When the half-term holidays come around I find myself looking forward to doing some hiking and hillwalking, however far too often the only mountain I saw during a break was a mountain of marking. This was typical for me – and I suspect, most teachers. We often spend our so-called free time catching up on marking and I was doing lots of it! As most people would be thinking of what to pack in their suitcase, I was printing off screeds of essays to take with me to the countryside. It’s not a good start to a holiday.
Over the years, I have struggled to reach the goal of work-life balance and I would point to the amount of marking I had as being the biggest obstacle preventing me from reaching this eldorado.
Keen to resolve this, I have sought new approaches to marking. Last year, I took a step back to reevaluate my practice and found a new, more sustainable path more in step with the practice of formative assessment.
I began by moving most of my marking online. This not only freed up space in my suitcase, it eradicated the towers of tests which were a constant physical reminder of the work I needed to do. I could now simply open the laptop and crack on with my marking. However, I discovered that moving online resulted in me working more not less – at least initially. The highlighter and comments features of a Google doc allowed me to be just as forensic in my marking as the red pen had and this was something I had always taken pride in. As an English teacher, I would highlight every error and students would expect this. The more comments there were on an essay, the more ‘feedback’ I was providing. It was exhausting and time consuming but the students would appreciate my diligence – or so I thought. And it didn’t end there.
I had created a colour coordinated Google spreadsheet to share with students too. After marking essays, I would write a summative comment in this spreadsheet and colour in some boxes using a traffic light system to show students to what degree they had demonstrated their skills and knowledge on the individual assignment. In this electronic format, my feedback was as detailed as ever and I was just as diligent. It was a colourful visual but I was going grey quickly. Where was the student in all of this?
My feedback was as detailed as ever and I was just as diligent but where was the student in all of this?
On the spreadsheet, there was a box for students to write some self-evaluation after they received their work back with all of my comments. They rarely completed this. I began asking myself why I was doing this at all. Was the student even reading my feedback? It was soon clear to me that I was wasting my time.
As I look back, it is of course not surprising that students didn’t engage with my feedback. In my feedback, I wasn’t asking them questions, often I was simply recounting what they had done or what they could have done differently. For example, I was telling them to improve essay structure by using paragraphs or to add variety by using broader vocabulary. This was rather useless. After all, if they knew how to do this, wouldn’t they already be doing so? As Douglas Reeves (Leading to Change: Effective Grading Practices) notes, this feedback was more a post-mortem than a medical. I had to take a step back and reevaluate my understanding of formative assessment.
In Embedded Formative Assessment, Dylan Wiliam writes that “feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor”. Wiliam notes that feedback is only useful to the extent that students can do something with it and that feedback should cause thinking and “increase the extent to which students are owners of their own learning”. I needed to rethink my feedback and demand more of my students. I was doing all the work!
The old idea of providing feedback on a document and asking students to reflect on this feedback was good. A better idea however would be a document requiring students to write initial reflections upon completing a piece of work before they receive the teacher’s feedback.
Students are asked to reflect on the following questions:
- What did I do well?
- What challenges did I encounter?
- What must I do to develop?
The students are being trained to routinely reflect on their work. This also offers the teacher insight into how the student is working and how reflective the student feels the assignment is of their true abilities. After they receive feedback from the teacher, students are once again asked to engage with this document by reacting to the feedback. This gives the student an opportunity to show their understanding or to ask for further clarification. To establish this routine it is recommended, at least at first, that students are given class time to complete their Progress Tracking Document (PTD). It is a lengthy process but it is time well spent.
Upon introducing the PTD, the immediate gains were clear. Firstly, the teacher can see that feedback is being read and engaged with and that time spent providing feedback has not been wasted. Secondly, when class time is allocated to PTD reflection under the teacher’s supervision, feedback becomes more work for the recipient than the donor. Over the course of a year, the PTD serves as a narrative of student progress and becomes a key document for holistic assessment.
Less work for the donor?
Providing feedback is still a lot of work for the teacher and simply starting to use a PTD without stopping to remove old practices will only add to the workload. I have heard teachers question what they should write in the PTD when they have written detailed feedback on the student’s essay or test. This is understandable and I have found that the most effective approach is to no longer add comments on student essays. I am also no longer an advocate for forensic marking. Instead, I use different colours to highlight sections in the student’s work and I ask questions of the students in the PTD relating to these highlighted sections. In a sense, the feedback takes on the nature of a treasure hunt.
Examples of my comments are as follows:
- The 3 yellow sections all have the same error in common – what is it? Write your corrections here.
- There are two errors in the pink section – find them and fix them.
- What makes the sentence highlighted in green particularly effective?
My feedback is now more focussed, I am causing thinking, and I am asking the students to do something with this feedback. With the PTD, students are taking ownership for their own learning.
In an effort to further reduce the writing the teacher is required to do, I have also experimented with providing video feedback. Using screencasting apps such as Screencastify or Loom, the teacher can record themselves marking the assignment in real time and then share the video with the student. The approach to marking is the same: the teacher highlights sections of the assignment and asks questions as they go. The student then has the responsibility of completing not only the initial reflection in their PTD but also a written summary of the teacher’s oral feedback and a reaction to this. I find video feedback has the benefit of being more personal. It allows for warmth and praise – those small but important ‘attaboys’ that would not usually make it into my written feedback. It requires more from the recipient when it comes to processing the feedback however the response I have received from my students has been very positive.
The journey I have been on to reduce workload and provide feedback with impact has and continues to be a long one. I was at a conference recently where John Hattie shared his observation and concern about teachers who think that being a good teacher is the same as being a busy teacher. I was and continue to be a very busy teacher but reflecting over and questioning my approaches to marking has been transformative for my teaching practice and for my students. It is also helping me reach that eldorado of work-life balance – one step at a time.
This post summarises the content of a presentation and workshop I delivered at the Practical Pedagogies Conference in Cologne, Oct 2018.