Time to Reflect and Improve: Purple Pens

Purple Pens

Helen Birchill, Susan Knowles, Charlotte Goodchild and Sarah Jones share the results of their Action Research Project.

Are you fed up with spending hours marking students’ work only for your feedback to be ignored? Would you like a strategy that enables you to show Ofsted how students have acted upon your advice and made progress? Do you think that students should take on some of the responsibility for drafting and improving their work?

If your answer is ‘yes’ to all of the above – then purple pens might just be what you’re looking for!

Like you, we felt that we needed a new approach to marking; one that would keep the volume of marking in proportion to the level of impact it would have on improving learning outcomes.

Faced with students repeatedly skimming over our (meticulously) written comments, we trialled the use of ‘response pens’ across a range of curriculum areas and year groups as a way of getting students to engage with teachers’ feedback and – most importantly – act upon this and make progress.

In short, the concept of response pens is that when students receive marked work back, they are given time in lesson to reflect upon and respond to this thereby creating a dialogue between teacher and pupil.  As a group, we decided to encourage students to use a purple pen to annotate and improve their work; this could be something as simple as correcting spellings or grammar or for the more advanced students substantiating ideas with detailed theories and evidence.

Whilst the colour of the pen doesn’t really matter, we found that students not only enjoyed the novelty and routine of  using it, but the use of a coloured pen also allowed both teacher and student to see – at a glance – the progress being made. Often, we found that once students were au fait with this process, they would refer to their annotations when faced with a similar task or examination question.  In fact, by the end of trial students would frequently request the hallowed purple pen as soon as soon as they received their books back in anticipation of being able to autonomously improve their work.

Obviously, this process should by no means be regarded as a strait-jacket; there are numerous ways and methods by which we can adapt our practice and encourage students to ‘close the gap’ and act on feedback.  However, we found that as a concept response pens required only a small amount of teacher input with regards to introducing the strategy, yet resulted in maximum student benefit.

ARP pictures


Kagan in the Classroom


Resident Kagan expert Vicky Littler shares a selection of co-operative learning structures that can easily be used in the classroom.

What is Kagan?

Kagan activities are any tasks in which students work both independently and collaboratively with others in order to further their learning. This learning process is simultaneous; students are learning together and there can be no ‘passengers’ or ‘opt outs’.

Why should teachers engage with Kagan?

The activities facilitate interaction between students and gives them a chance to be active learners in your lessons (quite literally – they’ll be out of their seats!)

Did you know? The oxygen supply to the brain is increased by approximately 15% just by standing up?

Kagan also gives you a chance to take a back seat so you can observe errors or misconceptions about a subject or topic and address them. The activities can be modified, tweaked and differentiated to meet the needs of all students in your classroom. They’re also a great way of making ‘boring’ topics like punctuation more palatable.

Top three Kagan Structures:

Quiz – quiz – trade:

quiz quiz trade

Each student is given a card with a question, coaching tip and answer on it. Pupils put their hands up and find a partner (hand up again when free!) Specify which person is to ask their question first (e.g. shortest hair). If they each get the answers right students can swap cards.

Differentiation: split class in two: higher and lower order questions; the pupils must circulate within their ‘half’. Alternatively, high ability students can write the QQT cards themselves to consolidate learning.


Each student is given a card with a name/ figure/ fact on it… Students will be given a specified amount of time to ‘cluster’ their information into groups of some significance – e.g. characters from a particular Shakespearean play

Differentiation: higher ability can create cluster activities for you; you can tell students how many groups there are in total before they try to make links between their pieces of information or give them a clue!

Show down:

Students get into groups of four – each group has a set of questions (these can be printed or shown on a white board). Each person attempts the questions individually (I use whiteboards – one minute limit – the buzzer works well as students know when the time is up)

When 1 minute is up students share answers – they then have another minute to reach a consensus and write the agreed answer down

Example cards:Example Cards