Scrap books

Teachers spend 40 per cent of their time marking, yet pupils rarely read beyond their grades. John Oversby believes traditional exercise books should be retired

"What should we do now?" 13 year-old Russell asked, as I wrote in a new exercise book after telling the class a little of the history of the Periodic Table.

"I am putting the ideas down in my own words," I said.

"Do you think I should do that?" he responded.

"Only if you would like to make sense of the new knowledge for yourself," I explained.

The class started writing. After a while, I went over to Russell. "May I look in your book, please, Russell. Sometimes, by reading what someone else has written, it helps me to think better."

"Certainly, Sir. May I look at your notes, too?" It was not long before Russell asked for his book back so he could add to his account.

Exercise books in science are often a mixed collection of writing: reports of experimental work; answers to questions in a textbook; interpretations of a portion of a textbook; practice calculations; worksheets with gaps to be completed that may or may not be stuck in. Sometimes, there will also be teacher writing, perhaps in red or some other colour that is supposed to be less threatening. Occasionally, the teacher's comments are in the form of a dialogue. More commonly, there will be fulsome social comments such as "Very good. Keep it up". Often, there will be instructions such to complete a piece of work, or to correct some explanation usually ignored by the student.

What are the purposes of exercise books? In a survey carried out by PGCE students at the University of Reading recently, we discovered that parents and teachers often saw the function of exercise books to be hand-written revision books. The major purpose of marking then appeared to be to make the books completely accurate so they could be used to prepare for examinations. In many of the schools, Year 7 students wanted to use their exercise books to try out their ideas with their teacher, but by Year 10, students had accepted the traditional view that the books were for revision. Interestingly, books were carefully checked for accuracy to GCSE level but very rarely afterwards.

While teachers usually spend around 40 per cent of their time marking books, we could not find any evidence of a rationale for what should go into the books, or of internal moderation processes. We also found out that the students had purchased revision books, either provided by the schools or bought privately. These books were well used.

Do exercise books have a future in the face of well-written revision books and the tremendous pressure of teachers' time? Many teachers respond to mistaken ideas, or difficulties in completing work by most children in a class by the sensible approach of devoting part of the next lesson to remedial teaching.

A simple concept map joins only two concepts by a statement linking the two. They are much quicker to make than a traditional map and can be used to test ideas, too. As an example: speed -

in a fixed direction is -

velocity. ) The students are given "speed" and "velocity" and asked to construct the linking statement. Group work, such as preparing a simple concept map in class, can give a teacher enough useful information to assess progress in much less time and more immediately than marking a whole set of exercise books.

In one class I had, groups of three students prepared joint homework. Each student had made a draft of the best of their ideas on the task I had set.

I allocated one of the students each week, on a rota, to collect the homework and put together the best effort.

Sometimes the task consisted of questions to answer and sometimes I gave them misconceptions to set right. For example: Colette believes that the pH of a solution always decreases when water is added. How could pupils show Colette a different way of thinking? Or: Sam is sure that a solution of a salt always has a pH of 7 since it can be made by neutralisation. How could pupils improve Sam's thinking about this matter?

I was able to give more reasoned and full responses, with more examples, as I only dealt with one-third of the books. Detailed marking was provided by writing codes on their books, for example, AL for accurate labelling of a diagram that I had issued, or WC for "what causes that?" where I wanted a cause and effect explanation rather than a description. The students decoded these and wrote these into their books, ensuring that they would read my comments. They also wrote their own reactions or actions to the comments, so that I could assure myself that they were taken seriously.

Meanwhile, Ann looked at her book, full of my comments in the written work she'd made in class and at home. "I got a B," she said to her neighbour and turned over to a new page. There was no discussion about the comments.

It was at this point that I decided not to put a grade on work in progress again. There were some complaints from the students but these stopped after a while, and they focused on the comments I had carefully crafted.

Does change take more of a teacher's time? I now mark less and the comments are more useful. Part of the time I have saved can be used for my personal development. Putting control in the hands of the students can liberate the teacher from the tedium of checking all the work. Sampling some of the students' work is enough to see that the system is working.

In one lesson, Helen, 9, was checking that she knew the Earth was round from her own writings. "I can't do this, John, because I have written that the Earth is an oblate spheroid." That sparked a discussion which revealed her extensive and deep knowledge about the solar system that I would never have found if I had simply marked her book.

John Oversby works at the Institute of Education, University of Reading

A short article was published in 'Science Teacher Education', p 14 2005 (published by the Association for Science Education). A report from a conference on June 3 is available from:

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