Improving Written Feedback

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This week I gave a seminar at TeachMeet Clevedon. I am going to post more fully on my topic of teachers getting better by undertaking ‘deliberate practice‘ sometime soon. One smaller aspect of my presentation was how teachers can improve written feedback, both to improve learning and to marginally reduce the time taken to give written feedback. With the gift of more time we can free ourselves to pursue becoming a better teacher more deliberately: with reflection, planning and deliberate practice. Of course, written feedback is so crucial that it can improve teaching and learning significantly, therefore it deserves our attention in its own right.

The following list of tips is a synthesis of my experience and that of my English department (see our policy for feedback here). It also draws upon many excellent teachers and their cumulative experience of effective written feedback.

Create a ‘marking rota’. There is little more disheartening than seeing a pile of marking that you know looms large like on on rushing tidal wave! Our instinct to procrastinate in such a situation and delay is human, all too human. One of the more simple but demanding solutions is to plan our marking more effectively. Aim to allocate a time and a place on a rota basis. Like many good things, the mantra should be ‘little and often‘. The wisdom-filled Kenny Pieper wrote this post on how he manages his marking workload with such a steady chipping away at the immovable rock here. We need to create positive cues to develop this habit and execute it daily. One nice little trick is to actually give students a date for when they will receive their feedback as part of your rota. This small commitment can help you stick to your rota and keeps you honest!

Give feedback in lesson time. One real focus for our English department this year was to improve the quality of formative feedback. By using ‘oral feedback stamps’, with students writing down own comments, it was an excellent way of crystalline those marginal but often crucial conversations we have with students. In ‘one-to-one feedback’ weeks we have endeavoured to interview every student. Such oral and written feedback combined in this way can have a very positive impact. We also use ‘two stars and a wish’ stamps, once more gaining marginally in terms of time taken for feedback. We are currently undertaking an RCT with year 9 students in an attempt to measure the impact of is strategy on attainment, but the gains in terms of term and given synchronous feedback is already evidence.

Don’t mark everything. Marking everything a student has written is obviously time-consuming, but more importantly it is ineffective. If we are to constantly correct all issues, always target improvements for our students, then students will become wholly dependent on the feedback we issue. We must make students independent in the long term, but along that path we should guide, no doubt, but we need to take the training wheels off, targeting our time where it will have most impact. With grammatical inaccuracies we could use literacy symbols, such as sp, to identify patterns that the students themselves can identify and remedy. We need not repeat these endlessly – but identify a pattern in a portion of the writing.

Refuse sub-standard work. This is a seemingly simple strategy, but it is powerful in its implications and ultimate impact. I always have deadlines for significant pieces of written work. Of course, some students miss the deadline, or just as bad, make a hash of it to meet the deadline. It can cause logistical issues in reality, but refusing sub-standard work and setting individualised redraft deadlines sends a potent message to students. By mid-year, students become trained in not handing it sloppy work. The time taken in marking as an exercise in correction and rewriting lessens and lessens. Students need to have internal standards for themselves and their work that is higher than they thought possible. Establishing this sense of pride takes time and effort, but the consequences can transform the quality of the written work your students hand in over the course of the year and beyond. In the words of Ron Berger, the assessment within the head of our students is really what we should focus upon transforming.

DIRT time. ‘Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time‘ was devised by the brilliant Jackie Beere. It is a reminder that we can spend every hour god sends slavishly marking, but if we do not give students an equally significant amount of time to reflect and respond to such feedback then our time becomes rather pointless! In the long term, students will understand the purpose of our written feedback if they understand how they can and why they should respond to it. If students see and feel the improvements to be gained from drafting and responding to feedback then your marking time will have a transformative value. Of course, they need training and time to do so.

Laminate assessment criteria and annotate. This strategy works particularly well with older students in my experience. By training students to understand the often jargon-laden language in the assessment objectives, you can then use the criteria in feedback. By laminating the criteria you can simply circle areas of the criteria (with an appropriate pen!), reducing the time taken on marginal or summative commentary. This can be used for multiple pieces of work.

Use codes instead of comments. Joe Kirby has written this excellent post explaining his methods – see here. We have all been in that position where we are marking each book and like Groundhog Day we are repeating ourselves ad nauseum! If you recognise the pattern across a group then condense the commentary down to a symbol. Discuss and feedback the meaning of that symbol in class. You can develop your own little hieroglyphic code for groups based on regular patterns! With literacy codes near universal in schools now students are well trained to recognise and act upon such shorthand information.

Self-assessment then teacher assessment. This is another powerful tweak to marginally improve our practice and better manage our time. Train students to rigorously self-assess (again, particularly older students can be trained to do this quite straight-forwardly with some targeted modelling) their written work. With training students can self-report feedback with unerring accuracy. By following such self-assessment with your usual teacher assessment you can typically reduce the depth required if summative comments and simply feedback on their self-assessment.

Investing time in peer and self-assessment. There has always been debate attending the value of peer and self-assessment. I have questioned my students systematically in the past and they prefer teacher assessment, but most value the feedback of their peers. Of course, some peer assessment is done badly and students smell a rat when this is the case. Like most valuable skills, students need close guidance, scaffolding and modelling of good quality feedback before they are able to do it well themselves. If you have consistent parameters and high expectations you can make it a powerful lever to improve learning. Ultimately, we want students to have the independence to sit in an exam hall and regulate their own responses based on intuitive self-assessment. This takes time and energy, but it is worthwhile. It has the attendant benefit of balancing the workload of the teacher in a practical and pragmatic fashion.

Unfortunately, I can’t magic away the hours required for high quality written feedback, but I remind myself of the impact it has and this makes it worthwhile. By executing some of these marginal gains in marking you can at least rest assured you have an effective and honed routine. Do note – the patterns that develop in my tips is that students need training to reflect and respond effectively to feedback in order to make it effective. I would add that we need to train ourselves more habitually in feedback habits if we are to sustain the highest quality of feedback.

Here are some useful links to feedback and marking blog posts:

Tom Sherrington has this very popular post on marking and ‘closing the gap’, with a particularly useful handout resource: http://headguruteacher.com/2012/11/10/mak-feedback-count-close-the-gap/

David Didau writes here about why written feedback is crucial and some useful tips, like ‘triple impact marking’: http://learningspy.co.uk/2013/01/26/work-scrutiny-whats-the-point-of-marking-books/

Mark Miller has produced this really useful set of tips to help get on top of marking: http://thegoldfishbowl.edublogs.org/2013/02/19/getting-on-top-of-marking/. mark also produced is post on marking written feedback more effective: http://thegoldfishbowl.edublogs.org/2012/09/23/more-effective-written-feedback/

I’m sure there are many more great posts on written feedback I have failed to mention. Do comment
with a link for a veritable one-stop-shop of marking tips!

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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

13 responses to “Improving Written Feedback”

  1. Martin Huxley says :

    Thoughtful post, thanks. I wonder if it is worth considering seriously the work set before any formative assessment; simply to ensure the work set is informative about the knowledge and skill base of the students. Something more open-ended perhaps?

    I do have a question regarding the verbal feedback. Students noting verbal teacher comments? Does it not make sure students nothing better than glorified scribes? Noting down comments primarily for others benefit E.g. Book trawls and the dementors…Surely more effective is getting students to act on that verbal feedback rather than write it down verbatim?

    • huntingenglish says :

      I understand your point Martin. The recording isn’t for OFSTED inspectors, although I understand the pressures and this is an added bonus in terms of accountability. The writing is for different reasons: all being focused in on the quality of the learning. Students often forget in a micro second the feedback you give them in my experience – which can be so frustrating! The writing has the purpose of ensuring students understand and translate the feedback, hang in n the essential targets from what is said. Secondly, it gives the student and the teacher a written record of comments/targets. This is helpful when referring back and it builds an ongoing bank of comments where patterns can emerge. Simply stamping is pointless box ticking which I abhor. I think this is a practical strategy that scaffolds their subsequent actions.

  2. mrlockyer says :

    Great post and good advice! I wrote about how I think marking is broken and how it can be fixed a few weeks ago in this post:
    http://www.classroomtm.co.uk/marking-is-broken/ – it is from a Primary perspective but I’m sure will have some use!

  3. mrlockyer says :

    Hello – I wrote about this a few weeks ago at: http://www.classroomtm.co.uk/marking-is-broken/ – a primary perspective but hopefully quite helpful for some!

  4. paddingtonteachingandlearning says :

    Reblogged this on paddington teaching and learning and commented:
    An absolutely brilliant post on strategies for improving the effectiveness and efficiency of extended written feedback. Much in place at PA, but many new ideas here too.

  5. Arun Allen says :

    Hello Alex,
    Have you considered having this published? I’m the Marketing Exec at Innovate my School and I’ve just read this post. It’s high quality work and a lot more teachers could benefit from your advice. If you don’t mind us publishing the first two paras, with a ‘Read More’ button going straight here, and having a short profile of yourself at the bottom, we’ll be delighted to put this on our ‘Inspiration’ page. Please send me an e-mail, thank you 🙂

  6. david jones says :

    Thanks for sharing your ideas-shared again via our Learning Thoughts to staff. We also use oral feedback stampers and different versions of DIRT and 2 stars and a wish. Currently we are focusing on peer assessment and had the obvious concern that peer assessors on their own can get it wrong and have began to develop peer verification/triads where the student’s learning is peer assessed by one assessor and then verified by another. The three then get together and negotiate an agreed outcome-might be grade/SOLO/bronze, silver, gold etc. There are ‘peer verified’ stickers to support the initial part and then we expect the feedback/feed-forward given by the peer assessors to be acted on and then checked for successful completion-in the same way that the teacher checks that their feedback has been met. The ensuing dialogue hopefully has an impact on the learning and progress [fingers crossed!] and crucially develops oracy and the language of learning that our students, who are below national average levels when they arrive, need to narrow any gap.

    The process needs time in lessons and friendly criteria so that all can access the learning-our TAs scribe low ability thoughts [‘you said…’] so that the issue of not being able to read the other student’s work/or their own writing doesn’t lead to frustration. Staff have also developed sentence stems to support and model good peer assessment and we have a adapted Lisa Jayne Ashes’ FISH to help them make nice, supportive comments! Different depts. and colleagues are at different stage of development but we are on our way-it should be fun!

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