Two stars and a bloody wish!

//Two stars and a bloody wish!

A heap of epithets is poor praise: the praise lies in the facts, and in the way of telling them.

Jean de La Bruyère

We are held hostage by our superstitious belief in the mystical power of marking to cure all educational ills. It won’t. A teacher inscribing marks in students’ exercise books is every bit as mundane as it sounds; in my 15 years in the classroom it rarely resulted in much. But that’s not really why we mark. We mark because it’s the right thing to do. Because not marking is worse than marking. This is the marking fetish.

Recently I’ve been working with a school to help them rethink their marking policy. As part of that process, I spent a day scrutinising some books. Current school policy is that teachers point out two things students have done well and an action they should undertake for further improvement. My working hypothesis was that this is a waste of time.

Here’s an example from an obviously hard working and committed teacher:

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 09.06.14Take a look at the stars: “Excellent effort to copy descriptions” and “Correctly identified”. What point can there be in expecting a teacher to point these things out? Might students be unaware that they’ve met these basic expectations? No, of course not. And it’s unlikely many students are so needy as to feel motivated by having their teachers praise them for achieving a minimum standard. If you imagine that the teacher in question will have marked a set of 25-30 books in this way, the requirement to point out the blindingly obvious is a huge cost in terms of time. What’s more, there’s some good evidence that this kind of meaningless praise actually gets in the way of students acting on feedback. As Henry Ward Beecher said, “The meanest, most contemptible kind of praise is that which first speaks well of a man, and then qualifies it with a ‘But’.”

The Action, though, seems useful: “Why are these symbols important?” Becuase this is phrased as a question it’s designed to provoke thought. Even better, the teacher has clearly allowed time for the student to respond and show their understanding. It would be almost impossible – especially in the short term – that answering this question provides any evidence that this pupil has learned more, but it’s unlikely to have done any harm.

The same problems are in evidence with other marking policies which expect teachers to respond to students’ work with a set formula. Here’s an example of www (what went well) ebi (even better if) marking:

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 11.57.16Again, what went well is clear for all to see. The teacher pointing it out is a waste of everyone’s time. The observation that the work would have been even better if “you could calculate in standard form” is interesting. Had the student been asked to calculate in standard form but not bothered? If so, maybe some sort of sanction might be appropriate? And if they hadn’t been asked to calculate in standard form it seems arbitrary to now say that this would have been preferable. And the pupil response is shorthand for, “Yeah, yeah whatever.” It suggests that standard form has been previously covered but lodged in the student’s mind. I’m no maths teacher, but this would seem a fairly predictable problem that a well-designed curriculum ought to anticipate.

I’m in way impugning either of the teachers involved in creating these examples; they’re wonderful examples of the lengths we’ll go to enact meaningless policies. But in both cases, most of what they’re doing is unlikely to be meaningful feedback which enhances or improves students’ understanding of a topic. And in both cases the opportunity cost is exorbitant. I’m not saying that it’s always pointless to point out what students’ have done well, Obviously if a student has done something above or beyond your expectations then of course let them know you’re chuffed. But requiring teachers to praise results in comb desperately through books looking for something, anything to praise. It often takes teachers 2-3 hours to mark a set of books in this way – any activity which sucks up so much time surely must result in a more meaningful, measurable impact. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Sadly, the point is that most marking is for the purpose of accountability. It is shorthand for showing we are good teachers, that we care. But, and I’m speculating here, the vast majority of what teachers write in students’ books is a missed opportunity.

I’ve written before about the need to get feedback right, and have suggested that there are really only three reasons to give feedback: to provide clarification, to increase students’ effort, or to improve students’ aspirations. Here are a series of flow chart designed to make these processes clearer:

Instead of asking teachers to slavishly follow ill-thought out marking policies. A vital question for all school leadership teams is, Are you wasting teachers’ time? Maybe we could satisfy the twin requirements of trust and accountability by asking them to consider these two simple questions:

  • How will I know if this marking will have an impact on students’ long-term retention and ability to transfer between contexts?
  • How could I have achieved this aim more efficiently?

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

2015-05-10T14:34:17+00:00May 3rd, 2015|leadership|


  1. jamesdhobsonuk May 3, 2015 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    My last school-one you visited David-used two stars and a wish for its “learning walks”
    I refused to read any documents with it on, and refused to use them for the ” learning walks” that I was obliged to make.
    But then I was leaving.

  2. Micelle Garner May 3, 2015 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    Marking with highlighters saves me time! A million different uses, students figure out their own targets and set their own targets based on a simple flash of highlighter own! No comments needed from me and progress is still evident!

    • David Didau May 3, 2015 at 4:37 pm - Reply

      Anything that saves time is probably worthwhile, but how is progress evident? See my Qs at the end of the post.

      • biscuitsmccann May 14, 2015 at 6:27 am - Reply

        Progress would’ve evident if the pupils either explained or corrected their own errors? Been doing this a while myself and have seen improvements in spelling and grammar by mistakes not being repeated so much.

    • Heidi woodruff May 3, 2015 at 9:15 pm - Reply

      I have used this approach this week. It’s proved to be a time saving exercise through which pupils have identified their own success and targets. I haven’t had to ‘search’ for 2* + wish/action.

      • David Didau May 4, 2015 at 10:46 am - Reply

        Hi Heidi – I’m pleased this approach proved useful – see you again in June

  3. julietgreen May 3, 2015 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    “they’re wonderful examples of the lengths we’ll go to enact meaningless policies.”

    Yes. I described it as the ritualisation of some AfL practices and have been attempting to break its strangle-hold on the staff in my school for some years now. It’s not the only patronising piece of methodology we’ve been handed because teachers, apparently “will not take up general principles which leave entirely to them the task of translating them into everyday practice.” (Black and Wiliam!).

  4. Tim Jefferis (@tjjteacher) May 3, 2015 at 6:27 pm - Reply

    David I heartily agree with all you say here. I’m afraid we instituted the WWW/EBI scheme here (without the need for pupil response interestingly). If I am honest this was partly because I know if we didn’t do something like this we’d get criticized for not having a consistent marking policy (even when I know full well that what works in some subjects, doesn’t work in others). I guess WWW/EBI seemed the least bad option given that telling teachers to use their common sense and professionalism is ruled inadequate.

    • David Didau May 3, 2015 at 7:59 pm - Reply

      How awful that we feel common sense and professionalism are insufficient. Certainly Ofsted high command say the right things but more needs to be done to let school leaders believe that they are allowed to trust teachers.

      • (@Scubasue3) May 3, 2015 at 11:08 pm - Reply

        I see a whole lot of overworked lovely people not behaving like professionals because they don’t have any thinking time.

  5. Wesleyperry | Pearltrees May 3, 2015 at 6:43 pm - Reply

    […] Two stars and a bloody wish! TDRE Boss Blog: "No Magic Beans" – #TMLondon. Growth mindset interventions research. […]

  6. chrismwparsons May 3, 2015 at 10:11 pm - Reply

    I think this and your fetish post are beginning to build a very potent picture here David – one which could grow into something crystal clear worth us all banging a drum about.

    • Leah @LearntSchool May 5, 2015 at 12:01 pm - Reply

      That’s exactly what I was thinking, a kind of “Cut the Crap Guide to Marking Student Work” type of thing. I’d promote it!

  7. CristinaM. May 4, 2015 at 12:27 am - Reply

    I agree on most points you make. I personally do not use the strategy – I prefer specific feedback, either from me or from peers (following Ron Berger’s idea – kind, specific, helpful).

    In some cases though I think the “even better if” suggestion could be helpful. In math, if the student, say, used repeated addition when working on a word problem, the suggestion “even better if you had used multiplication” might be helpful – while praising the correct problem-solving process, the teacher suggests a more efficient strategy (more so if the problem focus was not on multiplication – that being just a step in the bigger picture).

    Also, in your slides the word “feedback” is reiterated without bringing any further clarification (“provide feedback”, “feedback must address”, “feedback must focus” and so forth) – how exactly do you envision this feedback process? What does it consist in more specifically? An example would help clarify this issue.

    • David Didau May 4, 2015 at 9:01 am - Reply

      Hi Cristina

      Firstly, I agree that the ebi can be helpful – but it’s likely to be undermined if preceded be a www.

      Secondly, fair point. I’ve written about this a few times previously but maybe I need to collate on a new blog. Will put together during the week.

      Thanks, DD

  8. Laura May 4, 2015 at 8:58 am - Reply

    Yup: THIS. As an English teacher (as any teacher?), I always want to write something – a question, something personal, something positive I’ve enjoyed about their writing – on a student’s work to show that I’ve read and thought about what they’ve produced. I’m lucky enough to work in a school where there is no slavish adherence to a ‘one size fits all’ marking policy. But having taught at a number of schools where a variation of EBI exists, it can be hard to resist the urge to write something along the lines of a ‘wish’ on every piece of marked writing. You’re right, it’s unfair of the teacher above to write ‘you could have calculated this in standard form’ if that wasn’t the explicit purpose of the lesson or task.

    But a thought: I often ask classes to write a ‘getting to know you’ letter to me at the start of the school year. The purpose of the task is to do exactly what it says on the tin – i.e. help me get to know my students better. It of course feels like a smack in the face, then, to mark this with something along the lines of ‘Super letter: engaging personal style and great use of humour. EBI = Try to be more consistent with punctuation. You must use commas in a list, for example.’

    But can I, in all good conscience, leave something that’s so simple and so glaringly wrong uncorrected? I still, despite strong convictions re: not highlighting every mistake, imagine parents peering at their books horrified that this ‘error’ has been left unremarked upon and ‘The purpose of the task wasn’t to mark for punctuation/whatever’ not quite cutting the mustard with them…

  9. Siobhan May 4, 2015 at 11:03 am - Reply

    David, how would you suggest teachers of younger children, eg 5-8 mark their work? I have yet to see anyone ever come up with practical suggestions. Students of this age struggle with self regulation and unless they are very able, would not be able to identify their own errors.

    • David Didau May 4, 2015 at 11:08 am - Reply

      Hi Siobhan – I’m a secondary school teacher and have very little experience of working with younger children so it would be the sheerest hubris to offer you advice on what will work. That said, I know from working with my own daughters that they are more than able to identify a good deal of their mistakes; I’m inclined to believe that even very young children will rise to high expectations.

      The other point I’d make is, what is the effect of providing written feedback in young children’s books? Who is it actually for?

      • Siobhan May 4, 2015 at 11:34 am - Reply

        I encourage my Reception/Year 1 teachers to give verbal feedback and occasionally add the target they had been given to the beginning of their next piece of work eg ‘Put your letters on the line today’. ‘Try full stops and capital letters today’. Or to ask ‘What are you going to try to do today to make this work better than your writing from last week?’. This type of feedback is for children, I would hope. I agree that once they can read they can begin to spot errors, however they are ultimately in school to be taught new stuff. And challenged, of course.

  10. […] response to my last post, Cristina Milos pointed out that I  use the term ‘feedback’ without providing any further clarification as to what […]

  11. Marcus Dixon May 5, 2015 at 12:18 pm - Reply

    I think a lot of what you have commented on regarding student feedback is nothing new. As a an English Teacher for twenty years, eleven of which was also a Senco of a very large mixed comprehensive school, feedback is always a contentious issue- for all groups of children with a wide range of needs, However, if the school has good leadership with Teaching and Learning as the driving force, then much of your examples etc rarely happen. As is always the case, simplicity is the answer- Assessment for Learning where an S and N are used, students from year 7 to 11 often find this form of feedback a positive and learning experience. Also peer assessment is also a wonderful learning experience for students.
    There is a much simpler truth which you overlook in your post, if the teacher is having to write copious amounts of feedback, then the learning in the classroom needs to be addressed.
    The above thoughts are but brief but they cut out much of the marauding and inane discussion around feedback.
    I don’t wish to be obtuse; all of my teaching and management background has been in secondary school – so to primary schools I do not wish to insult with my thoughts – but with secondary schools AFL is often used in Outstanding schools.
    Anyway enough on that……………………

    • David Didau May 5, 2015 at 12:25 pm - Reply

      Yes, of course there is little new in what I propose – but imagine my frustration in finding that this is almost never what happens in the schools I visit. teachers are routinely compelled to write ‘copious amounts of feedback’ regardless of how well they teach. I’ve written at length on how we might improve classroom practice elsewhere, and particularly in my new book which you will be able to dismiss as ‘nothing new’ from June onwards. Part of this critique is that the principles of AfL are fallacious. You can read about that here: I’ve also written about peer assessment (which I think is largely a waste of time and rarely a wonderful experience.)

  12. Teacher_P May 7, 2015 at 4:09 pm - Reply

    Just wanted to add that, as a maths teacher, the ebi ‘if you’d used standard form’ is almost certainly counter-productive.

    If the child takes it seriously, they’ll now use standard form all the time and be puzzled when they’re then told, ‘would have been better if you’d presented your results conventionally’ or something. Context is just as important in maths as it is in English…

    It reeks of a teacher who’s had to come up with something to write just to meet a school standard. It’s probable the maths department, who almost certainly know just how wrong this sort of nonsense is for maths, have a set of acceptable phrases they use that they, and all the kids know, are just padding to placate SLT. They’re probably getting stamps made with those phrases.

  13. AVG (@iloveseagreen) May 8, 2015 at 7:37 am - Reply

    I just want to add a point as an adult in education. Whilst I agree on much of what you have said, as an adult in education I think that www can be positively used as it certainly gave clarification.

    • David Didau May 8, 2015 at 8:13 am - Reply

      I’m not claiming that students don’t like it, just that’s it’s unnecessary and time-consuming. What if you’d just had a chat?

  14. […] response to my last post, Cristina Milos pointed out that I use the term ‘feedback’ without providing any further clarification as to what I mean. […]

  15. Richard Day (@RDayysj) May 18, 2015 at 12:02 pm - Reply

    The issues set out perfectly here are precisely the same in HEI. The powers that be insisting on tutors praising first what we see they have done well (why?), and second what they could do better (some value) and lastly what they have omitted (the students don’t care, for as long as they have passed and don’t need to resubmit all’s well in the world). A several thousand word essay will take approximately 45-60 minutes to mark and feedback. The batch I am currently marking will not be collected until September…
    Your comments also put me in mind of an anecdote from my own primary years in the late 1970s. We would receive coloured stars; no/few comments. I would spend my time agonising over why I had received a yellow star whereas my neighbour had received a green, or worse a red, my favourite colour. I would study the mutual contents of our work to ascertain why this might be. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realised that this was simply the order they came out of the packet.
    At secondary one specific piece of English feedback I still remember demanded briefly that I “Study the way authors set out speech!”. I turned the page to see that my next story was set out perfectly…

  16. […] Two stars and a bloody wish! 3rd May (4,244 views) […]

  17. […] a typical “Two Stars and a Bl***y Wish” example (see Didau’s examples of written feedback in the above blog). Didau, like John Hattie […]

  18. […] just responded to my post Two Stars and a Bloody Wish! with the revelation that it works for him and […]

  19. […] Two stars and a bloody wish! […]

  20. Ruth Holder April 10, 2016 at 5:39 pm - Reply

    I agree with your comments questioning the value of www comments. Howerever, we carried out a marking review in my school a few weeks ago and what was interesting was the different ways the younger and older pupils view the www/ebi approach. While the ks4 pupils were more interested in the ebi comments, Ks3 pupils claimed to find only one www comment and more focus on the ebi demoralising. Could you not argue that writing a www can help increase confidence?

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