Quicker marking, effective feedback – Helena Clarke

I am well aware that some of my marking workload is self-inflicted. Why did I choose to teach history?! However, I chose to teach history because I love the subject and surely that has to be a central reason for our choices. That said, with a timetable mainly orientated around exam classes, I struggle. Marking at KS3 is also heavy, but the sheer volume of work produced by A level students, in particular, can make for a poor social life. In addition to this, I am not convinced that all the time I spend poring over essays is having that much of an effect. Feedback is really important, students need to know how to improve, but should that involve me writing comments over their essays that they may not even read. The grade is what they want – after that, for many reading further is simply meaningless (in their minds).

It is because of endless weekends and evenings spent with my nose in books and over essays that I have decided that something needs to change. This is a work in progress, so I still haven’t got the balance right but here are a few suggestions for more effective marking and feedback.


1 – Don’t mark classwork – I know that this is an approach being followed by many departments. I do think we need to read what is done in class but there is no need to add comments. Instead consider a whole class marking sheet. Simply read the work, write down any misconceptions; take a note of who is not doing the work so you can challenge them in the lesson; take a note of who is doing well so you can praise them and note any common SPaG errors. These can then be fed back in the next lesson using PPT slides and teacher explanation. You can also keep the sheets (which I also use for assessments and essays) in a file ready for parents evening, to either praise or challenge a student. I often forget specifics so useful evidence.

2 – Marking codes – when marking homework or exam questions I have started to note down WWW/EBI on a sheet and I number them as I go along. On the students work I just write down the number of the corresponding comment. When feeding back, I put the comments on a PPT slide so the students can then find out what the numbers mean and write down the comments. I am hoping that this means they take some notice of the comments because they have to actually physically write them down. I then explain the comments further. I have been doing this at all key stages.

3 – Peer assessment – I rarely use self-assessment because I find this less accurate but I have been making KS4/5 peer-assess every exam question/essay possible. The rationale is that they should understand what is expected of them and the best way is if they become the examiner. It is worth trying to change who marks the work so that it is not their best friend all the time! I have found that the vast majority of students become very accurate at marking. I ask them to choose a level (and a mark if they feel that possible) and to write a comment for both WWW/EBI. I do then take these essays in – some don’t and this may be an approach worth considering – but if the comments are accurate I can simply tick them. I currently still sometimes write comments but am moving towards marking codes. I am in the process of breaking the habit of making lots of comments! I need to try and use this process at KS3, I sometimes do but a more consistent approach would help embed the culture of peer assessment.

4 – Before they hand their work in – ask the students if they have read through their answer. The first time I did this I was shocked as hardly anyone had. It is worth going through what was expected of them with regard to the work and allowing them time to correct their errors. I think this is effective but don’t do this enough due to the fact that it leads to chasing up students. I am often not as effective at this as I need to be.

Further thoughts: I am a fan of twitter and have read countless blogs on marking and feedback. I have noted the ones I found most useful below. One suggestion is not to grade work – I struggle with this for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that I think it is useful for students to know what level they are working at. (I can see the arguments otherwise). The other is reporting and data – there is such requirement to enter data that I feel compelled to grade work (I think parents value this too – rightly or wrongly). But this could be useful in terms of students actually focusing on what we say instead of feeling upset that they have not achieved what they wanted, or feeling content that they are fine and therefore not pushing themselves.

And as for how much homework is set and whether that needs marking – that’s for another day…

A useful link: some kind teacher has put lots of ideas/research/blogs etc. together. Look in particular at the practical ideas section.


Some links, from this page, that I thought were really useful:






‘Evidence-Based Teaching: How Brains Learn’ – Charlotte Sivner

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend a course entitled ‘Evidence-Based Teaching: How Brains Learn’. This was provided by the Evidence-Based Teachers Network (EBTN), which is an organisation run by retired teacher Mike Bell. The approach of the EBTN is a very simple one: to encourage teachers to use highly effective evidence-based methods in their teaching. The evidence used by the EBTN comes from a range of sources, the most prominent being John Hattie’s Visible Learning, Geoff Petty’s Evidence Based Teaching, and Robert Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works . The course involved an introduction to the ‘top ten’ most effective classroom methods, as devised by the EBTN. These ten were selected by combining Hattie, Petty and Marzano’s research and giving each strategy an overall effect size. According to Hattie, an effect size of less than 0.4 would indicate the strategy is not worth trying with a whole class. As well as encouraging teachers to use evidence-based methods in their classrooms, EBTN strongly encourages us to consider the origins of any research we are using, as well as the finer details such as the sample size used and the length of the study.

As teachers it is not necessary for each of us to understand the intricate workings of the brain, but it is important to appreciate the processes involved in learning. The structure of the brain is such that it consists of small, specialist areas. “Intelligence” is what emerges when most of these areas are working and communicating well. Any new learning must link to existing knowledge. Memories require several of these links as well as repetition. If there are no links or repeats, then memories cannot be secured. The more links and repeats we make, the more memories we can secure.[1] Let’s consider learning as a cycle: when we are taught new material, we understand it more easily if we can make links between it and what we already know, our prior knowledge. Learning by rote is possible for students where there is limited prior knowledge, but the learning is unlikely to be deep. When we encounter tasks, if they are too easy then the connections between the new information and the prior knowledge already exist. The task is challenging if the brain struggles to make new connections; in other words we must think hard! The next stage is feedback and improvement. Inside the Black Box reveals that in the UK, teachers tend to give high-level feedback but it is not always effective as students are rarely given time to respond to the feedback. Feedback is effective when students have the chance to improve their work and exercise the neural connections once again. The fifth stage of the learning cycle is repetition, a crucial stage if we are to keep emphasising the links to our existing knowledge.

The top ten methods are outlined below.


Method 1: analogies and similes

Showing learners either what something looks like, or not like, and comes in several parts

  • Use similes, analogies and models in your teaching
  • Students classify things according to their properties
  • Students identify similarities and differences between commonly mixed up ideas
  • Tables
  • Venn diagrams
  • True or false

Method 2: summarising and note taking

Processes by which students discover the ‘big picture’ and the main learning points

  • Doing a précis of a larger portion of text – you could suggest subtitles or give a word limit
  • Students make notes as you talk, or as they watch a video – again provide subtitles or structured questions if needed
  • Making a mindmap at the end of a topic
  • Identify the main points at the end of a lesson

Method 3: Growth mindset

“Learners who attribute their performance to things they cannot change (natural ability, quality of teaching etc) do significantly worse than those who attribute it to their effort” Mindset, Carole Dweck (2012)

  • Use language with students that emphasises effort, not ability
  • Comment on the time spent
  • Comment on the number of sources used
  • Changing students’ attitudes takes time

Method 4: Repetition and practice 

The brain needs repetitions to secure memories. Consider changing the order of teaching to build in the staged repetitions needed to secure memories. These do not have to be time consuming.

  • Starters – recap questions
  • Plenaries – recap questions
  • Peer assessment
  • Quick quizzes
  • Repetition tasks
  • Spaced practice tasks

Method 5: non-linguistic representations

Using any method other than spoken or written words. Visual methods are especially effective. The effect size is only achieved when students create their own graphics and receive feedback on how to improve them.

Method 6: cooperative learning

Not just ‘getting students working together’.

  • Specify ways in which the students should work together
  • Specific co-operative structures so that every student is held responsible
  • Strong motivation for all group members to achieve
  • An individual check on each students learning, but the group is held responsible

Method 7: Setting goals and providing feedback

Setting goals and objectives helps learners see where they are going.

  • Challenging goals
  • Set goals in advance
  • Formative assessment

Summative assessment – research shows summative tests have an overall slight negative effect on learning and should be used as little as possible (2x per year)

Method 8: Generating and testing hypotheses

A hypothesis is a testable idea; it can be the first step to developing a theory.

  • Devise and test an idea or explanation practically
  • Use historical sources or literature search to test
  • Devise and answer “What if….” questions based on information already known

Method 9: activating prior knowledge

Students need to be able to link their new learning to something they already know. The current knowledge level needs to be assessed and built on. Old learning must be ‘activated’ to bring it to mind.

  • Link learning to something students already know “What can you remember about…?”

Method 10: advance/ knowledge organisers

Advance/knowledge organisers show students what will be covered in the topic and should be referred to throughout, to make links between the detail and the big picture. Work best if presented graphically, with words and pictures.

  • Overview
  • Simple
  • No more than 6 key elements



[1] How Brains Learn Mike Bell (2012) https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Brains-Learn-Mike-Bell-ebook/dp/B007B15R0E


Co-operative learning – Amy Hatch

With the increasingly common trend to move (back) to mixed ability teaching, perhaps it is time to reconsider how we can maximise the progress all students make when part of these ‘multiability’ classrooms. The evidence on this is clear, mixed ability works….. but it works best when we move away from the traditional classroom set up and instead mix in a bit of large-scale cooperative learning.

Now, don’t roll your eyes, this is not Kagan again. This is Kagan 2.0 / Kagan on steroids / Kagan as a game changer….. it is ………wait for it…….a group work/ individual work/cooperative learning/backward teaching mash up (I need to work on the name). This snappily named technique (or variations of it) has a proven track record in pedagogical research by Robert Slavin and Johnson and Johnson, as well as many others, for significantly improving the achievement of low ability students, developing the soft skills of all students, and creating a more positive learning environment that engages everyone. Basically, it makes a happy classroom, with (hopefully) a happy teacher at the helm.

So, what does a group work / individual work / cooperative learning / backward teaching mash up actually look like in the classroom?

How to do it

  • Put your students in mixed groups of (ideally) 4. It should be mixed in all possible aspects – ethnicity, ability, gender, handedness, football team they support etc. etc.
  • Assign each student in each group a number. This is for answering questions and carrying out split tasks, but you can do it so that all high ability students get a number 3, lower ability a 2 and so on.
  • Lessons are structured to contain mixtures of group work and individual work and students earn points for their groups as they do the work. NB: This bit differs from Kagan, which states that competition is bad, but Slavin states intergroup competition creates better results.
  • Points are earned for how well students work together, not on their ability. The score sheet sits in the middle of the group and you or other adults in the room can go around and award points throughout the course of the lesson. An example score sheet can be seen in figure 1. Students can use the score sheet for the entire topic, filling a row in each lesson. Bonus points can be used to encourage students to complete homework, bring equipment, or whatever weakness you think the class needs to improve upon.coop-learning-pointsAn example lessonStudents read some information cards about the nitrogen cycle and then have to work together to try and fill in a diagram from the clues they have been given. You casually saunter around the room, awarding points when you see excellent group work going on and basking in the glory of your own ability as an inspirer of young minds. You question the students about their answers and then go through the nitrogen cycle with them, correcting any mistakes in their understanding from the group work. You then given them a set of questions to answer, of increasing difficulty that they then do individually. Again, you roam, awarding points when all groups are doing the required activity. Finish by getting them to check their answers with other members of the group. At the end of the lesson announce the team with the most points and give them a round of applause. Sorted.

    Why bother with it?

    As I previously stated, the evidence of using these techniques is strong, but it does take effort to implement. So what exactly are the benefits?

    • You will see a complete turnaround in the engagement of certain students. Suddenly, a student that is normally completely lacking in motivation and interest will be there and will be keen to be involved. It is a lovely thing to witnesses!
    • Certain individuals will be stopped from dominating the lesson. You know the types I mean, the ones that know it all and stand out of their seats with their hands outstretched, waiting to be picked. They might not like it at first but it is an important lesson for them none the less!
    • Your lessons will be a lot less focused on you and instead you will be able to spend more time getting to know your students. This is more important than ever when in mixed ability groups as you really need to know who is likely to be struggling.
    • Lower ability students will be less likely to feel out of their depth but still improve because they are not suffering from being labelled as a ‘bottom set student’.

    Words of caution

    • Don’t reward students with over materialistic and elaborate rewards. No one will learn any decent life lessons if they get a shiny new bike every time they do something that they are actually just expected to do. Have a trophy display on the wall with the current winners’ names in giant letters above it, make everyone else in the room give them a round of applause, let them have a go in a lucky dip where they might win some chocolate or they might win a new pen! Make it fun, let them feel valued, but don’t go over the top.
    • Students don’t always explain it better to their peers than we do. If they did, we wouldn’t be needed. Always make sure there is a time where you are clarifying the content with them.
    • You have to consciously build in activities that push higher ability students. This is not difficult, but everyone panics that only lower ability students improve in mixed ability classes so it is best to cover your back! Although, it should be highlighted that it must be harder to monitor the progress in high ability students in these sort of research studies because A grade students can’t really improve by much, there aren’t enough letters!
    • Reward as a group but sanction as individuals. You don’t want people being outcast because they have caused the group to be punished. Never take points away from groups.

    There will be some topics throughout the year, and some classes, that are more suitable to doing this technique with than others. It can also take a bit of getting used to, and a bit of effort in planning at the start but, the benefits can cause a true revolution in your classroom. Give it a go, what is the worst that can happen? If you want any more information or fancy seeing how I do it with my groups, just get in touch!