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Should we put grades on pupils' work?

For a number of years there have been calls from some quarters for teachers to stop putting grades on pupils' work. A seminal article in this context seems to be "Inside the black box" by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam written in 2001. They cite research in a passionate argument against grades. The argument is familiar: kids only look at the grade and not the comment, the bright ones become complacent and the less brilliant are deflated. Allocating national curriculum levels has the same effect, they would argue.

Donald Clark summarises "why marking sucks" in his entertaining blog:

So why is it that I have resisted a policy of no marks on work? Well, we have spoken to pupils about this and we have discussed it more than once in the department. It has to be said also that our pupils are in the 11-18 age range and are nearly all are of above average aptitude. Black and Wiliam's study, as I recall, found that the effects of "no marks" were greatest for pupils of lower ability.

Our pupils say they would be frustrated not to have a grade. They say they want to see their letter grade (we also give an effort grade). Some say that they are motivated by the fact that they keep getting A grades and do not want less. To state the obvious, a grade is also an efficient, short-hand way of describing the quality of the work. It is the case that many, though not all, MFL homework tasks are routine, repetitive tasks where the focus is on grammatical accuracy and correct spelling. They are often reinforcing a pattern practised in the classroom. There is often little to add to the mark, bar something to the effect: well done, keep it up, you are making good progress, try to remember the endings next time. This contrasts with the type of marking you might see in English, history, geography or art.

I acknowledge that pupils often look at the grade and need to be prompted to look at corrections. I should get them to do corrections more often, just as I should just underline more errors, rather than writing in the correct version. (I think I neglect to get the kids to do corrections because I sense it is a dull task for them.)

We have a system where A= "very accurate, with a good range, among the best we would see at RGS"; B = "good work, but with some error and a narrower range"; C = "quite a few errors, evidence of some misunderstanding"; D = "weak - misunderstood, inaccurate" (I have simplified our descriptors somewhat). We do not routinely use national curriculum levels when marking work.

A primary school colleague recently observed to me that written marking is not very useful and that the most powerful way of motivating a child through assessment is to speak to the child. This makes sense. That little chat you have at the end of the lesson, be it encouraging or otherwise, is often much more powerful than a grade or a très bien.

So my conclusion: try not to mark too much, but do enough so that the kids know you care and are making sure they are getting the work done, resist the temptation to write in corrections when children can often see the error themselves, give marks most of the time because children like them and they motivate, and lastly, write in motivational and useful comments (e.g. how to get better) when you have the time. Oh, and use any colour you like, provided it is visible.

Comments welcomed!


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