What has the greatest effect on student learning? According to John Hattie, Professor of Education at University of Melbourne (formerly at University of Auckland) it is Feedback. He gives it an effect size of over 1, which equates to a 2 grade leap at GCSE. Additionally, the Sutton Trust concluded that, if delivered well, “effective feedback” can boost learning by an extra nine months in an academic year. This would involve understanding where their pupils are in relation to learning goals, adapting teaching in response, and planning how to plug the learning gaps. Hattie phrases it as ‘Where am I going? How am I going? Where to next?’ Most provocatively, Phil Beadle in his book ‘How to Teach’ argues that even if the quality of everything else you do is at best mediocre, if you mark their books ‘with dedication and rigour…your class will fly.’
So, the aim of this blog post (my first!) is to explore what this might look like in the classroom, not just mine, but some of my colleagues as well. Much of the content and inspiration for this blog comes from esteemed bloggers that I have read over the last month. These include David Didau, Alex Quigley, David Fawcett, Lisa Ashes and Tom Sherrington. I will try to ensure I credit them where I borrow.
Reflecting on my own practice over the last 15 years
Although it was extremely enlightening to read about these great ideas and initiatives in relation to feedback it was also hugely depressing to think about all the wasted effort I had put in over the years writing very detailed comments in students books. Some may have read them carefully and been clear on what they did well and what they could have improved, a small minority may have even used the advice to improve their next piece of work. The truth is I don’t really know. However, what I do now realize is that many would have just glanced at them, been more interested in the grade and moved on to the next piece of work and drawn a line under the last assignment. To support this, David Didau states in his blogpost on feedback that ‘approximately 70% of the feedback given by teachers to students is not ‘received’. That is to say, the students either don’t read it, don’t understand it, and don’t act on it’. I was always very conscientious about what I wrote and did try to focus on the process, but it was done in isolation with little or no opportunity to ‘act on it’. The disappointing things is that I have had the pleasure of working in some wonderful schools where the students are eager to improve, but I was not giving them the immediate chance to do so. The feedback was always the last thing and then we moved on to the next bit of the curriculum. And most frustratingly of all, it was all taking a long time. Below I outline strategies that I have read about and liked a lot, some of which I have already tried in the classroom
1. DIRT: Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time
This is so obviously a great strategy that would pay immediate dividends, but I am ashamed to admit I have very rarely done it. Generally speaking it works like this: after they get their books back they must then respond to the advice, questions or tasks you have written for them. This could be for 15 minutes or be designed to take up a whole lesson. Didau, in his blog ‘Making Feedback stick‘, outlines a strategy called Triple Impact marking that I would like to become common practice in my own classroom and school. The second and third ‘impacts’ give you a good idea of what DIRT looks like. This is it:
- Students proofread work and highlight where they have met success criteria – this could either be self or peer assessment.
- The teacher corrects misapprehensions and asks questions about the students’ work: How could you…? Why might…? Do you think…? and sets a specific task which will require students to act on the feedback they’ve been given ie. Rewrite the 2nd paragraph ensuring that you…
- Students answer the questions and complete the tasks using the feedback they’ve been given.
The Saffron Walden County High School call this ‘Closing the Gap’ and the whole school strategy is described by Tom Sherrington here. Students at this school are expected to respond to feedback straight away, which leads to dialogues appearing the books between them and the teacher.
I had my first go at doing this seriously with a Year 9 class. They have just been researching the horrors of the slave trade and using the information they collect to write a speech to be delivered in the House of Commons. It is an activity taken from the SHP History series of textbooks. When they had completed the speech they shared it with a partner who would critique it. We started by considering how to be an effective critiquer and arrived at something close to kind, helpful and specific. They then used a mark scheme I had designed for this piece of work and ticked off criteria they felt their partner had met, giving praise for what they liked and identifying one paragraph that could be re-drafted. They used the language of the mark scheme to explain what needed to be done to improve this paragraph. The books were given back and students were given time to act on this feedback in class and at home. The quality of the finished work was phenomenal. Here is one example:
In the current mock exams I have decided that we are going spend a significant amount of time reviewing and reflecting. I am going to give them a checklist of what could have gone into their answers and what makes a well structured answer. They will then check off their answer against this. Additionally, on their papers I am going to identify factual errors (FE) and spelling, grammar or punctuation errors (SPAG), which they will need to correct. This will probably mean some extra reading. They will then be given the opportunity to ‘re-draft’ one section of the papers, which will hopefully lift their confidence, as I have found the mocks can sometimes knock their confidence.
2.Clean time: Real time feedback
To go one better than DIRT time, technology allows us to assess the students work whilst they are writing it and offer them advice they can act on during the process. I have Wikis set up for all my classes which include my lesson narrative, the resources embed into that and assessment criteria. The other great feature of Wikis is the ability to create pages for the students to work on, which I can see on my own computer. I used this with Year 12 recently when they were crafting paragraphs about the ways tactics and strategies determined the course of the First World War, using some of the ideas about slow writing by David Didau. If they are working on it that night I can check on their progress and offer more pointers. On the downside, they have to save it before you can read it and they can’t add anything extra whilst you are looking over it, but it still a very useful tool. No red marks over their paper, no need for full re-writes, just a fairly polished piece of work before you have taken in the first draft. Other collaboratively writing tools include Etherpad, Draft and Google Drive, the favourite of Mark Anderson (@ICTEvangelist).
This is not forgetting the verbal feedback we should give during lesson as we circle the room (see Red Dot idea below). However, we also need to restrain ourselves from diving in too quickly and just leaving them to it for a certain amount. I know, it feels uncomfortable doing nothing for 5-10 minutes (what if SLT came in?!), but it is an important part of the learning process. They have to be given the chance to try to overcome challenges themselves, without me interrupting too early. In the words of Alastair Smith, ‘Getting stuck is not a problem. Staying stuck is. Good learners practice getting unstuck.’ Sarah Findlater carries a stamper around that says ‘verbal feedback given’ that she stamps on their books after she speaks to students. They have to then write down bullet points that sum up the advice and tick off each one once they are addressed.
We should also look for opportunities to speak face to face with pupils and get them talking about their learning. Sarah Findlater calls them Marking Meetings, and her thoughts on marking in general can be read here. Simon Porter, a former colleague of mine, writer for the TES, Forest supporter and all round good bloke, does something similar. He says that ‘about once every half term I plan a dull lesson where the kids get on with a task and I sit down next to each student and talk to them individually about their work.
Peer and self-assessment was something I did occasionally as a special event. What I didn’t realize is how powerful they can be if they become part of the culture of the classroom and a routine feature of lessons. The first ‘impact’ of Triple Impact Marking involves the students proof reading their own or someone else’s work, assessing it against the success criteria and correcting obvious errors, such as spelling, grammar and punctuation. The great benefit of them doing this is that you can spend more time on the quality of the explanation, analysis and/or argument. This fits in with the ‘Ethic of Excellence’ culture Ron Berger espouses in his book of the same name, where students would consider it unthinkable to hand in a project, essay or assignment that wasn’t their very best work.
I have always taken great pride in ensuring students take care with their presentation, so reading about Ron Berger’s drive to have students create beautiful work struck a note with me. However, he really takes it to a whole new level with his maxim ‘If it isn’t perfect, it isn’t finished.’ This goes beyond underlining titles, dates, spacing out work, labeling, etc… this is the product of their thinking, reflection and re-drafting. In Berger’s classroom children are given the opportunity and support to produce the very best work they can do, and constantly challenged to achieve great things. He doesn’t give them an assignment, then mark it, hand back to them and move on. His students work at it until it is ‘perfect.’ What his classes produces is mind-blowing, for example It inspires me and depresses me all at the same time because I have in essence being doing the students in my classes a disservice. I have not given them these opportunities, I have accepted the first draft as the ‘perfect’ piece when in fact with a little more direction each child could have produced something of much greater quality. This is exemplified by the following clip showing Ron Berger demonstrating the transformational power of models, critique, and descriptive feedback to improve student work. Here he tells the story of Austin’s Butterfly, which went through multiple drafts that eventually led to a high-quality final product.
What Berger has trained these kids to do is more than peer assessment, it is the skill of critique. In the words of David Fawcett here, ‘What critique does differently…. is develop the process by getting the feedback and feedforward more specific and refined. It forces the feedback that is given to be more focused on specific features or elements.’ Berger models how they can do this by using student exemplars and showing how being kind, helpful and specific can lead to vastly improved work. With these rules established and enough time devoted to it, students will start to naturally critique each others work.
4. Making them do the hard work
“If I had to reduce all of the research on feedback into one simple overarching idea, at least for academic subjects in school, it would be this: feedback should cause thinking.” (Dylan William – taken from David Fawcett’s blog)
This is a powerful idea, but I’m not sure what I have been calling feedback has been making them think. So, how can we do it? The second impact of Didau’s Triple Impact Marking is one way. Another idea, taken from Doug Lemov’s blog is to just put red dots next to errors and leave it to the students to figure out what needs changing. This works well during class time as you are circling the room. Lisa Ashes describes a method here where she gives a detailed comment related to simple success criteria after students complete a particular task for the first time. Lisa says that next time you review the completion of a similar task ‘respond only with a simple plus, minus or equals sign. Provide pupils with time to respond to their achievement by writing down why they think they got their particular sign.’ Symbols or codes could also be used with a key for the students to reference. I particularly like this example from Dale Banham:
Below are a list of other ways to reduce workload and increase impact developed at Saffron Walden County High School:
5. Opening a dialogue
It is beyond our capabilities to know exactly what is going on in students heads, but one way to gain some insight is to open up a dialogue in the books. We would do this by asking questions as part of our feedback e.g. Could you clarify what you meant by…? Why did you…? Additionally, we can encourage students to write their own comments before we mark something where they might ask us to focus on a particular part of their essay, answer, report, etc… because that is the area they struggled with most. You could take this a stage further and have a page at the back just for dialogue where they could ask questions relating to areas they may be having difficulties with, but don’t feel comfortable asking in class. It could also be used to get them to reflect on their current performance.
My colleague Hayley Byrne describes a strategy she uses with her Psychology students below:
6. To grade or not to grade…?
This is a tricky one. Students want grades, parents want grades and SLT want grades, but it is the feedback that is the thing that matters most. So, how do we get around this? One possible way is to sometimes give grades and sometimes give feedback. This is what I have decided to do with my Year 12 class. We will spend time trying to get some essays to ‘perfection’ whilst test essays, done every few weeks, will be graded. Alternatively, the grade could be put in your mark-book and could be given to them individually during the lesson after they have looked at your feedback, compared it to the success criteria and tried to figure out which level or grade they think it got. With Key Stage 3, I will give the grade/level at the end of a process of drafts after feedback has been given and acted upon.
Reading the blog posts of Didau, Sherrington, Fawcett, et aI, has given me a lot to think about over the last few months regarding my own pedagogy (used to hate that word, but I am growing to like it!). If I was to give one piece of advice to new teachers or those stuck in a rut (like I was) it would be to get on Twitter and follow these people. There is a lot of good practice being written about and we shouldn’t wait for CPD to come to us. There are lot of issues I’ve written about here that I will be wrestling with over the coming months. I don’t believe I will get it right for awhile, but there are clearly some simple strategies that can have impact now. The overall message that really comes out is ‘slow down’, take the time to show the students how successful they can be and the quality will rise in the long term.