I’ve been consciously and actively using exam board mark schemes as an essential component of formative assessment with my classes for some time now and thought it was time to share what I was up to more widely.

I led a CPD session on this recently and while none of what I said was new or even particularly surprising, it did at least remind us what the point of marking all those essays is.

Before putting my presentation together, I decided to check out what was out there already. Plenty of stuff on formative assessment but nothing specifically (nothing that I could find after 20 minutes on Google anyway) on the use of mark schemes as a teaching & learning tool.

I thought it would be useful to recap some of the stuff Google presented me with about formative assessment first. Two neat definitions I came up with were, “The process used by teachers and students to recognise and respond to student learning in order to enhance that learning, during the learning.” and “Assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet the students’ needs.” The bits in bold are my doing.

Basically, the benefits of formative assessment can be summarised as:

  • Students learn more effectively
  • Some students feel more involved in the schooling process and become less disaffected
  • Teaching is focused more effectively on the individual student
  • Positive effects may be particularly evident in the less able
  • Learning in the wider (not subject-specific) sense can be enhanced

One thing I was fascinated to discover is that formative assessment is particularly effective for students who have not done well in school, thus narrowing the gap between low and high achievers while raising overall achievement. Well, that’s good and handy in the current climate, I thought to myself, we’ll have some of that!

So, we’re agreed, that sounds win-win. The next step is to reacquaint ourselves with what formative assessment looks like:

  • Feedback should be about the particular qualities of students’ work, with advice on what they can do to improve, and should avoid comparisons with other pupils.  Vague comments about neatness or trying hard just won’t cut it – they must be specifically and explicitly related to success criteria which the students are familiar with.
  • For formative assessment to be productive, students should be trained in self-assessment. I’ve put this in bold because if you’re anything like me, you’ll have noticed that kids quite like assessing each others’ work but are much less keen to mark their own. Why? It’s harder. It is therefore, imperative to train ‘em how to do this.
  • Opportunities for students to express their understanding should be designed into any piece of teaching, (this creates the interaction whereby formative assessment aids learning)
  • The dialogue between students and their teacher should be thoughtful, reflective, focused to evoke and explore understanding, and conducted so that all pupils have an opportunity to think and to express their ideas.
  • Tasks must be clear and relevant to learning aims. The feedback on them should give each student guidance on how to improve, and must give opportunities to help to work at the improvement.

As I began by saying, none of this is new. If you’re not already doing this as a teacher then I despair. Research clearly shows that formatively assessing students’ work is the single most important thing you can do as a teacher. So, well done if you’re doing it; if you’re not then you need to start. Or quit.

OK, OK, you knew all that, but what about the mark scheme bit. Aren’t they the impenetrable wads of edu-drivel that even seasoned teachers are often unclear about? Yes, that’s them. Why in God’s name would ever put such a ridiculously obfuscated text in front of a bunch of poor, unsuspecting young people?

Well, there are some definite pros to using mark schemes with students: chiefly, students have ownership of how their work will be assessed and their progression will be clear, and focussed on meaningful outcomes.

Because of the language difficulties mentioned above, students will find it hard to use a mark scheme and will need a lot of practice applying grade descriptors in order for them to be meaningful.  Some might suggest that the best thing to do is to provide ‘student friendly’ versions and they may have some very valid points. But I don’t agree. I think that by doing this we dilute their meaning. If we simplify the language too much they quickly become meaningless. My view is that we have to ‘teach’ the language and give students ownership of the meaning which allows them to make use of these arcane phrases in a way which helps them to understand exactly how their work is going to be judged.

I suggest, giving out mark scheme and asking them to pick out key words which feature in all bands. This will get them thinking about what skills they need to demonstrate.

Part of the mark scheme for creative writing, AQA, GCSE English Language

Part of the mark scheme for creative writing, AQA, GCSE English Language

If we look at the example above which comes from the AQA GCSE English Language specification, we can see four common strands repeated. The next step is to decide what these skills look like at different mark bands and then to be able to design meaningful success criteria.

Part of the mark scheme for AQA GCSE English Literature Unit 2

Part of the mark scheme for AQA GCSE English Literature Unit 2

Using the mark scheme for the GCSE English Literature ‘poetry across time’ exam (above), I might try to structure a lesson along these lines:

  1. Asking students to find what the 6 bullet points within each mark band have in common (I find it’s useful to number the points here)
  2. Paired discussion about which mark band students are aiming at
  3. Still in pairs, students will highlight (I love highlighters and kids seem pretty keen on them too) key words and annotate what they think they mean
  4. Pairs share their ideas within a larger group before feeding back to the whole class
  5. I will then model marking an essay. I always make a point of writing whatever I set the students to write and this means I have a handy stack of pre-prepared model answers to use. After going through the first paragraph, they finish marking the essay in the groups.
  6. Following this, student should have a fairly clear idea about what was in mind and how I was applying the mark band criteria as I wrote. They are now in a position to have a go at writing their own excellent essay.
  7. This can, and should, be followed by peer/self/teacher assessment which sets clear and meaningful targets to improve.
  8. They then need to do it again.

This last stage is, I think, more often missed out than not. But what’s the point of all that wonderful formative assessment if we don’t give the students the immediate opportunity to act on it? If we leave it a few weeks, we’ll all most likely have forgotten about it. They may well groan, but they do appreciate it when you can praise them for doing whatever it was you told them to do.

Clearly there’s more to teaching than this, but I hold with the fact that this will have more impact on the progress of your students than anything else you do. Ever.