On valuable feedback that supports teacher wellbeing

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The conflation of marking and feedback has led to a pernicious culture in schools that equates lots of written marking in books with high quality feedback. The irony is, of course, that the evidence on written marking is thin (read the EEF’s review on the evidence of written marking: ‘A marked improvement’) and sometimes great feedback is nigh on impossible to evidence.

It’s difficult to pick the best metaphor to describe the profusion of marking and consequent impact on teacher wellbeing but I’m going to go with this (and excuse the hyperbole – I’m an English teacher): teachers are drowning in a sea of marking. At the start of term we dip our toes into the sea of marking (got to test the temperature) and before we know it our feet have been pulled out from under us by an undercurrent we didn’t see coming. Midway through the term we’ve lost sight of land and when the holidays hit we use that time to wade our way back to shore. It’s an exhausting and demoralising pattern as predictable as the ebb and flow of tides. We joke about teacher widows (pity those in relationships with teachers) but part of the problem is that our teachers have been lost at sea.

Whatever the metaphor, I can’t help but see a correlation between the fetishisation of marking (read this from David Didau) and a teacher recruitment and retention crisis. If middle and senior leaders want to keep hold of their teachers then they need to look again at what they are expecting of their staff in terms of marking and feedback. I’m not, however, expecting our senior leaders to stand, Cnut-like, on the shore and command the incoming tide to stop.

Silly Old Cnut.

Of course our students deserve good feedback to help them improve and we as teachers need to be able to identify what students know and what their misconceptions might be to inform where we go next with our teaching. However, we can do a lot better with how we navigate the sea of marking to ensure that fewer teachers are being washed-up, bedraggled and browbeaten, before their time.

I was lucky enough to attend the #LeadingLearningsHRS course at Huntington Research School yesterday and one of the documents I was given to read is a Research Summary of Marking and Feedback. In it, there is a helpful summary of ‘modest conclusions’ that can be drawn from the EEF ‘A marked improvement’ document about what makes for effective feedback:

  • Prompt questions rather than teacher corrections promote greater student ownership over the correction process
  • If students are given the lesson time needed to engage with marking, then coded marking is just as effective as written comments
  • Giving students adequate time and support to help them understand comments and, in particular, highly specific targets will yield the most positive results
  • A focus on the quality of feedback as opposed to quantity and frequency is likely to lead to greater progress for students
  • Feedback should be timely, so oral feedback is often appropriate in a way that written marking is not

I think marking crib sheets (the brainchild of @mrthorntonteach though I’d also recommend reading Jo Facer’s blog for how they do feedback at Michaela which is similar in approach to the idea of a crib sheet) meet a lot of these features of effective feedback with the added boon of being teacher friendly.

I have been using marking crib sheets since the Autumn term. The first time I used them I managed to mark a complete set of 30 books in under an hour – a record breaking time for me. I was able to get a feel for how my students were doing and also give personalised feedback but I didn’t have to lug all of the books home and spend the usual 3 hours diligently writing all over their books in a worthy attempt to provide quality feedback.

Since then I’ve encouraged my team to use marking crib sheets and have been explicit about not expecting to see so much written marking in students’ books (though it’s a hard habit to break – sometimes we can’t help ourselves and that’s fine). School policy dictates that once or twice a term students receive WWW/EBI feedback on a piece of work and then complete a ‘yellow box’ activity to act on this feedback – this ties in very nicely with the crib sheets. We can take in students’ books, knock up a crib sheet and give students numbered targets on an assessment piece. Sorted.

I think it’s really important that the valuable time teachers spend marking is not wasted. If we don’t give students time to read, reflect and act on our feedback we might as well not bother. What did we give last Sunday up for if students just flick their eyes over what we’ve written (which could be beautifully personal and even witty) before cracking on with something new? So I expect my team to use a lesson to go through their feedback with the class – perhaps flashing a few great examples under the visualiser –  before getting students to complete a task linked to their personal targets. Whilst students are getting on with their ‘DIRT Task’ (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) teachers can circulate and give 1-2-1 support and specific verbal feedback.

As we review and refine this approach, I’m hopeful that it is enabling teachers to give good quality, valuable and timely feedback to their students in a way which recognises the importance of their wellbeing. It might even mean that teachers look through their books more often because they’re not put off by the expectation to scrawl on every page.

See below a few examples of crib sheets in action in my classroom  which I hope shows the many ways it can be used. If you’ve made it that far, at the very bottom of this post you’ll find a link to a google drive with some templates you can download to use/adapt.

Having a completed a 2b style question, my middle set year 8s received an A5 copy of a marking crib sheet in their books. Here’s an example of the written feedback my students receive (in line with school policy) including a personal WWW comment and numbered EBI targets (which refer to the numbers on the crib sheet) followed by a personalised DIRT task which the student has completed in a yellow box and annotated with how her writing has been improved:



Here’s another yellow box improvement and self-assessment (in blue pen) of a DIRT task focused on what she thinks I would now say about her work:


I think this is evidence of students really engaging with the feedback they received on the crib sheets and there’s evidence of real improvement. All of this with only an hour of my time spent going through their books! What’s even more encouraging is that the class have responded really well to this form of feedback.

Here’s my first ever crib sheet. This wasn’t following an assessment, I was giving the crib sheet a go for a general book look and trialled including an image of a praise-worthy bit of writing. NB: I have used initials for the purposes of sharing here but would ordinarily write students’ names.

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An example of a crib sheet for giving feedback on a year 8 Animal Farm formative assessment:


An example of KS3 Paper 2 Section A Q1-3 feedback that doubled as cover lesson instructions:

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Here’s a couple of examples of it in use for year 11 Lit essay feedback:

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Like the look of them? Find a few templates here.

Interested in how you can be wellbeing friendly whilst still giving great feedback on PPEs? Read this.

** UPDATE January 2018 **

I’ve been playing about with the template. Please see some new examples below and new examples/templates here. You’ll find what the template was created for written down the left hand side e.g. Weekly Writing Challenge feedback.

Feedback to year 10s on a weekly writing challenge.

year 10 wwc feedback

Feedback to year 10s on AQA Paper 1 Q2

year 10 p1 q2

Feedback to year 11s on Jekyll and Hyde essay

year 11 j and h

Feedback to year 11s on poetry comparison

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On learning to notice (unseen poetry)

Notice.pngI picked this activity up from the AQA Effective Exam Prep course and thought it was a great way to get students to focus on the key things when tackling an unseen poem.

Essentially it works like this:

Step One:

Put copies of the poem up around the room before the lesson starts. To stop any cheating, the best thing is to staple/pin a blank sheet of paper over the poem that the students will have to lift to read the poem.

Step Two:

Put students into groups of 4/5 and allow them, one at a time, to go up and look at the poem for 30 seconds. All they have to do is think about what they notice. They will come back and sit with their group but they MUST NOT talk about what they noticed though they may make some notes.

Step Three:

When everybody in the group has had 30 seconds with the poem the group can now discuss what they noticed. Some may have noticed something to do with the structure, others will have noticed the opening, for some the vocabulary used will have stuck with them… It’s genuinely fascinating to see what students notice. They won’t all notice the same things (and that’s a good thing); they’ll be able to make some interesting points about the things that caught their attention.

When I did this activity with my year 11 class, I used it as part of an introductory lesson about how to approach unseen poetry. I showed them this example question:

In ‘The Great Storm’, how does the poet present the speaker’s feelings about the storm?

I then quickly split them up into groups and they cracked on with the activity. After the group discussion I pulled them back as a class and  was blown away by what students were able to say about the poem only having had 30 seconds with it. They were able to tell me how the speaker felt about the storm using evidence from the poem and commenting on the techniques the poet had used to present those feelings. They commented on techniques including Shapcott’s use of: sentence structure, pronouns, similes, sensory detail, direct address, tense, enjambment and vocabulary. To say I was impressed is an understatement.

To pull this all together I showed them how they might structure their responses, got them to write a plan and then they talked through their essay with a partner. As a starting point to unseen poetry it showed them that they’re pretty amazing at noticing and they notice things for a reason. It’s no accident that they noticed the single sentence stanza that opened the poem, the irregular structure, the simile comparing trees to matchsticks…

If you fancy giving it a go, I include here a link to a PowerPoint  I used in the lesson and a copy of the poem. Feel free to use/adapt but the beauty of this activity is that there’s minimal set up and you can do it with any poem that you like.

On how we’re marking PPEs (mocks to you and me).

marking comic for blog

See that teacher? The one with ashen skin, ink smudges on her hands (insert school policy colour of preference) that can barely suppress a yawn? You know, the one with bloodshot eyes and a mug of coffee as large as her face. Yeah her. She teaches English. Be kind to her.

We all know that English teachers get a raw deal when it comes to marking; the problem is that we’re getting a rawER deal now as we juggle the demands of the new English and English Literature GCSEs. The chances are your students have just sat or will be sitting both the English Language papers and both the English Literature papers for their PPE/Mock exams. That’s 7.5 hours worth of work produced by each of your students. Assuming you have just the one exam class of about 30 students, that’s 225 hours worth of student work to plough through. Pity the teacher who has several exam classes…

I would argue that it takes the average English teacher 15 minutes to mark a whole paper. By my calculation that’s 1 hour of marking per student and therefore a full English and English Literature mock results in 30 hours of marking for every exam class.  If you’re a new or inexperienced teacher then it’s going to take longer and if you’ve got two exam classes sitting both papers you’ll be spending the equivalent of 7 and a half working days marking. What’s laughable is that you’ve also got to crack on with your day job.

If you’re a senior leader reading this, go and speak to your English department and see how they’re coping. My guess is that they’re burning themselves out.  If you want to keep your English teachers (and my guess is that you do) this can’t be allowed to continue.

So, given the rather bleak context I’ve just relayed, what am I doing as a Head of English to manage this marking behemoth and protect my team from burnout? Well, a couple of things…

1. We’re paying other people to mark the English Language papers

For those long entrenched in marking their own papers, this may seem like an anathema. How will I know what we need to work on? Will the feedback be as good? I get that it’s hard to let go but we need to relinquish some of our control for the sake of our sanity. Yes I won’t have marked the papers myself but it’s not like I’ve entrusted the marking to somebody I met in the street (though I’ll admit that there’s been times in my teaching career, in the fug of marking, that this has been a tempting prospect). Our Language papers are being marked by examiners who have been trained by the exam board and therefore I have confidence that the marking will be robust (and will have none of the teacher bias we might sometimes be guilty of).

Our examiners will produce reports on areas of strength and weakness; I’ll therefore know what we need to work on – with probably a better overview of the whole cohort than if we’d all marked our own. Unlike in the Summer, we’ll also be getting our papers back; where there’s surprising results, I’ll be able to look at an individual student’s script to see what happened. When we get our papers back we’ll be spending time in class to go through them and working out how we close the gaps. I’ll also be able to have 1-2-1s to give personalised feedback. I’m struggling to see the drawbacks…

The other benefit of paying somebody else to mark the English Language mock papers is that it’s providing us with an outsider’s perspective on what we’re doing well and where we need to improve. It will either validate or challenge our own marking and, with a brand new paper, I think that’s invaluable; it’s easy to become blinkered in your own departmental echo chamber.

I won’t lie. It’s not cheap paying to have 360 scripts marked externally (approximately 180 students in a year group and two papers each) but I think it’s worth the investment. Not only are we getting robust marking but it’s also a huge weight of marking off the shoulders of my team. All being well, I’ll be ring-fencing some of next year’s budget to do the same and I think it’s something that other English departments need to explore given the demands I’ve outlined and which, no doubt, your English teachers will be experiencing. I also know that I’m lucky enough to have Senior Leaders who listened and were supportive of our decision.

2. We became ‘Question Experts’ for the Literature papers

Instead of juggling the demands of 6 different questions across two papers, we decided that it would be better to become Question Experts. As we have some members of staff exam marking in the Summer, it made sense to match them up to a question on their paper and then shared out the rest. We have six team members and the two not currently teaching year 11 took on the two Unseen Poetry questions.

There are several benefits to this approach:

  1. Human judgement is essentially comparative (read Daisy Christodoulou’s post: Marking essays and poisoning dogs). By increasing the marking context from a class of essays to a cohort of essays the hope is that the marking will be more accurate (or as accurate as it can be when using assessment criteria).
  2.  It’s easier, and quicker, to mark a cohort of essays responding to one question than marking a class set of 6 different questions and having to switch to marking a new question at the point where you might be hitting your stride.
  3. The marking is consistent across a question – it’s therefore easier to analyse the cohort’s responses to that question and look for trends.
  4.  Reducing teacher bias. Whether we like it or not it’s hard to ignore how we feel about a student and this can impact the number of marks we award. Consciously or unconsciously we potentially over or under mark our own students’ work.

The argument for marking your own essays is often based on the personalised feedback students receive from their own teacher (which we probably rightfully assume they value). But, given that mocks are a summative assessment the feedback would likely not be extensive. This is especially true for those teachers with a couple of exam classes – how much personalised feedback could we reasonably expect from them when they’re already facing 7.5 working days of marking?

So we’ve sacrificed personalised feedback from students’ own class teacher on the altar of teacher wellbeing but I think we’ve gained, rather than lost, quality feedback. Each teacher has produced a report for their question with trends and high quality feedback – it’s an incredible resource that we’ll be using in the feedback lessons with year 11. As an example, here’s my examiner’s report on the poetry anthology question (nobody else wanted to mark this question…):

Feedback 1

Feedback 2

Feedback 3

Feedback 4

In the feedback lessons with my class, I’ll be expecting students to re-read their Literature essays and highlight which of the ‘common errors’ apply to them before writing their own WWW/EBI feedback. They’ll need to actively engage with the feedback which can only be a good thing. I’ll be walking around and talking to students about their essays and having 1-2-1s where needed. Another boon of this approach is that those students who missed a mock paper, or didn’t answer a question, still have the benefit of high quality feedback despite not having a response.

This is the first year we’ve trialled this approach and, from personal experience, I’m a convert. I marked all of my scripts in a day (representing the single most productive day of marking of my teaching career) and therefore didn’t have the mock cloud of woe following me round for a couple of weeks. My team have also been unanimously positive about the experience. If nothing else I know this approach is a win for teacher wellbeing – we need to look after our teachers if we want to look after our students – but I also happen to think that the other benefits (accuracy, consistency, quality feedback, reduced teacher bias) make this a great way to manage the mock marking load.

How is your school approaching the marking of English mock papers? How are you coping? I’d be interested to know how other schools are managing things.

** If you’re interested in our fantastic examiner, get in touch with Sarah Mullen (@English_Consult).