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

Author: Natalie Nezhati, Educational content consultant

Most teachers would agree that the least enjoyable part of the job is the endless marking but probably accept that it’s necessary for student achievement. After all, any well-informed educator will understand that high quality feedback can enhance outcomes and that regular, timely assessment is key. But this awareness can lead to excessive marking. Not to mention entire weekends lost to marking and a hanging sense of guilt when they are not marking!

Senior staff at Three Bridges Primary School in west London suspected there might be a better way. Originally from Canada, the school’s Deputy Head, Jeremy Hannay, says he was surprised to learn how much time UK teachers devote to marking. Hannay and his colleagues consequently decided a new approach was needed. This meant moving away from extensive written assessment and placing greater emphasis on oral feedback, peer-to-peer methods and techniques to promote student reflection. The approach seems popular with staff and some even Tweet about their school using the hashtag #happiestschoolonearth.

As with all the best assessment models, the school’s thoughtful feedback policy emphasises the importance of engaging students in a dialogue and improving metacognitive skills. It states that “The best feedback, whether it is written or verbal, will give pupils a clear sense of how they can improve, with pupils responding and making progress as a result.”

Taking inspiration from The Three Bridges approach, it’s useful to think about ways of enhancing student feedback in a way that promotes student progress without placing excessive demands on teacher time – like taking a more selective approach to written feedback. After all, even the national director for education at Ofsted has said that “there is remarkably little high-quality, relevant research evidence to suggest that detailed or extensive marking has any significant impact on pupils’ learning.”

Since there’s evidence to show that grades will often overpower a teacher’s comments, it can be worth taking a more focused approach to written feedback, perhaps to concentrate on one or the other. As part of the ‘Flash Marking project’ set up by teacher, Sarah Cunliffe, the Education Endowment Foundation will soon be conducting a trial of the effects of removing grades with a focus on codes representing subject skills. Similarly, Sue Cowley recommends that teachers simply make a numbered list of common errors, meaning that when they mark student work they can quickly add a corresponding number. As well as saving time spent repeating comments, the technique also encourages student engagement since it’s the learner’s responsibility to look up the feedback.

Quicker still, is an automarking quiz system such as NetSupport School’s student testing module. Students benefit from instant feedback on their performance, including the questions they answered correctly and information about where they can improve, while teachers can use this formative record of assessment to inform future learning without carting any marking home. To make things even simpler, teachers can now access the NetSupport Resource Centre, where they can share their quizzes and access learning materials from other teachers. The quizzes can be reused year after year so teachers are free to adapt the learning to the needs of their students.

When considering any strategy, it’s worth remembering John Hattie’s words that, “The most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback. The simplest prescription for improving education must be ‘dollops’ of feedback.”

Many find that one of the most straightforward feedback strategies is to model work, encouraging students to contribute with their comments and questions. With NetSupport School’s ‘Showcase Screen’ feature, you no longer need a visualiser for this kind of whole-class feedback, and, with the option to showcase individual student screens, a teacher can model a piece of classwork at any point in the lesson. As always, when modelling a student or teacher’s work, it’s equally useful to use work that is non-exemplar, undeveloped or otherwise ‘imperfect’ to encourage student evaluation.

Although many schools still use time-consuming triple-impact or ‘deep marking’ techniques, Hattie’s research, Hannay’s feedback policy and even Ofsted’s reassurances, are a good reminder that feedback needn’t be arduous to be effective.

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