Time-saving alternatives to traditional written feedback – The Secondary Edition

Author: Natalie Nezhati, Educational content consultant

Ofsted’s Amanda Spielman recently announced some controversial proposals to bring the book scrutiny process online. Talking at the annual ResearchED Conference, she detailed plans for offsite inspectors to access scanned copies of student books outside of school grounds to ensure greater consistency in the judgements of their inspectors.

Concerned this might pressurise already time-pressed teachers into making lengthy comments in their students’ books, some school staff have expressed their reservations on the grounds of workload. This has promoted interesting discussions around issues of marking, workload, teacher time, school marking policies, the value of written feedback and the age-old question: Is all this excessive marking worth our time?

Proving that a fresh approach to assessment might be worth consideration, the much-acclaimed Michaela Community School, London just received outstanding grades in all categories following their most recent Ofsted inspection. The reason it’s famous? The school scrapped all written marking in books outside of lessons in favour of alternative feedback strategies.

Bearing in mind that the Department for Education’s 2014 Workload Challenge found that marking is the ‘biggest area that can lead to unnecessary workload’, Michaela’s radical marking policy has caused considerable excitement amongst teachers, with a shortened version of Michaela’s feedback policy widely shared on social media.

Michaela teacher, Katie Ashford, interviewed in TES, talks about their ‘unrelenting focus on reducing workload’ and ‘simplifying systems’, meaning that teachers have more energy in the classroom for their students. Rather than endeavouring to mark every piece of student work, teachers at Michaela use whole-class feedback, modelled work, automarking quizzes, as well as peer- and self-assessment.

Alternative approaches
Taking inspiration from the Michaela approach, it’s useful to think about alternative approaches to extensive, written feedback that support student progress while saving teacher time.

The idea of peer assessment to promote student reflection and a more active engagement with learning is now very much in the mainstream. There is, however, the danger that peer assessment can become tedious if repeated the same way every time; like asking students to mark against the same sort of criteria or overusing two stars and a wish. Instead, it can be useful to experiment with different approaches. Students might like to try using video or audio feedback, for instance. Alternatively, to promote independent learning and digital literacy skills, students might be instructed not to give their peer the ‘right answer’, but instead provide a link to resource where their classmate can discover it for themselves.

Technology can also offer a fresh approach to peer assessment. Using NetSupport School Q&A module, for instance, students can peer-assess their classmates in the style of a lively TV gameshow, each voting on whether an answer was given correctly. After a short pause to add to the drama (and a few seconds ‘wait time’ as per AFL best practice), the teacher can then display the correct and answer, complete with class results on their screen.

If a task requires written feedback it’s sometimes useful to take a more selective approach to marking. This might take the form of ‘focused marking’ against just a couple of criteria, rather than trying to mark for every idea or error. Some educators use `the yellow box’ approach to their marking, as outlined in the Teacher Toolkit’s excellent new book, ‘Mark. Plan. Teach’ This technique involves drawing a yellow box around a paragraph or two or student work and focus on thoroughly marking the enclosed section only. Students might later re-draft this section of work or use their feedback to self-mark the remainder.

Not only can this save considerable time, but the yellow box technique also increases the chance that students will read and thoroughly engage with their feedback. The strategy can also be used to support the delivery of cross-curricular spelling and grammar (SPAG) or applied to self- and peer-assessment strategies.

There are thankfully many different approaches to feedback that don’t involve yet another weekend spent with a pile of marking and green pen. Better stilll, these alternatives are not just appealing from a workload perspective, but potentially more effective for learning too.

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