Feedback is, we’re told, the most powerfully important invention in which a teacher can engage, but marking students’ books can be mind-numbingly tedious drudgery. Because of this tension, many schools have introduced strict marking policies and work scrutiny schedules to make sure that teachers don’t shirk this crucial responsibility. But, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am becoming that marking and feedback are two quite separate things.
Cambridge Dictionaries Online defines marking thusly:
Obviously, this doesn’t prove anything other than that in the public mind, marking and feedback are considered to be different. But potentially, this distinction could be important because while there are mountains of research findings supporting the giving and receipt of feedback to support students’ learning, there appears to have been little or no research specifically into the effects and impact of teachers marking students work. However, the growing weight of evidence in favour of feedback has been used to justify the ever-increasing demands on teachers to mark children’s work. Clearly, in the minds of educators, marking and feedback have become synonymous.
In 2011, I wrote this:
I know that marking students’ books helps to ensure that they care about the work they produce. I also know that providing formative feedback is the most important intervention that I, as a teacher, can have on my students; there is nothing I can do that will have more impact on their success than good old fashioned comment based marking.
I still think I was right about the positive impact on presentation and effort of reading students’ work, but why did I feel so certain of the efficacy of comment based marking? How did I know it made so much impact? The truth is, I didn’t – it just ‘felt right’.
While there’s no doubt that marking and feedback are connected, they are not the same. In some parts of the world – Japan for instance – teachers do very little marking but that’s not to say students are not getting feedback. From my own experience, I’m pretty sure it’s possible to make marks in students’ books without providing anything in the way of useful feedback and of course lots of thinking (some of it disastrous) has been done to try to prevent this from happening. Ask any group of teachers if their marking load has increased dramatically in past five years and they’ll fall over themselves to let you know just how much impact marking has on their lives, but what impact does it have on students’ outcomes? The answer is, we just don’t know.
There’s a widespread belief, largely unexamined, that by marking students’ work we are providing the kind of feedback they need in order to be successful and make progress. This assumption may be erroneous. I’ve come to the conclusion that probably the most compelling reason to read students’ work is for the teacher to get feedback from their students about how well they appear to be learning. This is a process entirely within the teacher’s control; we know precisely how much impact this process has on our teaching, what we can never know is whether this benefit transfers to the student. Once we’ve read through students’ responses, whether we then make marks in response is, to a large extent, missing the point.
I’m certainly not the only one to have noticed this curious phenomenon. Earlier in the year, the EEF announced it would undertake a review of the evidence on marking. In it they say,
The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) intends to commission a review of the current evidence on approaches to written marking commonly used in English primary and secondary schools to provide feedback to pupils. The review will assess the costs (primarily related to time) and benefits of a range of approaches to marking, with a particular focus on pupils from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
This is welcome news, but somewhat alarmingly they then go on to say, “It is anticipated that the review draw on some pieces of research currently synthesised within the “Feedback” section of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit.” I’m sure my concern is unwarranted and the review team will carefully pick through all the available research on feedback to work out how much of it is directly concerned with the effects of marking, but unless this kind of systematic unpicking is done such a synthesis may end up being less than helpful.
The review is due to be published in late 2015 so we’ll just have to wait and see what they come up with, but in the meantime, if anyone is aware of any specific research into the effects and efficacy of marking then I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks in advance.