'I've given up grading students' work - and so should you'
Teachers are grading too much. Or, at the very least, we’re doing far too much of the wrong sort of grading; the sort of that keeps pencil cases open, and mouths and hearts shut. We’re spending too much time ticking, flicking and dicking about in the children’s books and it simply isn’t fair. On us or on them.
This perverse situation has presumably been caused by the more earnest among us wrongly interpreting “feedback” as “spending loads of time writing comments in books that kids will spend no time reading”.
It does not have to be this way.
Last year, I decided I wanted to have more time to do fun things like eating, sleeping and gouging my eyes out. And so, apart from the once half-termly assessment that is treated to the credit of my cursive, I have abandoned written grading and marking.
In fact, I have devised a scheme that ensures not a single book gets touched.
The personal touch
It works like this: twice weekly, midway through a lesson, once I’ve set the students off on an extended writing task (18 minutes minimum), I haul a desk to the front of the classroom and sit myself down on a chair under the white board, facing the class. Once the pupils have marvelled at the ease and skill with which I have lifted what must surely be a cumbersome desk, they start working, and I start calling them up.
One by one, students “come up” and talk me through some of the work in their exercise books. They turn the pages and read sections of their efforts to me. More often than not, they beam with pride as they see my eyes slowly widen with wonder as I listen to them read aloud a piece of their work that demonstrates genuine skill. And yes, occasionally, they cower in shame when I spot a piece of work that has been left incomplete. But that’s no bad thing. They never make that mistake again.
Whatever happens, as this conversation takes place I’ll always indicate my respect for the other party by doing one or more of the following things:
* Asking questions about their work.
* Suggesting ways in which their work can be improved.
* Interrupting the rest of the class with excited proclamations of this particular student’s greatness.
Once this sincerely heartwarming exchange – sorry, dialogue – has taken place, the student then sits there, right in front of me, and improves the work based on the verbal feedback I’ve given.
Now that’s the sort of feedback I like: it’s personal, it’s interactive, and sometimes it’s even interesting.
In 18 minutes, I’ll generally manage to see about four or five students, but it depends on how many pieces of work I want to look over. Sometimes I’ll have students write for longer so I can give more feedback.
Using this method, with the personal interactions involved, it wasn’t long into the academic year before I got a sense of which students needed calling up more often and whom I could leave for a week or two.
Over the course of about three weeks, I’ll see everybody – and then I have a very good idea of where students are in terms of their progress.
Sometimes I do get up off my backside. This is where a decent highlighter comes in handy. Much like Severus Snape, I circulate the room invading the personal space of students with my (neon) wand. If I spot a punctuation error or a misspelled word, or even, if I’m feeling particularly efficient, an adjective that I find simply infuriating, I’ll swipe at it with my highlighter (always pink), leaving their work indelibly branded, and then walk away, mysteriously silent.
Strangely, the students grin with delight as they see me frowning over their shoulder at them like the pantomime villain.
“Lordy lawks, why’s he gawn and ’ighlighted that? What’s wrong with it? Have I spelled ‘impecunious’ wrong again? Silly me!”
Children just love solving mysteries. And solve them they do. For the times when they’re simply stumped, I’m just a raised hand or eyebrow away.
So why do I favour the verbal feedback method over innumerable hours spent bent over books?
There are a few reasons, actually:
1. Grading is not an efficient use of my time
The time that teachers spend doing marking can always be better used doing other things that, in the end, will have a greater impact on the educational outcomes of the pupils under your tutelage. Like reading books, for example.
In the Sutton Trust’s report What Makes Great Teaching?, it is stated that “the most effective teachers have a deep knowledge of the subject they teach”.
The way I see it, every two hours spent grading 30 books (and that’s a conservative time estimate), is two hours when I have actively chosen not to make myself more knowledgeable in my subject area.
It’s two hours when I could’ve read a new specification, annotated a copy of next term’s text or read a Dickensian description of some fog in preparation for a lesson on periodic sentences.
2. The written word is flawed
Have you ever tried correcting a student’s misunderstanding of iambic pentameter through writing alone? It’s impossible. Correcting a student’s misunderstanding of iambic pentameter requires lots of smiling and lots of soft, sympathetic utterances such as, “You with me so far?”
Sometimes, the things that children get wrong simply need to be talked through. And if only one pupil has got iambic pentameter wrong, then why stop the whole class to talk through it all again? Verbal feedback during the practice period eliminates this problem.
3. Short-term, actionable targets work best
The Education Endowment Foundation’s report A Marked Improvement? cites evidence that improvement is greater when students are given short-term goals that they can act on quickly (see box, below).
Because of this, lots of schools make use of Directed Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT), where a section of the lesson is dedicated to students acting on targets set during the most recent written feedback period. I dread to think how much valuable curriculum time is taken up by DIRT activities, especially for students whose teachers are dedicated advocates of the written marking method.
But also, the thing with DIRT is, it’s not real-life. It’s acting on targets out of the context of the usual lesson format. But this isn’t the case with the verbal method, which allows the teacher to give a student an instant, real-world target that they can work on right there, right then, during practice, without the need to take precious time away from the subject matter that the students should be learning.
4. Lack of evidence
Considering that “acknowledgement” marking (or, as it's otherwise known, “tick ’n’ flick”) is so popular, it is interesting to note that the EEF states that “no strong evidence suggests that acknowledgement marking contributes to progress”.
As for the frequency of marking, the EEF says that “no studies on the frequency of marking were found”. So why would I waste my time ticking and flicking every spare minute I get? For the pupils’ morale and confidence? I boost their morale and confidence, but I do it by looking them in the eye, smiling and saying, “That’s a great piece of work you’re doing there.”
While I have come at this from an English teacher’s perspective, the verbal feedback method lends itself well and easily to other subjects, too.
Take physical education, for example: imagine if a student completely misunderstands the way that a hinge joint on the knee works. What’s going to be a more effective way of correcting this misunderstanding? A hasty, tatty drawing done in the margin of their exercise book, or a spoken explanation complete with gestures that point to – yep, you guessed it – a real-life hinge joint?
History teachers: are two lines of A4 really enough to elucidate a student’s sketchy understanding of the complexity of the causes of the Wall Street Crash?
And kindergarten teachers: there’s no need to waste reams of paper with written feedback on your waste and the environment project – just use the verbal feedback method instead!
Of course, some will argue that this approach displays a lack of respect for the students in my care. The pupils write for me and, therefore, I should repay their efforts by marking their books. Surely, it’s the least I can do.
Some will argue this approach displays a lack of respect for students
And yet, what is a bigger indicator of the respect I hold for my students: a clumsily articulated comment that tries to both praise their efforts, explain misconceptions and make suggestions for improvement, dished out simply because that’s what teachers have always done? Or having a conversation? A conversation with the facial expressions, eye contact and the rhythms and cadences of speech that exist only in an interchange between two people who are involved in the creation of something that could be great?
The written marking method says, “I write over your work because what I think is all that matters”; the verbal feedback method says, “This is what I think about your work; what do you think?”
Others might argue that the verbal method is lazy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As I’ve already mentioned, the time saved by not rigorously writing comments in books that students will ignore can be spent doing other things that have been shown to improve the educational outcomes of students. Try practising, in front of the mirror, for an hour, explaining how osmosis works, again and again, until it’s word-gesture perfect and content perfect. Ticks and “Well dones” are easy. This isn’t.
And let’s not forget the assessment that I am marking, using the written-method, once per half-term. For a teacher with six classes of 30 students, that still comes to a grand total of 23 essay-length assessments being marked, per week, based on an eight-week term. In a six-week term, it’s 30 per week.
Some might argue that considering the lack of evidence on written marking, even this is futile, but I’m not totally deinstitutionalised; I still see the value in written marking and, indeed, of carefully used DIRT.
I believe it’s not that we need to be marking more; we need to be marking more intelligently.
I ensure that my marking of written assessments is rigorously undertaken, and that students are given a SMART target they can act upon in next lesson’s assessment DIRT.
Because I’m not dishing out written feedback every week, when I do, it hits home. Students know that anything I do commit to writing, because I do it so sparingly, must be important.
For those of you who worry about student and parent reaction to such an approach, I urge you: speak to them. Read about the evidence base that surrounds marking, then tell both the children and their parents just how flimsy it is.
Go further and tell them what you will be doing instead of spending hours writing different targets in different books: practising explanations of difficult concepts in front of the mirror; annotating next term’s class reader; writing model answers for student scrutiny. Tell them you’re going to make them better with conversations; not with cold and impersonal scrawlings.
Matt Pinkett taught for four years in a large “outstanding” comprehensive in the South East of England before taking up a post as head of English at a new school this September. He tweets at @Positivteacha