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On giving written feedback

Evidence from reputable sources such as John Hattie and Dylan Wiliam has led schools and teachers to place an increased emphasis on feedback than in the past. Effective, timely feedback is said to be one way to maximise your students' progress. One unfortunate consequence of this emphasis is that schools have sometimes insisted on teachers providing detailed written feedback and targets on students' work in a very prescribed and back-covering fashion. This is time-consuming, as the recent DfE workload report noted and not a requirement of Ofsted.

A further consequence I have picked up is that, because marking and feedback has become so prescribed and detailed (including the use of colour coding, 'two stars and a wish', etc) it becomes, in some cases, less frequent. It has to; there are only so many hours in a day. To my mind, frequent, lighter feedback is more effective. If you set homework at the right level to a Y9 class, it should take no more than about an hour to mark 30 books. You could do that once a week, maybe once a fortnight.

So my approach to this was to ensure pupils did plenty of homework, much of it marked by me, but that the feedback was traditionally brief. I felt, and still do, that the most important part of the process of homework and feedback, was the fact that the students actually did the work. Marking and feedback are mainly there to ensure that students care enough about their work and do it punctually and carefully.

Given the choice between (1) setting lots of work and marking it lightly and (2) setting less work and marking it in detail, with lengthy comment at the end or in the margin, I would unhesitatingly choose option (1).

Now, some second language learning researchers claim that corrective marking makes no difference to acquisition. (It's actually quite hard to prove.) I would not go that far, but I do think its importance is exaggerated. I repeat: the key thing is that the students did the work, i.e. recycled the language, got more comprehensible input, thought about the grammatical forms, used a dictionary, and so on.

Nevertheless, I believe some feedback is useful and tend to go along with the approach touted by the Michaela free school, whereby the English teacher, for example, makes a few notes about common recurring issues and deals with them to the whole class. This seems to be efficient, if less personalised. As far as I can make out, the work is read, a brief mark or remark added, but little if any detailed comment. Much work can also be peer-marked, then briefly checked when the books are collected in next (a good argument for exercises books over file paper, by the way). Many teachers have adopted this approach over the years.

One feeling I had about all this was that going through work with students was, frankly, just a bit boring for them and for me. Rather than do this, I wanted to move on to the next activity. I wanted to do something stimulating and communicative in the target language in the limited time we had available. I think (hope?) I had a sense of what they found useful and what they found boring - call it "affective and cognitive empathy" if you like. We talk about this in our book.

I hope that the DfE report is read by school leaders and that those who insist on "gold-plated" feedback systems consider other priorities.


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