Updated: May 2021
It was a mid-spring morning in 1996. I was 13 years old enjoying Science class with one of my favourite teachers up on the top-floor lab at North Wales’ prestigious St. Richard Gwyn R.C. High School.
I loved Science. The feel of the lab, decorated with preserved samples in jars and colorful posters and periodic tables and famous Scientists on the walls, along with the cool gas taps and Bunsen burners that rested on each desk. This was my favorite part of the school.
Today’s lesson was special though, and I remember it for a very unexpected reason.
We were receiving back our Forces and Motion tests today. I loved getting my tests back, not least because I always revised really hard and was used to getting at least 75% on each one.
I always used to do two things whenever I got my tests back:
- Check that the teacher had added up the scores correctly
- Check how to improve my answers
On this particular day I had lost marks on a question that was phrased something like this: ‘If a rocket is travelling through space, what will happen to the rocket if all of the forces on it become balanced?’
In my answer I had written: ‘The rocket will either continue travelling at a constant speed or will not move at all.’
Now, how do I remember this seemingly obscure moment in a sea of moments from high school, most of which I cannot recall? Well, that’s simple: My teacher came over and took the time and effort to verbally explain where I’d gone wrong.
I should have just written that the rocket will continue at a constant speed, not “or will not move at all”.
This moment of personal, verbal feedback from my teacher was powerful and precious. Not only did it serve to maintain my momentum in Science learning, but it left me with visual impressions of the memory itself: My friends in the Science lab, the posters on the wall and even the sunlight shining over the glistening Dee Estuary which was visible from the Science lab windows.
This little story shows us the power of verbal feedback, and therefore the caution we should place on what we say to our students. Young girls and boys grow up to become men and women, and their teachers leave a number of impressions on them, some of which are permanent.
The trick is to ensure that the permanent impressions are useful, positive and productive: As was the case with my conversation with my teacher that day.
And not all impressions need be verbal. Written feedback can be just as memorable.
Let’s now explore the fundamentals of effective student feedback that are easy to implement, and useful.
Peer Assess Properly – The Traditional Method
I first learnt the power of peer assessment back in 2008, when I had just moved to Thailand.
As a keen young teacher with two years of UK teaching experience, I found myself teaching students who were all very keen to do their best. Homework assignments and classwork seem to come my way on a real-time, live-stream basis, and I soon found myself inundated with work to mark.
At first, I tried the traditional methods of using a green or red pen to write lengthy comments on each piece of work. I had learned from my training in Assessment for Learning in the UK, that written comments that help the student to improve were much better than a letter grade or a score followed by a ‘Well Done’. I’d learnt about the ‘two stars and wish rule’ where I’d write two positive things about the work and then one item or target for improvement.
These ideas were great in theory, but I found that my weekends became shorter and shorter as I tried to write effective comments on every piece of work that came in. I was spending less and less time doing the hobbies I enjoyed, and I became quite the old grouch.
I finally expressed my concerns in the staff room one day and a colleague of mine said “You should do more peer assessment”. She was right.
I instantly started getting my students to mark their own work, and reflect upon it, and the results were astounding: My weekends became ‘me time’ again, and students seemed to learn better than they would from receiving my comments.
As I continued to develop my skills in assigning proper peer-assessment, I discovered that I was sometimes making some catastrophic errors. I refined my strategy over the years, and came up with this six-step system:
Step 1: Make sure that the work you set has an official mark scheme or set of model answers associated with it. There’s nothing worse than trying to ‘guess’ the best answers along the way as you’re trying to get the kids to assess the work. Make your own mark scheme if necessary, but make sure the answers are clear.
Step 2: When it comes time for the kids to assess the work, ask them to swap their work with someone else in the class. Alternatively, if this doesn’t work for your particular class, then collect the work in and redistribute it.
Step 3: Ask each student to get a colored pen ready to mark with. Red and green are good. You may wish to have a set of special ‘marking pens’ somewhere in class that the kids can use whenever they mark each others’ work.
Step 4: Print the official mark scheme and give a copy to each student. This has the advantage of providing a permanent copy for each student to keep, and allows you time to help students as they mark. Projecting the answers onto a screen canalso work, but you may find that students cannot see and that you may have to scroll through at a pace that’s not suitable for every student. Printing a copy, or sharing it on the schools VLE so that students can access it via a tablet or laptop, is best.
Step 5: Make it very clear that students should tick the answer if it’s correct, and make full corrections if it is wrong. The mere act of writing out the model answer onto the work being marked will reinforce the concepts into the subconscious mind of the student.
Step 6: Let the students give the work back. Collect it in at the end of the lesson so that you can glance through and check that everyone has peer assessed properly. If anyone hasn’t, then make them do it again.
Once work has been peer-assessed, you can sit down with individual students and have ‘progress conversations’ designed to pin point areas of weakness and highlight areas of strength
You have to be quite organised with this method (e.g. making sure you print the mark schemes on time). However, this will save you loads of time and will definitely help the kids to learn properly.
Experiment with automated assessment
It was back in 2013, and it totally transformed my work life.
Why? That’s simple. Students would go into the ICT lab, or use their laptops or tablets in class, and literally be taught mathematics by the computer! The program would even assess the work immediately, and differentiation wasn’t a problem because students could work through the tasks at their own individual pace. The benefits were enormous:
- All of the students were focused and engaged
- All of the students were challenged
- The teacher had more time to spend with individuals working on specific problems
- The content was relevant and stimulating
- No behavior management issues as the students were all quietly working
- No time was needed by the teacher for marking and assessment. The program did all that for you. All you had to do was collate the data.
There are numerous instructional software programs on the market today that save the teacher lots of marking time, and provide the students with engaging material to learn from, Whilst I wouldn’t advocate using instructional software every lesson, it certainly can become a big and effective part of your teaching arsenal.
Give verbal feedback the right way
Verbal feedback is a great way to have a personal one-to-one conversation with a student. It can help you to address systemic, widespread issues (e.g. not writing down all of the steps in calculations) and it can be a great way to motivate each student.
However, many teachers are only going so far with verbal feedback and are not using it as the powerful tool it is.
Take this piece of KS3 Geography work for example:
I received this work from a parent at dinner, who knew I was an educational author, on 21st June 2016.
You’ll undoubtedly have noticed the dates on the work: 1st December and 8th December 2015. I’m sure you’ll have shuddered upon the realization that this work hadn’t been marked in seven months! No peer-assessment, no self-assessment and no comments from the teacher. There aren’t even any ticks! Add this to the fact that this boy’s entire notebook was completely unmarked, just like this, and you can begin to understand why I nearly had palpitations in front of several avid noodle and rice connoisseurs!
When I asked the boy about why it wasn’t marked, he said that this teacher never marked worked, he just gave the occasional verbal feedback. My next obvious question was to ask what verbal feedback he’d received about this work. He said he
With teacher workloads increasing globally, this kind of approach is, unfortunately, not uncommon, However, verbal feedback need not be time-consuming and can be executed in a much better way than is seen here in this Geography work. Here are my tips:
- 1. Set your students a task to do and call each student one-by-one to have a chat about their work. Be strict with your timings – if you have a 40 minute lesson and 20 students in the class then keep each conversation to two minutes.
- Mention the points for improvement and use sincere praise to address the good points about the work. Ask the student to reflect on the work too.
- Once the conversation is over, write ‘VF’ on the work, and ask the student to make improvements to it. Agree on a time to collect it in again so that you can glance over the improvements.
As you can see, this simple three step approach to verbal feedback generates a much more productive use of time than simply having a chat with the student. Action has to be taken after the discussion, and this places the responsibility of learning solely in the hands of the student, which is where it should be.
Be specific in your comments
Sometimes it is appropriate to collect student work and scribble your comments on it with a colored pen. When you do this, make sure your comments are specific and positive, Take a look at these examples, which all serve to empower the student:
Peer Assess Properly – The Technological Method
A growing trend that is proving popular with teachers is to use Google forms in the peer assessment process. I wrote about this in my book, and I’ve included the extracts here:
A good form for students will look something like this:
There are many alternatives to using Google forms. For example, you may wish to create a form via your school’s VLE, or even get the students to send each other their work through e-mail or a chat application (although this will remove anonymity). Either way, peer assessment with technology will save you time and provide your students with quick, detailed feedback.
Make sure students improve their work
A common theme you may have spotted in this week’s blog post is that of improvement. Students should always improve the work that’s been marked or assessed. This serves two purposes:
- The student will get into the habit of giving their best effort each time. After all, a great first attempt means less effort needed in the improvement phase
- The process of improving a piece of work serves to firmly cement concepts in the subconscious mind of the student, aiding memory and retention
Don’t forget to use rubrics, mark schemes and comments – students can’t possibly improve their work without these.
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