Over the past year or so, I’ve been doing some very informal research into students’ attitudes and opinions with some of the schools I work with on an ongoing basis.

Two years ago I wrote 2 posts summarising the problems with marking and suggesting an alternative way forward:

Since then I’ve been recommending that one of the ways schools can seek to reduce teachers’ work load is to move away from the expectation that teachers must write extended comments in response to children’s written work and instead move to a system of giving whole class feedback.

The best counter-argument to this suggestion is when teachers ask, but what about motivation? Surely by writing extended comments we’re showing that we value the work they’ve done and if we don’t do this they’ll become demotivated and start to put in less effort.

Whilst I hadn’t seen any evidence that this was true, it seemed like it would be a good idea to find out what students at the schools I was working with actually thought, and so I arranged to speak to a series of representative panels of students ranging in age from Year 2 to Year 13.

One of the things that came out of this was that students really love written comments. Almost universally they related that finding a written comment made them feel they’re work was valued and the longer the comment the more valued they felt. However, almost all the students I spoke to, said that they were unlikely to read what the teacher had written and that the longer the comment, the less likely they were to read it. Kids love comments, but they don’t read them! It seems fair to say that written feedback must be having a motivational effect without actually having any effect on children’s progress. This is a consistent finding from five different schools.

Having said that, children really appreciate their teachers spending time talking to them about their work. There wasn’t any consistency about whether they preferred face to face time over the proxy of time spent marking, but all were pleased to have their teachers’ attention in lessons. And, more importantly, all reported finding verbal explanations much easier to understand than written comments.

I also asked students to show me their books and talk about what else teachers do that they either liked or didn’t like. Interestingly, kids love ticks! And they really love double ticks! They don’t love them as much as written comments but they like them almost as much. I found it fascinating that children interpret ticks – and double ticks – very differently: some said that it allowed them to see precisely what their teacher had liked, others thought it was a sign that the teacher was acknowledging that they’d seen and approved of quality of their work. When I asked what children found more helpful, ticks or comments, there was very little agreement. Some thought that the comments might be useful if they ever decided to go back and read them, others guiltily admitted that ticks were easier to understand. I should say, the only group that consistently valued comments over ticks were the A level students, but even they were conflicted.

What can we learn from all this? Well, I need to acknowledge that this process was far from scientific and doesn’t provide anything like robust evidence on which to make decisions. I would really encourage you to go through a similar process with students in your schools to see if their views are similar or different. Having said that, I think it’s safe to say that children really do find teachers marking their books motivational. I hadn’t appreciated just how much they valued the quantity of red pen in their books (Oh, and literally none of the children I spoke to cared about pen colour!)

If I were to offer tentative advice it would be that reducing written feedback in order to spend more time on whole class feedback still seems like the best bet. What I’d add is that when reading children’s work in order to provide whole class feedback, make sure you’re liberally ticking anything you like.