Sunday 9 February 2020

Feedback should improve the student, not the work

This week I've been thinking about marking, feedback, and corrections. Marking books is one of my least favourite teacher tasks, and it's probably the one that takes up the most of my free time. I also believe it has the least impact on my students' learning, but only because the way I do it is pretty rubbish. And spending hours and hours of your free time doing something that you know is rubbish, makes you feel like rubbish. I decided it was time for a change.

Let me first explain the marking policy in my department, which I think is a pretty good one. Our students in years 7 to 10 have two books: a normal exercise book and an assessment book. They use the exercise book every lesson for writing notes, copying examples, answering questions, and doing homework. We teachers never mark this book, but students are expected to self-mark and correct when we go through answers in class. The assessment books are kept in the cupboard until the end of each chapter (roughly every 2-3 weeks) when students complete a semi-formal (silence, closed-book) assessment in them. We then collect these books in and mark them formatively and provide detailed feedback. The next lesson (ideally) we give these books out and the students have DIRT time where they respond to the feedback and do corrections and maybe follow-up questions. These are the books that we will show to the Ofsted inspectors when they come, and we make sure to impress upon our students the importance of upholding high standards of presentation in these.

This policy means that I only have to spend around three hours per week marking, which from what I've heard is pretty low compared to other schools, and is certainly low compared to teachers from other faculties within my school. I shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, and I should just get on with it and not complain. However, my questioner personality means I find it hard to follow policies, even ones that I was a part of creating.

Last weekend I was planning my lessons for the week ahead and I thought about the fact that my year 10s would be doing an assessment on the Tuesday. I knew they would generally struggle with the assessment because the questions were hard (it's a higher tier test and my students have targets of grade 5) and I knew exactly which questions they would be able to do and which they wouldn't, and why that is. That's when I started to question: what actually is the purpose of this assessment? And what will be the purpose of my feedback?

If you ask a load of teachers what the purpose of end-of-topic assessments is, you might get the following responses:

  1. so teachers can see how much students understand
  2. so teachers can see which bits they've taught well and which bits they haven't
  3. to inform the teacher's planning of the next unit
  4. so students know how much they understand
  5. so students can practise exam-style questions in an exam-style situation

Some of these purposes are good, some of them are bad. Some of them are being fulfilled by my assessments and feedback and some of them aren't. I can immediately eliminate purposes one and two. I already know both of these things, through my use of assessment in lessons throughout the chapter. Purpose three is also irrelevant in my case, because the units are usually disparate and unrelated. Chapter 5 might link to chapter 11, but by the time that comes around I would have forgotten this information anyway. Purpose number four sounds decent, but the assessment I was going to give them doesn't fulfil this purpose, as students could get every question wrong but still have 80% understanding of the unit. They could finish the assessment feeling like a failure when they might be close to getting it. Purpose number five is the only-non problematic purpose on the list, in my opinion. I could also add to that a sixth purpose, one that doesn't often get mentioned, which is to make use of the benefits of the Testing Effect, where being forced to retrieve information improves a student's long-term memory of that information. 

Now that I've decided my purpose of the assessment is actually just to expose students to exam-style questions, what should be the purpose of my feedback?

Some common responses:

  1. so students can see how much they understand
  2. so students can see areas they need to improve in
  3. to let the students know you care about them and build a relationship
  4. so the parents can see that you care
  5. so the school knows you are doing your job
  6. so Ofsted know you are doing your job
  7. so students can correct their work

Purpose number one we have already touched on when I said that students can't always gauge their own level of understanding. I could address this in my feedback, by RAGing each sub-topic for them, but what will students do with this information? If Ali is an amber in finding the surface area of a prism, how does knowing he's amber help him? Perhaps in year 11 this would be helpful, as he can add it to his revision timetable. This is also the problem with purpose number two. Yes maybe they need to improve their understanding of surface area, but when will they have the opportunity to do this, and how? I don't think setting them a video to watch at home is really sufficient here. They didn't understand it when you, an expert teacher, explained it first time round and gave examples and independent practice. They're not going to suddenly get it (and crucially, embed it in their long-term memory) when Mr Corbett or the Maths Watch lady explain it to them. Purpose number three is debatable. Surely there are other ways to show you care? Surely planning well-thought out and effective lessons shows students you care about their learning? Surely talking to the students in person is the best way to build a relationship? But I do kind of get it. Students definitely do like it when you write stuff on their work, and I know that I liked it when I was a student. It's almost like when someone "like"s or comments on your social media post. You ticking their work probably gives them a similar feeling of validation that the little heart in Instagram gives them. So fine, I'll accept that one. And then purpose four, whether important or not, is easily fulfilled in the same way. Purposes five and six can piss right off. I spend enough hours in the evenings and on weekends planning high-quality lessons and honing my craft through engaging with books, blogs, podcasts and academic research. Let them try and tell me I'm not doing my job.

And then there's purpose seven: so students can correct their work. This is what my written feedback has always been geared towards. I would circle bits that were wrong, correct little slips, give some scaffolding, write some hints (try factorising!) and then leave a nice highlighted box for them to do their correction in. The more I think about this, the sillier this seems. What is the point in a student correcting their maths work? If it's a small arithmetic mistake or little error (the equivalent of a typo), then correcting that mistake doesn't improve the student's understanding of the topic at all. If it's a conceptual error, then is a correction really appropriate, or would a do-over be better? And how can the student really do that without being re-taught that concept? Your cleverly written hints and scaffolding can allow them to produce the correct answer, but will that have a long-term impact on the child? Even if you have gone so far as to provide a follow-up question for everyone who got question seven wrong, won't it take more than just that to embed the concept that they failed to learn the first time round? And what if they've got five out of the ten questions wrong? Do you really want them to re-learn five concepts or skills in one DIRT session?

Marking students' books to allow them to do corrections individually takes absolutely ages. This careful hinting and scaffolding and follow-up questioning is extremely labour-intensive, especially when it's a challenging assessment. For this reason, many teachers opt to simply tick and cross the students' work, and then spend DIRT time guiding the students through every single question so the students can copy the correct answers down. This is much more efficient but seems kind of like cheating. It also makes you wonder what was the point of taking the books in at all? And if there's not much green pen in the book then how are we fulfilling purposes four and five of the second list?

After thinking about all of this I felt like there was absolutely no point giving this assessment and no point marking it. However, that just felt wrong and also I would get into trouble. So I tried to define for myself some new purposes that I could get on board with. And then I saw a Twitter comment that was linked from a thread that was linked from a thread that was linked from a thread about marking and feedback, and it was a lightbulb moment for me.

"Feedback should improve the student, not the work."

I think this is so powerful. Improving a piece of maths work has no long-term impact. It's kind of satisfying to do and it looks impressive to book-flickers, especially when you've done that thing where you go back and mark the corrections, so there are multiple layers of feedback and it becomes like a written dialogue. But this isn't improving the student. Going through the whole assessment as a class and copying down the correct answers probably has a small impact but it's probably not the best way of achieving the same effect. Going through one question at a time with extra practice in between, or even just re-teaching that sub-topic without referring to the assessment until afterwards may be better. 

However, I do want to do the assessment (because I have to, and because of purpose five from list one) and I do want to give written feedback (because I have to, and because of purposes three and four from list two) and ideally this feedback would do what @EduCaiti suggests and improve my students. But how? 

I did come up with something, but I don't think it's particularly great. I do think it's an improvement on what I'm doing before though. I decided that rather than focusing on improving the work that the students had done in the assessment, I would focus on improving something that would apply to other areas of maths, inside and outside assessments. I came up with the idea of having a specific "feedback focus" - one thing that I would focus on when marking their work. I would give the students specific and actionable feedback about that focus and that focus only (although I would also tick and cross their answers). The feedback focus I chose for this unit was "organising working out in a way that facilitates problem solving". I shared this with my students just before they started the assessment. I took their books in, and I marked for accuracy, and then I wrote a comment at the end, on a stuck-in sheet stating the feedback focus. I wrote things like, "The way you laid out question 4 was really good because you worked out each face separately and wrote these on separate lines. It would have been even more clear though if you had labelled these, e.g. front, back, top etc. This would have helped in question 7, when the top of the shape wasn't required as it's an open box." or "You write out the formula you're using at the start of each question which is great, but if you include the start of the formula too you would have less confusion (e.g. writing circumference = π x d is more helpful than just writing down π x d because then you're less likely to get mixed up with the area)." This might seem like it would take longer than my old style of marking but trust me it was much much faster. When I gave the books back, we spent DIRT time looking at photos I had taken of work that demonstrated good practice related to the feedback focus, then reading the comments I had written, and writing an action step based on my feedback. We didn't bother doing corrections.

Next time my students do an assessment I can remind them to look at their action step from last time and make sure they put it into practice. I can then comment on the new feedback focus as well as whether they have carried out their previous action step or not.

It's not anything amazing but at least I feel better about it. I think that whenever we spend a lot of time doing something we should always make sure to ask ourselves what our purpose is, and consider whether we are actually fulfilling that purpose. And if you can't find a good enough purpose for something, that probably means you shouldn't do it.

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