Saturday, 13 April 2013

Finding a common language - feedback and marking

My first post explained my aspiration for this blog but didn't really give an indication of how this managing variability thing can actually help in a classroom. Therefore I want to give a more clear example of what I'm talking about with this whole reducing variation thing...

The problem: Inconsistent Feedback and marking
Reviews of pupil's exercise books, "learning walks", and lesson observations highlighted that there was a wide range in the quality and quantity of written feedback and marking within the department. Some was little more than a tick and flick approach. Some had fairly detailed corrective work, but no other comments or targets. Some had extensive handwritten feedback.  It's fair to say we had the full range of practice, stretching from completely inadequate through to completely outstanding, and from clearly taking no time at all to a quantity of feedback so detailed that the time taken was significantly eating into the work/life balance of the teacher doing it.

A pupil voice
Critically as part of this - when pupils/students were asked, they basically didn't know what they needed to do to improve in mathematics. Vitally this included those with the really extensive comments that actually explicitly stated a recommendation or target for improvement. The written feedback even when it was there in quantity had simply not registered with them in a meaningful way. As a result they were also unable to converse about setting targets for themselves as they didn't have the vocabulary.

This would suggest that any time at all being spent on feedback was being wasted as the students weren't accessing it. Something had to change...

The goal: A common approach to feedback that captures the essence of the outstanding practice but maintains or reduced the overall workload of the department. In addition any changed process also has to improve the student's ability to recognise, access and act on the feedback - this isn't feedback for feedback's sake.

Obviously where next to no marking/feedback was being given then the workload for those involved needed to increase, since they were missing one of the basic requirements of being a decent teacher. However by giving a structure it gives this increase a clear focus and makes it easier to achieve. Those writing extensive feedback could actually afford to ease off a little if we provide a structure that captures all of their key points, and at the same time make the students more aware of it.

Establishing the essence of good feedback
Based on various models for feedback I came up with the following list of things that good feedback should include:
  1. a strength that the student has shown in their recent work (acknowledge success)
  2. an indication of the rate of the pupil's progress
  3. an indication of whether the pupil is working at, above or below their target (we don't need to give them a grade or level, just whether they are on target)
  4. an indication of how much effort we perceive that they are putting into their work
  5. a clear target indicating how to improve
The bold in the last one is deliberate - as this then sets the scene for further use of this feedback. Critically we need to be able to come back to this target and review progress towards it over a reasonable period of time.

Lots of topics - how do we set meaningful targets?
A key issue with the way that maths tends to work, at least in the UK, is that we roll through topics fairly quickly, and as such a target set relating to the work just done could be meaningless if the next topic doesn't use that skill. For example setting a target for a student to work on knowledge of circle theorems is really hard to review and revisit if the next topic is related to histograms. Discussion with the department highlighted that this was a real blocker to setting good targets.

It became clear we needed some targets that work across mathematical topics (just as spelling, punctuation or sentence structure can be applied across all areas of English). What we aimed for were targets that help the students to become better mathematicians, not necessarily help them to master a specific aspect of maths.

In a department meeting we got together to come up with a list of targets by scribbling ideas on post-it notes and then filtering them down into a set of common themes, and trying to write them in a way that students can access. We now have a list of 15 numbered targets (note this is still a work in progress), all of which are intended to help the student to become a stronger mathematician. We're still working on these 15 but it's a great start.

Improving visibility to learners
With a good list of targets we needed to fix the visibility issue. Based on some initial trials students gave more attention to feedback when it was both clearly labelled as feedback and also when they knew there was a particular thing to look for. Having gone through some development we have created a sheet that can be filled in electronically from a set of drop down menus for each student. We then print this out on coloured paper to help it stand out in their books. (the electronic basis also gives us a clear and lasting record of the feedback given). Students are given the sheets and asked to stick them into the book, and then comment on them. An example of the output is shown below.
As you can see, by filling in this sheet the feedback instantly meets all 5 of the requirements I laid out for good feedback. Clearly we will always have the question of whether the teacher has selected beneficial targets or been accurate in assessments, however the structure makes it substantially easier to do this in a matter of seconds following a review of the students work. Vitally it is MUCH faster than hand writing all of this detail.

The aim is to do this for every student at least once per half term, with self assessment of progress towards these targets between times.

Pupil views
Having tried this across a range of classes and discussed it with students it is noticeable that those in receipt of these feedback slips are:
  1. Substantially more aware that they have received feedback - they will rapidly flip to their most recent slip and are able to discuss it in terms of what they need to do to improve, and what they have done in recent lessons to help this.
  2. The quality of discussion about feedback is substantially higher as the consistent targets is equipping them with a reliable vocabulary to use.
  3. Through a common language students are better able to set targets for themselves and others as part of self and peer assessment. Groups have been setting their own targets from our list of 15 and then the teacher is just checking that they have chosen appropriate ones.
Staff views
I'll acknowledge not all were sold initially, however the whole department is now using this approach and we are seeing the benefits spread. It's not an overnight thing, but the clear benefits from pupil voice makes it worth it. The more embedded this gets the stronger it will become.

We are now much more able to remind students about the key thing they need to work on (e.g. "Brian, can you remind me what your target to improve is?" followed by "Can you show me where you've met this in your recent work?" is really powerful), and it is having a noticeable effect on the quality of learning conversations that are occurring in classes.

Departmental view
At a whole department level a recent book survey showed evidence in all books of good quality feedback, with meaningful targets set and referred to (a world away from where we were at the start of this process).  Many are starting to show evidence of early targets being met and new ones being set. It is clear that the students are responding more and more to these targets, both in written comments and also in the quality of the work done.

What's next?
This actually feels like the key to unlocking a whole range of improvements. By establishing a common language for teachers and students to use in terms of how to improve we are opening the door to more detailed and higher quality discussion with students about how they are learning.

Key next steps include final iterations of the targets and some work on developing the strengths to a similar level. We will keep reviewing the use of this and keep talking to the students about it. Simply having these little slips in student books is making a big difference to their perceptions of progress and how to improve - the future will look to build on this.

Thoughts welcome
So this is what I'm getting at with managing variability. We have put a system in place where it is substantially easier for the whole department to give good quality feedback, and thereby reduced the variability across the department.

Do you have any examples of similar initiatives? Could this help your department? Do you have any questions? - leave a comment as you need.


  1. Looks cracking Kev. Very nice idea and implementation. How do you feel about sharing your department targets and strengths?

    #protip: Mailing labels.

    Keep it up!

    1. Thanks Nik,

      Happy to share - targets are pasted below - can't say they're perfect, and I certainly use some more than others myself. However they're good enough to get the dialogue started and it's easier to polish a process up once it's in use. Longer term plan would be to get student input on them as part of a version 2 (probably in place for September)

      MT1 To always check your answers. Do they make sense?
      MT2 To make sure your final answer is clearly marked & improve clarity by always simplifying your answers as far as possible.
      MT3 To help you to remember key points, make your own notes, highlight and learn key words in lessons and tests, make sure you have a definition of them.
      MT4 To help you to remember key points copy the important parts of the question down so that the answer makes sense when you look back.
      MT5 To demonstrate that you have used the right method, showing your working fully so that there is clear evidence why your answer is correct.
      MT6 To ensure you get the correct answer by always applying BIDMAS when doing calculations.
      MT7 To answer all questions accurately by using the right units and rounding correctly.
      MT8 To answer questions independently by learning the key formulae required for your exam.
      MT9 To make sure your answers are reasonable, remember to Estimate, Calculate, and then Check all of your work.
      MT10 Learn your times tables, it will help you improve your confidence with numbers in general.
      MT11 To present your work neatly and use the correct equipment, which will improve clarity and accuracy of your work.
      MT12 To challenge yourself to improve by choosing the right level of questions during lessons and homeworks.
      MT13 To develop more independence by always trying three strategies before asking for help (Brain, Book & Buddy before Boss)
      MT14 To develop your skills when manipulating algebraic expressions.
      MT15 To persevere with a topic even when you find it challenging.

    2. Sorry - should have said - strengths are a bit more work in progress - probably something for a future post. Essentially we're trying to build the strengths in relation to a matching target, so if a target becomes a strength we know it's been achieved. Right now though we need a few more strengths to make sure we can find an appropriate one for every student. Upcoming dept meeting will be doing the post-it note thing again to try and improve the range we've got...

  2. Thanks, I found this really thought provoking and will probably steal your idea with some modifications for my own class.

    Also being from a programming background it gives me a little project to keep my skills refreshed!


    1. Thanks Rob - great to hear it's got you thinking. Would be interesting to see what you come up with from a programming point of view.

      Best regards,


  3. Thanks for this idea Kev, sounds brilliant. Do you already have this set up in a spreadsheet that you might like to share?

  4. Yes - dept spreadsheet is already running. I'll sort out a link to share it... will be part of an update to this post that is a work in progress at the moment. :-)

  5. Hi Kev, this looks great, I plan to try this with my team this term, any chance you could share the spreadsheet?

    1. Look in my "toolbox for a new term" post - the links are in there :-)