Making the move from written marking towards verbal feedback. Some practical tips.

I haven’t ‘marked’ a set of exercise books for any of my geography classes in over three years. Before any of you start screaming ‘competency measures’ at me and wondering how I am still in a job, let me elaborate.

My school has made the move away from traditional written marking as the main form of feedback, towards embracing verbal feedback methods. In 2018, myself and a maths teacher colleague Michelle Marshall, both of us from Reigate School in Surrey, took part in the Verbal Feedback Project, run by UCL and Ross McGill. The project was intended to allow teachers and leaders to begin conversations which would allow them to move away from the onerous and ineffective methods of traditional written marking, towards more immediate, effective and time-reducing methods of verbal feedback. In this blog, I will explain two of the main methods that we now use as a school. However, it is important to realise that each of these methods have one thing in common – they cause students to THINK HARD about any feedback given, and, crucially, the improvements that they subsequently need to make.

Why is thinking hard important?

Placing students in the ‘struggle zone’ at any point in a lesson is important. Bjork and Bjork coined the phrase ‘desirable difficulties’, and whilst this is often applied to tasks given during the deliberate practice phase of a lesson, it is pertinent to the feedback stage, too. As Daniel Willingham says, ‘memory is the residue of thought’. In other words, what students are made to think hard about, is more likely to stick. Ultimately, our long term goal is to make our students better geographers, mathematicians, etc., so thinking about how we go about doing this is crucial. Writing written comments in exercise books days or weeks after the event for students to passively read and often do nothing with resulted in little to no improvement, with teachers pulling out their hair wondering why in the next round of the marking cycle, their students were still making the same mistakes.

Consequently, any move that a school or individual makes towards verbal feedback needs to be an informed one, embedded in the findings of cognitive science that states that thinking hard is more likely to lead to meaningful learning. Each of the methods described below cause students to take ownership of understanding and identifying why and HOW they need to improve, so that next time they tackle a similar piece of work, they stand a greater chance of doing so with improved outcomes.

  1. Whole class feedback sheet – what is it?

There are plenty of examples of these online with boxes dedicated to improvements that need to be made, common misconceptions, spelling errors, etc. Mrs Humanities has an excellent one on her website, (shown here, along with a completed version) and a Google search will throw up a multitude of other examples. However, a plain piece of paper will work equally well – remember that it is the quality of your verbal feedback that is going to move your students forward, not the jazziness of your whole class verbal feedback sheet.

Completed whole class verbal feedback sheet.

How it is used:

A piece of work that the class has completed that is being checked by the teacher after the lesson, the teacher completes each box, noting down common errors, spelling errors, etc. on the whole class feedback sheet. In addition, improvements that need to be made are also noted on the sheet, with a code next to each improvement. JUST THE CODE (a letter or a number) is written in each student’s book. No other comments, other than a grade, if appropriate.

The next time the teacher sees that class, a copy of the whole class feedback sheet is uploaded onto the screen (I place mine under the visualiser) and students write down the improvement that they need to make in full. Rather than simply then being left to get on with the improvement, the teacher verbally explains what each code means, and models a good answer – ideally from scratch, demonstrating their thinking as they do so. It’s crucial that students do nothing else whilst this occurs, otherwise their attention and their ability to THINK HARD about the model answer will not take place. Common misconceptions are also addressed at this stage.

Then, having referred to each of the coded improvements during the live modelling (I do this under the visualiser so that I can face and monitor the class. I have a pre-prepared model answer off camera, which I’m now able to complete with the time I have saved due to no longer writing laborious comments repeatedly in students’ books), students are given a significant chunk of time to think about (given their improvement code) what their work was lacking compared to the model on the board. They then set about making those improvements.

At first, many will struggle. Stick with it. Remind them that being in the struggle zone is good for them and that it will help them to remember how to do better next time. Hands will shoot up as soon as the improvement time is given, with clamours for you to ‘have a look at mine and tell me what I need to do to improve’. Resist the temptation to dive in straight away and tell them – this removes the onus being on the child to think hard for themselves and whilst it might feel counterintuitive, they need to have a little bit of struggle first. If they have been left for a couple of minutes and they are still floundering, then some guidance can be given. As is the case with any stage in the teaching and learning process, some students will require scaffolding to reach the same point as their peers, and the feedback stage is no exception

2. Live marking.

This method utilises the idea that feedback is far better given straight after the students have attempted a piece of work, rather than with a two-week delay. It requires a visualiser (the best piece of tech a classroom can have!) A student’s piece of work is chosen – it does not have to be the best piece of work in the class. The teacher asks the class to watch and look at the screen, with pens down and doing nothing else, at the enlarged image of the student’s piece of work under the visualiser. Prior to the teacher reading and marking the piece of work, the class are reminded of the success criteria that they should all have been trying to use, eg, a wide range of key terms (on the board already), developed points, PEEL paragraphs. (Ideally, this will have been modelled before the students attempted the piece of work). The teacher picks out what is good about the piece of work, and things that could be improved, and with targeted, hands down questioning, asks the class to help them point out WHY these features are good or require improvement, along with HOW they could be improved. This is annotated onto the work by the teacher. At no point should any students yet be making any changes to their work. This will split their attention and will not result in them thinking hard enough about either activity, and the feedback processes will have been less effective.

Next, and this part is CRUCIAL, time is given for students to look at their work and compare it to the improved student work on the board. After having THOUGHT HARD (the common theme with all feedback), time is given for students to act upon the live marking and make their improvements. The students are again reminded that this process is not just about improving this piece of work, but about improving themselves as geographers, historians, etc. so that next time they complete a similar piece of work, they do so with improved outcomes.

Again, lower prior attaining students may need extra guidance here, but allow for them to enter the struggle zone first. Stand back and convey the expectation that all will think hard about what they have just watched and how those improvements can be applied to their work.

When a good idea can turn bad!

Please, please, resist any requests for you to evidence your verbal feedback. In particular, writing ‘verbal feedback given’ in books during class. Along with the dreaded verbal feedback stamp (they are there – just look online!!) This feeds into the evidencing machine and removes trust. In their most recent framework (September, 2019), Ofsted state that they do not require evidence of any one particular type or frequency of marking or feedback. Time spend writing ‘verbal feedback given’ on students’ work in class is time that could be better spent doing something else (that directly leads to learning!) and actually, doesn’t prove that verbal feedback was given! What’s to stop a teacher taking in a set of books and writing it in every book after the lesson?!

In essence, every time a teacher speaks to a student or the class, that is verbal feedback. It doesn’t need to be an ‘event’. It can be as low-key as circulating around the room, noticing that several students are making the same errors, stopping the class and re-teaching that aspect of the learning. Or speaking to one particular student, suggesting that they re-read a sentence they have just written just to check they are happy with it, and are returned to a minute or two later by the teacher for checking. Or it can be more formal such as the two methods I have discussed. Whatever the methods used, they need to be planned for and time allocated for them to be properly carried out so that they lead to meaningful learning and improvement over time.

A common retort to the suggestion that verbal feedback be used in the classroom is ‘I haven’t got time to do that, I’ve got to get through the content.’ My response to that would be that there is little point in ‘getting through content’ if mistakes and misconceptions are not corrected and hence little learning takes place. This leads to a model of ‘covered but not learnt’. Clever curriculum design which takes into account cognitive science, that is to say, an evidence-informed approach about how we learn and retain information, is what is needed, in order to sequence a curriculum which not only takes into account prior and future learning, but also allows time for concepts to be embedded through retrieval, high quality explanations, challenging (for all) tasks and effective feedback. With scaffolding woven throughout each of these strands.

So. If you would like to improve outcomes and reduce workload, go and start a conversation with someone of influence on your SLT. Who is in charge of improving teaching and learning in your school? Talk to them about the methods that more and more schools are now using –  some for quite some time, now, which put the onus on the student to think hard (crucial at all stages in the learning process) obviously with the teacher’s guidance, about how they can improve as learners. Take along a copy of a whole class feedback sheet (exactly what I did) or the Verbal Feedback Project report and Toolkit (links below)

Verbal Feedback Toolkit

It won’t be an overnight change, but starting the conversation can be the first step to improving student outcomes and banishing onerous written marking once and for all.

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