Is Written Feedback a Waste of Time?

Is it worth it?

Is written feedback a waste of time? For years I have had reservations about current marking and feedback practices but I have always been hesitant to challenge it. Mainly because there is so much hype and pressure due to what Ofsted was saying (or not saying) that drove us to madness in having student exercise books become beacons of rapid progress. This led to many policies (including the ones I have written) that specifically laid out the perfect path for students to demonstrate their learning – there is DIRT time, MAD time, green pens and red pens, rainbow of highlighters, coding and yellow boxes.

Seriously?

Is learning linear? Can you actually see progress in a student’s exercise book? Is the time marking and providing written feedback even effective?

Who are the policies for anyway? I can’t see it being for the students; instead it’s for us because this is what we always do – teachers mark, students respond, parents are happy (government and leadership too).

Written feedback is not the only type of feedback

Hattie’s (2013) meta-analysis suggests that feedback is effective, yet, he does not specify which type of feedback is making the most impact on student learning. However, in many schools his research is highlighted to justify rigid marking policies that is primarly focused and monitored around written feedback. Evidence does suggest that written feedback has a place and has more impact than presenting students with just a grade or nothing at all (Elawar & Corno, 1985). Yet the Education Endowment Fund (2016) most recent survey of the literature finds no substantial evidence that written feedback is helping student make massive gains – especially in regard to the effort and time invested in the process.

I think sometimes we forget that there are other forms of feedback that can play a part in the classroom (which are less labour intensive, simple and more effective). For example oral feedback can be more effective than written feedback (Boulet, Simard, & de Melo, 1990) and the use of mini-whiteboards, diagnostic multiple choice and collaborative marking opportunities can quickly inform teachers of the students’ level of comprehension. This allows the teacher to make changes, if necessary, to the lesson or planning to help students make progress (Wiliam, 2011). Yet, these examples and other types of feedback appear to be ignored or forgotten (and in many circles, purposely side-lined).  Why? Because it can be too hard for us to evidence this type of progress (which raises another question – does evidence always have to be in the books?) and poor teacher execution has doomed many formative assessment strategies.

Formative Assessment

Formative assessment is commonly referred to in some staff rooms as Assessment for Learning (AFL). AFL came into prominence with the popularity of Black & Wiliam’s (1998) paper Inside the Black Box which provides evidence of the positive impact peer and self-assessment, clarity in learning intentions and feedback (in its many forms) can have on student progress. However, its rapid rise was also its demise. Politicians and school leaders quickly jumped on it and it became very common a few years back to see every student writing out lesson objectives, completing two or three mini-plenaries and tick box peer and self-assessment activities on every other page in student’s exercise books. AFL soon faded (in my area, has it in yours?), and in my experience AFL is seen as a fad. Even recently I had an Ofsted inspector say to me that peer assessment was worthless and should be avoided like the other AFL stuff. However, I disagree, and believe that the evidence for formative assessment was misconstrued or poorly implemented (the difficulty sometimes in translating research into practice) which led it to its current exile.

Current marking policies are heading in the wrong direction

Though, now, I firmly believe that current marking and feedback practices are going the wrong way. The culture that has formed around written feedback is sucking the life out the profession. It has contributed to increased workloads, created a belief that a good teacher mark loads and the process has become increasingly burdensome to teachers (Report of the Individual Teacher Workload Review Group, 2016). In addition, little evidence is available to support that current marking and feedback practice is making any impact (Elliot et al, 2016; Didau & Rose, 2016). However, evidence does exist that feedback in all forms (of high quality) and formative assessment can lead to rapid student progress (Hattie, 2013; Wiliam, 2011). That is why I am making a change is September.

A different way

This summer I made the decision to stand against the current and have introduced a new marking and feedback policy in which written feedback is no longer a requirement. The focus is to be placed on formative assessment practices and our CPD is tailored to dedicated practice of a few strategies to create habit forming changes to teaching execution to improve quality. The emphasis for teachers will be about what we have learned from our formative assessments and how our planning has changed to reflect our findings. Students are responsible for SPAG and how they act of on feedback. Green pens will still be used for students to respond in, but it is for the teacher or the students’ peers to provide direction and the student to do the work.

I’m leading the school down a different path but one I feel can will improve student responsibility, improve teacher work life balance and help teachers receive a better return for their effort. At no point do I believe this will be easy or readily accepted but I feel that the challenge is worth taking.

References

Black, P. J. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through classroom assessment. London: King’s College London School of Education.

Boulet, M. M., Simard, G., & De Melo D. (1990). Formative evaluation effects on learning music. Journal of Educational Research, 84(2), 119—125.

Didau, D. & Rose, N. (2016). What Every Teacher Needs To Know About Psychology. Melton, Woolridge: A John Catt Publication.

Elawar, M. C., & Corno, L. (1985). A factorial experiment in teachers’ written feedback on student homework: Changing teacher behaviour a little rather than a lot. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(2), 162—173.

Elliott, V., Baird, J-A., Hopfenbeck, T., Ingram, J., Thompson, I., Usher, N., Zantout, M., Richardson, J. & Coleman, R. (2016). A Marked Improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking. Education Endowment Foundation. April (Read here).

Hattie, J. (2013) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning. London:Taylor & Francis.

Report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group (2016) Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking. March. (Read here)

Wiliam, D. (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment. Indiana, USA: Solution Tree Press.

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