One of the worst myths we have in education is not learning styles or that we only use 10% of ours brains, it is the myth that feedback is the same thing as marking.
John Hattie has done much to popularise the idea that feedback is highly effective but this conclusion highlights one of the problems with Hattie’s kind of meta-analysis – there’s a whole bag of quite different things sitting under that label.
Hattie himself acknowledges that of all forms of feedback, feedback to the teacher is one of the most powerful kinds. Yet we continually think of feedback as something that teachers supply to students, in writing. And Dylan Wiliam points out that, while the effects of feedback are large, a worrying proportion of them are negative. It seems that telling a student that she has done something right or wrong can have unpredictable consequences.
Imagine a classic physics question. Students are presented with a diagram of a book on a desk complete with an arrow to show the weight of the book and an arrow to show the push of the desk back up on the book. The question is: what is the Newton’s third law pair of the weight of the book?
I’ll give you two options for answering this question:
1. The students write the answer in an exercise book, perhaps at home. You then collect in the books and mark them.
2. The students write their answers on a mini whiteboard and hold them up during the lesson.
From experience, a lot of students will get this question wrong, even after correct instruction. The right answer is ‘the gravitational pull of the book on the Earth’ but this feels weird. The students’ eyes are drawn to the other arrow and they choose the push of the desk on the book.
So if you follow option 1, you’ll get a load of exercise books full of the same error which you will need to explain and correct, in writing. These explanations will have to be brief if you’re ever going to get to bed. Moreover, if this question was set as homework then some students who had help with their homework won’t get your written feedback, even though they probably need it.
Teaching has been reduced to the teacher corresponding individually and in writing with different members of the class.
But if you choose option 2 then you, the teacher, gain instant feedback. Students are present in front of you so you can ask them why they gave the answers that they gave. You can then tailor a more extensive explanation to address the issues that the students raise, and you can monitor and adjust for the emotional impact at the same time. All of this is feedback but none of it is marking.
English teachers are probably thinking that this is all very well but it won’t work in English. It’s not as straightforward, no. But the same principles apply: Correct what you can with the students in front of you. It helps if you can break things down rather than always relying on assessing whole pieces of writing. The traditional approach where a teacher circles and highlights parts of a written response before writing a paragraph at the end, is likely to be ineffective because there is too much for the student to take on.
Although there is plenty of evidence for feedback, there is a general lack of evidence for simply marking. This is why the English schools inspectorate have now issued new guidance to inspectors to stop asking for ever more detailed marking.
So feedback is potentially very powerful. But if you’re spending loads of your time marking then you might want to have a think about what you’re trying to achieve and if there is a better way of achieving it.