OFSTED were on the steering group guiding the black box project. Information about the programme is on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority website and the watchdog recently published a 52-page report about using assessment in maths which acknowledges the work by Professors Black and Wiliam.

The Scottish Executive is considering assessment for learning as part of a review of its testing and assessment system. According to Professor Wiliam, the Scots are prepared to push ahead with it more quickly than the English.

However, the Government's new strategy to reform secondary education contains elements of the techniques, with its concentration on questioning and setting pupils learning goals.

Keith Harris, regional director of the KS3 foundation subjects strand, said: "The main findings are very much in line with the KS3 strategy's principles of good teaching and learning and they support our key messages to schools. Some of the training material now being launched by the strategy makes direct reference to beyond the black box. We are already training further on assessment for learning across all subjects."

Professor Wiliam said he was concerned that some teachers might read the KS3 materials and think their classroom practice was not a million miles away. "I have heard teachers say 'this is what we do already', but that is not the case," he said.

While assessment for learning is not quite revolutionary, some teachers who have put it to the test have been astounded. One English teacher, following advice from a science colleague who took part in the Black box study, said:

"I tried it today with my Year 8s and it works. I had fantastic responses from kids who have barely spoken in class all year. They all wanted to say something and the quality of answers was brilliant.

"This is the first time for ages that I've learned something new that is going to make a real difference to my teaching."

'Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom' by Paul Black, Christine Harrison, Clare Lee, Bethan Marshall and Dylan Wiliam

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