Staggered marking and feedback 

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My year 9s have just done their end of year exam. In RS this means the same set of questions skills repeated for religions and themes. They’ve done three sets of these so they are marked on 1/2/4/5/12 mark questions, 3 times.

I got them to write their answers to each set on a different piece of paper. So Christianity on one, Islam and another and theme B on the final piece.

Instead of marking all of their papers I have marked them one by one. So I marked all their Christianity papers in one go and then did my usual whole class feedback on particular points of knowledge or common errors, whilst reminding them of the requirements of each question. They then ‘green pen’ their work which means they improve their initial work taking on the feedback I’ve given to the class and where they’d missed marks on their own work.

Between that lesson and the next I marked the Islam section and then did the same. I have to finish marking their Theme B and will do the same.

This means:

  • It spread my marking out over more days but each section was fresh in my head as I fed back as I’d only marked that one section.
  • We could focus directly on 5 questions, instead of 15.
  • Their green pen work was more targeted as there was less to do in thirds.
  • My feedback was repeated three times. This links into the research of repetition and retrieval to aid long term memory.
  • Although I was required to determine a grade using marks it has stopped them ‘just’ looking at the ticks (I refuse to write marks!). The purpose is to improve their work not to see what they got. Delayed grades are the lesser of two evils.

I’ve looked at various research about feedback timing. Most compares ‘instant’ versus delayed. By definition these sort of test feedback couldn’t be instant so it would be interesting to know if there is any research that just deals with different lengths of delayed feedback. This is taking a week and I genuinely feel it is working better than if I’d done it all at once.

I am lucky to have the luxury of time with this group, but if I didn’t , would the time spent on delayed, staggered feedback be better than all at once delayed feedback?

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 ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ – Consistency in schools

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I once visited a school on a leadership course where the Head told the delegates “When we interview, we directly ask teachers if they will comply with our clear but firm expectations & rules. If they have any doubts we won’t offer them the job”. This included students walking in silence in the corridors and all staff eating lunch with students, amongst many other unusual (for me) practices.

I thought this was a really interesting strategy. The Head was ensuring that he only employed people that were committing to being consistent with the school’s ethos. Some might think this is overly controlling but I can see there is real truth in the phrase ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. I have seen that success in schools can be down to this. Not necessarily how the school does things but that there is unity across staff and students in the application of the strategies/rules.

So if it’s as simple as that, why don’t all schools just ensure consistency?

It’s tough.


Teachers are individuals. When teachers get into their classrooms, they are usually the boss of their space and are mainly autonomous in what they do. That autonomy leads to people creating their own rules and expectations. It’s as though a whole school becomes a set of mini-schools where the personalities and preferences of a teacher take precedence over the whole school.

Teachers don’t like being told what to do. That autonomy means that when others tell them what they should be doing, one reaction might be to ignore it. Compliance seems a strong term. But it is compliance, to set and agreed principles that create consistency. Some teachers dislike compliance and counter it with being treated as a professional. This is a false dichotomy. Teachers can be treated as professionals and be expected to fulfil their part in a whole school system.

Leaders don’t hold teachers to account. As a leader, this is a huge challenge; possibly the biggest challenge of school leadership. I’ve seen this over and over and in the worst case scenarios leaders are scared or ill-equipped to have professional conversations with staff. Leaders say things like ‘Well, that’s just so and so, that’s the way they do it’ or ‘they’ve done it that way for years, they’ll never change’. In other cases friendships and relationships have got in the way of tough conversations. Or there is a hope that the teacher will leave the school so the ‘problem’ disappears and so isn’t worth dealing with.

Fairness is essential. If one member of staff doesn’t do something, the same conversation should happen if another person doesn’t. No leader should be sacred of a member of staff. This is equally true within the leadership team. If staff see a leader not fulfilling the process that they’ve been told to follow, it can lead to staff feeling that it’s one rule for one and another for another.

Most leaders will know the theory, but in practice there have been horrific situations which lead to accusations of bullying, competency procedures and sadly people ‘losing’ their jobs. This needs to be shared and discussed much more in leadership and with new leaders. In my career I remember those few leaders that have done this well but sadly this can be overridden by those that have done it very, very badly.

Teachers don’t agree with what they’ve been asked to do. There are many policies and rules that a school can choose to adopt.  Some may be controversial. Some may seem nonsensical. Either way, if you listen in the staffroom teachers will be pointing out which policies or processes they don’t agree with. If there isn’t a channel for staff to share or air their concerns about these, they may just do it their own way.

Good teachers ‘carry’ those that don’t comply. I’ve blogged about his before here. It’s really easy for leaders to shift their focus.  Focus on those that do, so those that don’t seem like a minority. This may seem a great strategy until those that ‘do’ start to become burdened unfairly. They get more, those that don’t, get nothing.

Lack of clarity of what they want from staff. So far, we’ve assumed that leaders have made very clear what they expect. Expecting staff to be ‘professional’ isn’t enough. They need to have clear expectations and processes so they know what they should be doing.

Leaders have the big picture without the practical processes. Strategic thinking is great. It gives the overall plan of what we’re doing and why. However, if it lacks the practicalities of how things will be done, it just remains susceptible to individual interpretation, leading to inconsistency.

It is also useful to include the ‘why’ we are doing this. The logic or research behind it is important. If the ‘why’ is illogical or unreasonable, it may lead to staff questioning its value and then not doing it.

Consistency requires consistency over time. If you have a transient staff, including leaders, it can be really difficult to embed consistency. If a teacher arrives and the ethos is strong and embeded there is more chance that staff will follow it. Where there is no precedent or continuous changes, it is easier for teachers to do their own thing. This is one of the biggest challenges as a leader in a challenging school context.

The processes are too complicated. If a teacher has to fill out a triplicate form and deliver one to a head of year’s office, one to the tutor’s tray and then email a version to a line manager, there is a good chance they’re not going to have the time or inclination to complete it. The time spent on the process may outweigh the value They see in completing the process. Leaders need to think of the value of any process over the time cost.

Teachers don’t feel supported. Even if they do complete the triplicate paperwork , if nothing happens, even a discussion or a response, a teacher will feel that they are isolated. Efficient & appropriate communication in schools can be lacking. Leaders need a process to follow to ensure that teachers feel supported. If a teacher has an incident in their class, who will check they’re ok? Who will ask them the next day if they’re ok? Sometimes we assume these things happen but we’re all so busy that no-one does it. It needs listening, planning and organisation to support staff.


In the initial anecdote, the Head teacher’s strategy of checking compliance from day one was a clever way to ensure that his school continued in a manner that he deemed was necessary for students to be successful.  But if all schools did this would they end up without teachers? Are all teachers willing to ‘sign up to’ a system where the expectations are clearly on them to fulfill and comply with?

How can leaders best ensure consistency within schools without it being a dictatorship? Does it have to come at the expense of autonomy in the classroom? Should it account for teacher personalities? How can accountability be effective without being personal or based on relationships? Should compliance to school policies be assessed?

One of the teacher standards is “Teachers must have proper and professional regard for the ethos, policies and practices of the school in which they teach” how is this upheld?

In my eyes, it’s schools that nail consistency, that have the highest chance of being successful. It’s the challenge of leadership of how to do this with humanity and professionalism.

 “But my weak students struggle with it” – Why the new GCSEs are needed

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Since the start of the new GCSE specifications, I’ve heard this several times. My view on this isn’t a popular one.

They ‘should’ struggle.

Whether we like it or not, GCSEs are essentially a ranking of all the students that take that exam in that year. We can argue for a long time whether this is fair or whether it’s the purpose of education but the longer we spend on this, the less time we spend on giving our students the best support and opportunity to achieve their best.

Here are some grade boundaries for Religious Studies GCSE:

img_2041-1There are three marks between an A and an A* and seven between each of the ‘good GCSE’ grades. You’d hope that those would differentiate between students e.g a good student, an excellent student and an exceptional student. They don’t. Those marks could be achieved from many things that aren’t good subject knowledge.

Students in legacy specifications are also tested on their own opinions. How is that testing if they are a good religious studies student?

None of these really tell me that one candidate is more skilled in religious studies than another. In fact, if a student understands and applies the ‘rules’ of the exam, they can achieve a ‘C’ with little knowledge of religions. When my boss asks me what grades students will achieve I can tell him about the quality of their writing but I explain that the difference between the grades and the margins for error in marking make it almost impossible.

There are, and will be students who get surprise results, not because they worked hard or know any more religious teachings but on the day, gave their opinion with reasons whilst those who studied hard may have had a wobble and forgotten something ,yet they come out with the same grade.

The current system isn’t fair.

So, to the new GCSE. It mainly tests knowledge and evaluation. There are not any specific marks for their own opinion (although some teachers are still using it as part of evaluation). A student has to have studied and learnt a lot about religions to answer the questions. They need to be able to plan and show the higher skill of evaluation to get the top marks. This is where the differentiation begins. Students will be ranked according to their religious knowledge and skills. Evaluation is difficult. It’s supposed to be. Low attaining students WILL struggle with it. They’re supposed to.

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Don’t confuse what I’m saying with high expectations. I’m not saying that initial starting points defines a students’ final attainment. I’m not. It’s my job as a teacher to stretch and challenge all students to do the maximum they achieve at the time. They can all achieve a 9. But the reality is they won’t. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s reality. We all want the best for our students but is it really good if all students achieve a 9? What does that tell anyone?

These GCSE reforms were really important, especially for RS. It was becoming silly. We need to accept that challenge is a good thing and will help us become ‘equal’ to other subjects instead of being the subject that can be done on one lesson a week. Times are changing.

It’s my job from now on to develop my students to out-do any data and excel in the study of religions. Bring it on!

“But we need to finish the course” – What if we plan NOT to complete the specification?

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On Saturday, at #SASFE17 Matt Pinkett tweeted this from session two with some sixth formers:

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I had planned to suggest something similar in session 3 so they beat me to it.

Teachers seem to be very concerned about ‘finishing’ a course. Understandably, they want to be sure they’ve covered everything that could possibly come up in an exam with the students to give them the best possible chance. Even if this means racing through content on a lesson by lesson basis and doing this until the last lesson before the exam; if they’ve covered it, then they know it.

But we know this isn’t true. Just because you’ve explained something or dedicated a lesson to it doesn’t mean that a) they understood it or b) they will remember it in 2/3 years time. Instead of quantity of learning, should we look at the quality of learning?

In my session at #SASFE17 I shared a model, based on cognitive science that might be an alternative to the model above.

I used a very unscientific method to share my hypothesis. I suggested the following:

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If we rush through content without considering what students have learnt or using any methods to help students to remember long-term, they might only remember 50% of the content.

However, if we spend time using strategies that cognitive science suggests helps with long-term memory (spacing, interleaving, recall, testing etc) this might mean that we don’t have enough time to fully complete covering the content of the course. I propose that this might not be disastrous as it sounds.

Here we can see that only 75% of the course was covered and if it was all then remembered over the long-term, they will ‘know’ more than if everything was rushed through without any embedding (only 50%).

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Of course none of these numbers are accurate but I use the illustration to show that using strategies for learning that may take more time might not be at the cost of learning.

Let’s assume that my hypothesis is correct. What does this mean for teachers?

They need to decide which aspects of their specification are core concepts that are essential for understanding the most of the specification. Are there key theories that are the essential basics of the subject, through which, lots of other concepts connect?

For example, in GCSE RS, if students understand the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus it also helps understand salvation, incarnation and resurrection.

Might this change the order and the detail in which teachers teach content? Are there some topics that would be best taught early on so that the planned recall throughout the rest of the course can embed them fully?

It will mean that the time that we have with students in class and what we set for HW/prep is key. We need to consider what methods we will use to help with spacing and recall. We need to plan this all carefully and well ahead of time.

Do we need to differentiate between classes and/or students on what will be missed out? Might students that are working towards level 3-5 at GCSE have a different ‘core’ selected to those working towards 7-9?

Finally, do we tell students if we don’t plan to cover the specification? How might this be framed? Do we tell them from day 1 what it is that won’t be covered so they have 2 years to work on it themselves?

Teachers are scared not to cover the full specification, but if hours are limited and not enough to cover all content, the logical solution might be stop trying to squeeze it all in and think strategically about the time available.

 

Exam stress

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I love this term. It’s when all our hard work comes to fruition. However it’s the time of year when the stress begins for year 11 students. The first written GCSE is next week and teachers are trying to squeeze in all their last minute tips and go through a whole course in the final few lessons. Teachers are tense, students listen and the stress is passed on. Teachers suddenly expect students to be spending 2 hours after school each day on their subject. It’s totally understandable. Some teachers’ pay progression relies on it.

But it doesn’t have to be like this.*

I had my last lesson before the first written exam this week. Essentially it was the same as every lesson I’ve taught them since day 1; I knew what I wanted to cover with them and we did a practice exam question. We played a game (which I rarely do). I didn’t mention anything like ‘remember to do X’ or ‘in the exam…..’. Their exam could’ve been next week or next year.

This is because I’ve been planning for this for two years. We’ve spread out that stress over two years. My expectations and sense of importance started from day 1. ‘Revision’ started from HW one; I’ve not set any ‘revise’ homework in recent weeks. I do think these exams are important for them and I expect them to work hard, take them seriously and do their best, but I’ve expected that all along. Not in the last few weeks. Nothing’s changed….in my classroom anyway.

I deliberately don’t make a tense atmosphere or present a sense of urgency to them. In fact I’ve set minimal work for them to do as HW in the past few weeks. No holiday sessions or after school ‘revision’. I’ve never told them to spend hours on my subject; I’ve interleaved all they need in lessons and HWs.

If we want a calm and positive learning environment we should be teaching and training our students how to plan and prepare for something in the long term, not resort to last minute, short term gains. Our professional stresses don’t need to be shared with them. I am still accountable for their progress and results but I have planned and prepped throughout. I have no doubt they will all do well on the day. We’ve covered all bases for a long time.

This time should be for them to be proud of what they’ve learnt and want to get on with it. I believe that if teachers spoke about the importance of exams throughout and planned a careful curriculum then any last minute interventions or assemblies wouldn’t be needed. The skills of the teacher is not to offer more interventions it’s to carefully and strategically know their specification and the time they have and plan a course that benefits long term learning. Moaning about not having enough time is pointless.

All of this shifts the rhetoric around exams from an urgent, stressy, fearful experience to a satisfying recognition and denouement of all their hard work.

 
* I understand this only applies where a class has had one teacher for the entire course. Classes that have had multiple/no teachers over the GCSE may need special provision.

Comparing students to give current, new specification, GCSE grades (without grade boundaries)

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In the absence of grade boundaries, yet still being under pressure to complete data sheets about students, there are several courses of action that teachers have taken:

  1. Make up grade boundaries (using some sort of logic)
  2. Create grade descriptors for 1-9 using some of the information we have been given
  3. Just make it all up

Although I have pondered grade boundaries, as I don’t use marks with my GCSE students there is no need for me to come up with % or raw mark grade boundaries. I have also avoided number 2 as it can be complex and rely on complex and often ambiguous language. In an attempt to avoid number 3, I have trialled using student comparison to help with our data entry.

I’m currently trialling ‘No more marking’ so the idea of comparison was in my head when we did this yesterday.

We took a list of our students. Here is a made up class to help me explain:

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Throughout this process, I had in my mind two sets of information about grades and levels of knowledge & skills; Ofqual’s Religious Studies GCSE grade descriptors (2/5/8) and our exam board mark scheme (in our case AQA GCSE)

We initially identified the student/s that we believe could get full marks and have assumed that full marks will be a grade 9. We then identified the student that has shown the least aptitude with the course content and skills and allocated them with a 3. We believed that he could do slightly more than the grade 2 descriptor. We then identified a student that we thought would be a grade 5 and 7 using as far as possible, logical increments of knowledge and skills.

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I then posed a set of questions to my colleague about the remaining students. I also had student data in front of me so I knew roughly where to start the questioning. Here is an example of the type of conversation we had:

Me: Billy’s data suggests he should be 4-6. Is he ‘stronger’ or ‘weaker’ than Sally?

Colleague: He’s really good with responses in class but in his written work has lacked detail that Sally has, so weaker.

Me: Is he stronger than Brian?

Colleague: Definitely. He can give examples in his work that Brian can’t.

The conversations were actually more detailed than this as we could both discuss specific knowledge and skills that we know they have to have. Whilst, I know this class to some extent, the discussion with my colleague meant that we could consider carefully what they can/can’t do. I can’t vouch for my colleague, but I know if someone did this with me it would certainly help to clarify what it is that each student needs to do to progress further as we discussed in terms of knowledge and skills, not in terms of how many more marks they need to achieve.

In all cases we have taken a holistic view of the student; classroom responses, accuracy of answers, test capability etc. It is not just from one test with marks and grade boundaries.

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So we finally ended up with a set of class data, that was essentially a ‘rank’ of the class, using grade descriptors/mark schemes. I know that the term ‘ranking’ of a class can be controversial but this is in no way is shared with students or used with them. It had the outcome of generating a grade that we needed to enter in our data system but hopefully more usefully for my colleague we had a good discussion about the individual students and their strengths and areas that we can help them on in the coming months.

I’m not claiming that this is any better than the suggestions at the start of the blog but it certainly is another way, instead of using randomly made up grade boundaries. It also encourages a teacher has to know their class well (not just what marks they get) and helps to diagnose potential future support for a student.

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The marathon of assessment

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This post is inspired by Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Making good progress’ which I highly recommend if you’re interested in assessment in any way.

In the book she uses the metaphor of a training for a marathon when talking about assessment and I really like how this can explain what I do with my students. I thought it might be useful to share my thoughts on how I do this. I am using the final marathon race in my context as the GCSE exam in year 11.

Marathon runners rarely run whole marathons in training

This really interested me as this is exactly how I’ve been sorting my assessment for past few years. Students learn early in the GCSE what an exam paper requires them to do. We practise exam questions from the first half term. Not all of them but the simple ones to get them confident; these are ‘small’ assessments. I scatter them throughout the term. I rarely tell them they will be doing an ‘exam question’ because I don’t want to put undue emphasis on them completing them. For some odd reason it works. I could put an exam question in front of them in period 1 on Monday and they don’t even respond. I say ‘stop talking, write’ and they all do! I never have ‘is this a test?’ Or ‘you didn’t tell us?’ Or ‘I didn’t revise for this’. I just put them in front of them and I’m so confident that they can do them, it seems to rub off on them.

However, I will tell them about the longer tests but I don’t expect them to ‘revise’, I’ve been doing that for them already through their homework. Longer tests will interleave all previous topics, not just the one they’ve done. This produces the ‘medium’ sized assessment.

Not everything you do to prepare for a marathon involves running

It is important not to think that everything that is preparation is doing exams or even exam questions. A marathon runner may buy a new pair of trainers, they may choose their diet carefully and they must also rest. None of these involve running. There are so many things that I do to prepare students for an exam that aren’t an assessment. Unmeasurable stuff like class relationships, praise and confidence building are essential for students to feel they can succeed. Their homeworks are all either writing multiple choice questions, doing the multiple choice quiz or learning keywords. Whilst they won’t be questioned directly on a keyword. They have to know what they mean to access the questions. If they’re asked to evaluate  “Sanctity of life is more important than quality of life”, they have to know what these terms mean to have any hope of answering the question.

You cannot start training a few weeks before the marathon

Most of us are rubbish at planning ahead of time. We will leave things as long as possible. Most children will not consciously prepare for their exams until a couple of months or some cases weeks before their exam. I strongly believe that teachers have a duty to put this structure in for students so they are practising from day 1; we shouldn’t just leave it to chance. I start ‘revision’ with my classes from day 1 of the GCSE. This includes all their homeworks. Our teaching from day 1 should focus on the final outcome, the marathon/exam. Some teachers don’t like this idea as they think it is about teaching to the test. I think it is and it isn’t. Also, we can assume that most people that train for a marathon  do it out of choice. Whilst student may have opted for a subject, for core subjects this isn’t true. This is even more reason to put the structure in for them from the start.

Practising the whole marathon is about performance analysis 

I only give two full ‘mock’ experiences; December and March of year 11. It’s the only experience of the ‘large’ assessment they will get, with all the content and all the skills needed, as the real exam. My emphasis on these mocks is different to some others. I don’t care what they get in terms of marks or grade. It is much more useful as a diagnostic tool. It is exactly what I need to help them unpick what they need to work on in the last months; how to focus their final revision. We spend time on these papers after they’ve been marked. They improve aspects individually and I pull together common errors and plan around them.  A mock exam shouldn’t be seen as anything other than a snapshot of where they are and where they could get to. It’s a really important indication to me about my teaching (this is why I find it odd that people outsource marking) and where they’ve ‘got it’ or I need to recap.

It would be easy to continue with the metaphor in many ways but for me the key aspect that reflects what I do is the increasing levels of practice of different aspects (the ‘small’ and ‘medium’ assessments) that are key aspects of working towards the ‘large’ assessment.