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Simpler (and better) processes for marking

Maéve Taylor, Deputy Headteacher, Claydon High School, Ipswich, writes…

Before the metaphorical ‘journey’ became the Strictly Come Dancing cliché, it was part of our teaching and learning language within lessons and over time. We all know that learning is not a non-stop high-speed highway, but instead a series of stops and starts or winding roads, where you get lost, or revisit places you have been before. Some students might need a satnav, whereas others are more confident and should be challenged to drive solo.

Part of our journey as a school has been to review a marking policy which was not doing what we needed it to do, and to develop a system which challenged individual learners to be the best they can be and would be consistent across all subjects.

Context

An Ofsted inspection in 2012 was the impetus for making a significant change in our approach to marking and feedback. The inspection team found the quality of marking in the school to be inconsistent across departments, and that the marking that was in line with our policy was not affecting the progress of students.

Being judged ‘requires improvement’ was the motivation we needed to review the policy and ensure a consistent whole-school approach to our marking and feedback in lessons. We began by reviewing the whole-school and departmental systems which were being used; while there were different approaches, there were some similarities about the principles.

Two stars and a wish was an approach used in a number of faculty areas, while others used WWW and EBI and one faculty coded their comments with S for strength and N for next step. Too often, though, we could see that teachers were writing the same ‘wishes’, ‘better ifs’ and ‘nexts’ over and again. This indicated that the impact of marking on learning was minimal. We also wanted to introduce more strategies capturing the verbal dialogue which is an integral part of teaching and learning and allows for real-time feedback in the classroom.

The principle of identifying strengths and areas for development was fundamental to the marking policy we wanted to have as a school. But we also wanted an approach which ensured that the students were working harder than their teachers. We all know that taking a set of books on a weekend vacation to dining room tables or sofas across the county can take up a number of hours. Further, this time can have little impact upon the learning of students, who often do not read the comments their teachers have written.

A new whole-school approach

Our first step was a simple and colourful one: to introduce a strict colour-coding system for marking; and likewise for undertaking any peer or self- evaluation/assessment. Until this point staff could mark in any colour.

  • Students write in black ink.
  • All diagrams, graphs and illustrations in pencil.
  • Teachers write in green ink.
  • Peer assessment in red ink.
  • Self-assessment in blue ink.

After this, at a glance anyone reading books could see who had done what work and who was working harder. Our aim was for quite a lot of black ink or pencil and a significant amount of blue as students corrected, improved or developed their learning and demonstrated progress. Art students use post-it notes and tracking forms to record targets and progress in creative tasks.

We also introduced a coding system of SST (strength, strength, target), which teachers have to apply once per marking cycle, usually a period of four lessons. This could be based upon one specific task or across a unit of work and related learning over a period of time. As well as seeing SST in green, our marking policy also expects to see a minimum of one example of peer assessment with red SST, and one example of self-assessment with blue SST. While teachers can occasionally exercise discretion and award just one strength or two targets, the importance of a shared language was something we wished to achieve and this has become a strength of the system.

Aim high – be the best you can be

Be the best you can be’ is our school motto, and in the context of our marking policy this embraces the strengths of the SST. However, it also signals our intention that students spend as much time implementing and developing their learning in the light of targets as their teachers spend providing them. To this end we identified two specific types of targets designed to ensure students aimed high: RACE and TOP targets.

RACE targets are feedback targets as identified by Robert Powell; they require students to revisit a piece of work and consolidate their learning by applying the target and improving it in line with their
RACE target.

  • Read the work
  • Apply the target in blue pen
  • Check anything else in your work you can develop, add, change
  • Explain your changes and improvements to your neighbour or the
    teacher.

The RACE target requires students to make immediate developments
to their work, making progress based on teacher feedback.

We often quote this famous line in school: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (Einstein). We remind students that it does not matter if they make mistakes, indeed “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new” (Einstein again); mistakes are part of the learning journey. However, making the same ones, or failing to learn from previous feedback, will stop them reaching their full potential.

Our TOP targets are ‘feed-forward’, and have to be applied not to a previously completed piece of work but in subsequent task/s.

  • Transfer your target to the top of your page in blue
  • Objectives for today’s learning also need to be applied
  • Progress made needs to be indicated.

The TOP target aims to avoid students repeating the same mistakes. The expectation is by writing a TOP target at the top of the page they are reminded of their individual target alongside success criteria for that forthcoming task/lesson. When they have completed a task, or at the end of the lesson, they have to annotate in blue where they have addressed/met their target.

This is an opportunity to improve their work, in blue, if they see anything else they can add or develop. Ideally in their SST they explain how well they have met their target, how well they have met the success criteria and what they are still struggling with and need to develop in the future.

Both targets have an expectation that students should strive to improve their work in any area rather than merely meet a target. Furthermore, each of these targets have entered the language of the school as students RACE their work or transfer their TOP targets and generally ‘blue pen’ their work. Students enjoy ‘racing’ their work and explaining that they have also corrected two spelling mistakes the teacher had not identified or added an extra conjunction!

Recently we conducted interviews for a graphics teacher post: one candidate incorporated two sets of peer feedback into his lesson: when he asked students to write down some initial thoughts on a clock design, out came a flurry of red pens and SSTs appeared on every sheet.

This is an opportunity to improve their work, in blue, if they see anything else they can add or develop

By the time the teacher gets the book for marking, all of the strengths in the student’s work have been annotated for them and teachers are delighted to award ‘plus points’ for making their green pens redundant. It is perfectly acceptable for a teacher to add “I agree” or to draw a smiley face.

As mentioned above, offering targets through verbal feedback in lessons is part of our process and while we do have some pre- inked stamps, the teacher, with a green pen in hand, can write “target met”.

As a result the time spent on 1-1 dialogue with a student is useful without any need for recording this in a more formal way. This system also extends to practical subjects, where students offer SST verbally to peers in PE, music and drama and use post-it notes or subject booklets to record feed-forward TOP targets to reference in future lessons.

Getting everyone on board

“Teachers mark work regularly and students appreciate the helpful nature of most written feedback. They commented on how marking has improved since the last inspection and felt that it now has a positive impact on their progress.” (Ofsted, 2014)

Providing training has been crucial to ensuring that this policy was successful and that it had a positive impact on our students’ learning. Whole-staff training and follow-up for individual faculties and subjects was crucial early on, especially for those subject teams for whom this new approach was challenging. It required an understanding of when skills were being developed, regardless of different content.

In a very busy curriculum, staff also needed to take a leap of faith to allow the time needed for students to apply their targets. This can be ‘bell work’ as students arrive at a classroom, especially if they are applying a RACE target which can also be transferred to new learning as a TOP target. Likewise as the end of the lesson, especially before teachers collect books for marking, it is important to ensure that students spend some time reflecting upon and reviewing their work in blue.

Students are encouraged to pose questions if they have them. All of this helps to create the colourful dialogue in books and allow teachers to differentiate, support and challenge their students, sometimes from the comfort of their own sofas.

Ongoing training is provided as part of our induction of new staff. Who can appreciate the significance of Janus , Roman God of transitions, as they look forward to a new start as well as looking back on a previous school or training. Janus is a useful symbol to share when introducing RACE and TOP as he looks both back on what he has done, and forward at what is to come.

In a very busy curriculum, staff also needed to take a leap of faith to allow the time needed for students to apply their targets

As part of our year 7 induction curriculum, we provide training for our new students about the marking policy, how it works, why we use it and what their role is. Delivering it in this way, rather than have some students encounter it for the first time in English or art or history, has been really positive.

Next steps

As with so many aspects of school life, striving for consistency remains a focus for us. Through lesson observations, learning walks and other monitoring we are always looking at books to tell us about the quality of teaching over time and student progress, as much as for the marking. However, marking is part of the learning journey and as such we value it and need to ensure it is high quality.

We are confident that what we have is a system in which:

  • marking is manageable, because if the students are applying targets and identifying their skills, they are working harder than their teachers.
  • marking is meaningful about high expectations and a shared language of culture of being the best you can be.
  • a shared language marking is motivational for our students, expecting them to apply targets and make progress from whatever their starting point.

In a brave new world of new GCSE specifications and life without levels at KS3. Having an approach which delivers in the classroom is ever more important as we take the next steps.


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