Why you might be getting feedback wrong! (part 2)

15 December 2017

Author: Aidan Severs

In the first instalment of our two-part article about feedback we looked at five myths about marking and used the EEF’s review of the evidence surrounding marking (A marked improvement?) to dispel those myths.

markedimprovementThe main headline of the review is that there is currently a lack of evidence about the impact written feedback, or marking, has on learning: “We would be very happy if people took the current lack of evidence on marking as the key finding of the report…”

Here are 4 more myths which the EEF review might dismiss:

Myth 6: marking needs to be done in great detail

Key finding: mark less, but mark better and focus on setting and marking targets

In the first blog post we looked at how marking is, under many feedback policies, time-consuming. And if there’s any main culprit for this being the case it is the idea that marking must be done in great detail. The review makes clear that first of all, the evidence base for this is weak:

“No school-based studies appear to have explored the impact of very thorough marking approaches, making it very difficult to reach firm conclusions about the optimum level of detail to provide.” (page 13)

“No studies on the frequency of written marking were found.” (page 21)

That being said, there seems to be no point of going to the other extreme and using a ‘tick and flick’ approach:

“Some forms of marking, including acknowledgement marking, are unlikely to enhance pupil progress. A mantra might be that schools should mark less in terms of the number of pieces of work marked, but mark better.” (page 21)

There appears to be an agreement here that it is very important to continue to look at and monitor the work that children are doing but that it might not always be necessary to mark every piece in any way at all. But what is meant by ‘mark better’? Perhaps a reminder of what the EEF toolkit says about what effective feedback looks like will help at this point. The research suggests that it should:

  • be specific, accurate and clear;
  • compare what a learner is doing right now with what they have done wrong before;
  • encourage and support further effort and be given sparingly so that it is meaningful;
  • provide specific guidance on how to improve and not just tell students when they are wrong; and
  • be supported with effective professional development for teachers.

(https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/feedback/)

If teachers are going to mark, or provide written feedback, they should ensure that it fulfils that criteria. The marking review suggests some way of doing that which might be less time-consuming. The first is coded marking:

“Many teachers use coded feedback as a means of speeding up the marking process, for example, using ‘sp.’ in the margin to indicate a spelling error. Research suggests that there is no difference between the effectiveness of coded or uncoded feedback, providing that pupils understand what the codes mean.”  (page 12)

Secondly, the review suggests that teachers focus any written feedback on small, achievable targets which have been set for the pupils, as opposed to trying to mark everything in a piece of work:

“The use of targets to make marking as specific and actionable as possible is likely to increase pupil progress.”

“Studies exploring selective marking that focuses on a particular type of error have found it to be effective in helping pupils tackle those errors.” (page 14 )

“setting clear targets in marking, and reminding pupils of these before they complete a similar piece of work in the future, appears to be a promising approach, which it would be valuable to evaluate further… it is likely that short-term targets are more effective than longer-term goals.” (page 20)

Myth 7: marking will have an impact on progress

Key finding: schools must evaluate impact on progress

Schools must not assume that just because they have a policy for marking in place that it will make a positive difference. The lack of evidence on the matter makes it vitally important that schools find ways to monitor how effective their policy actually is:

“…the low quantity and quality of research related to marking means that the findings from this review are necessarily more tentative than in other areas where more studies have been done. This means that it is essential for schools to monitor the impact of their decisions about marking, and continue to evaluate and refine the approaches that are adopted.(page 7)

Myth 8: all errors are equal

Key finding: some errors are mistakes, some stem from misconceptions

If a child has accidentally done something wrong then their mistake should be marked as incorrect, but they should be caused to think about what they have done wrong and expected to self-correct. Here the teacher’s marking just acts as a signal that there is something wrong – the aforementioned coded feedback could achieve this quickly:

If a student is judged to have made a mistake, a number of studies from higher education and EFL recommend that it should be marked as incorrect, but that the correct answer should not be provided. One study of undergraduates even found that providing the correct answer to mistakes was no more effective than not marking the work at all. It is suggested that providing the correct answer meant that pupils were not required to think about mistakes they had made, or recall their existing knowledge, and as a result were no less likely to repeat them in the future.” (page 12)

If a pupil’s work appears to display a misunderstanding or a misconception then the research suggests it is still ineffective to simply provide them with a correct answer but that pointing out where their work is wrong is likely to have no impact either. In this case, any written feedback given should provide something more:

Where errors result from an underlying misunderstanding or lack of knowledge, studies from EFL and higher education suggest that is most effective to remind pupils of a related rule, (e.g. ‘apostrophes are used for contractions’), or to provide a hint or question that leads them towards a correction of the underlying misunderstanding. It is suggested that simply marking the error incorrect (as if it were a mistake) would be ineffective, as pupils would not have the knowledge to work out what they had done wrong… It is likely to be more time consuming to pose questions or provide hints to correct errors. However, some of this time may be offset by the time saved not correcting mistakes.(page 12)

It would appear that this kind of feedback would be better given orally than in writing (see myth 2).

Myth 9: triple/dialogic marking is best

Key finding: evidence is inconclusive

Schools requiring this form of feedback might see some positive outcomes of the approach in the short term but with teacher workload and wellbeing in mind the EEF review warns of weighing up the potential cost of expecting teachers to spend so much time marking:

“the lack of high-quality evidence focusing on student outcomes makes it challenging to reach conclusions about the benefits of dialogic or triple impact marking” (page 18)

“While there does appear to be some promise underpinning the idea of creating a dialogue, further evaluation is necessary both to test this promise and to determine whether any resultant benefits are large enough to justify the time required.” (page 18)

If creating a dialogue is an effective way of giving feedback, again it would seem that this style of feedback would be best given verbally.

There is very little argument about the fact that children should receive feedback about their learning and their outcomes, or that teachers should use children’s work to make decisions about future teaching and learning opportunities. The EEF review says:

“Previous research suggests that providing feedback is one of the most effective and cost-effective ways of improving pupils’ learning. The studies of feedback reviewed in the Teaching and Learning Toolkit… found that on average the provision of high-quality feedback led to an improvement of eight additional months’ progress over the course of a year.” (page 6)

But the EEF toolkit also contains warnings:

“Feedback studies tend to show very high effects on learning. However, it also has a very high range of effects and some studies show that feedback can have negative effects and make things worse. It is therefore important to understand the potential benefits and the possible limitations of feedback as a teaching and learning approach.”

“In general, research-based approaches that explicitly aim to provide feedback to learners, such as Bloom’s ‘mastery learning’, also tend to have a positive impact… Other studies reporting lower impact indicate that it is challenging to make feedback work in the classroom.”

(https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence-summaries/teaching-learning-toolkit/feedback/)

What is clear is that providing effective feedback, whether written or verbal, is a challenge and therefore is an aspect of teaching that should be thought through carefully. Hopefully, this short blog series looking at evidence summarised by the EEF will help school leaders and teachers to think through the implications of their policies and to ensure that their practice is as robust and effective as possible whilst taking into consideration the workload of teachers.

Posted on 15 December 2017
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