Time to Reflect and Improve: Re-thinking Marking – Charlotte Goodchild


Currently, there is lots of work going on around school with regards to improving the critique and feedback that we offer our students – work involving everyone from classroom teachers involved in action research projects, to CTLs and the SLT.

Whilst this is most certainly a work in progress, in the meantime, have a look at some of the articles and videos listed below and perhaps think about how you could apply these ideas to your own teaching practice.

Austin’s Butterfly

Head Guru Teacher

Teacher Toolkit


David Didau

Assessing Without Levels


Huw Williams and Fiona Ryan share a summary of their article ‘Assessing Without Levels – National Pilot Case Study’, published in the Autumn edition of Physical Education Matters.

The Education Secretary’s June 2012 announcement that “…the current system of levels and level descriptors – which is confusing for parents and bureaucratic for teachers – will be removed and not replaced” was well received by Wilmslow’s PE staff and, as a result, we chose to pilot assessment without levels from September 2013 with our Year 7 core PE groups.

Although we had a clear and comprehensive core levels based assessment structure in place, staff had become increasingly disillusioned with the process; staff were uncomfortable with assigning levels and sub levels for up to 12 different practical activities each year and then generating an average number at the end of the year. Students knew they were a “5c” but what did that mean? What did they need to do to improve? What were their particular strengths and weaknesses? How were they going to make progress?

We were keen to develop a system that worked for us as a department – one that would give our students meaningful feedback and enable them to identify their strengths and areas for improvement in a language they could understand. We wanted students to be able to tell us that, in order to make progress, they needed to improve – for example – the accuracy of their overhead clears in badminton or the fluency of their sequences in gymnastics. We wanted students to be able to talk in specifics rather than in numbers.

Units of Work were revised during the summer term 2013 and draft recording sheets were drawn up using Excel Spreadsheets. The assessment document focused on 3 areas: Doing, Thinking and Behavioural Change. “Doing” related to essential skills – sports specific techniques for KS3, for example in badminton: grip, clear, serve, net play. “Thinking” focused on understanding and analysing performance in the activity, for example, identifying strengths and areas for improvement or accurate use technical language. “Behavioural Change” focused on attitudes to PE and healthy active lifestyles such as resilience, self management, responsibility and involvement in extra curricular or club sport.

Staff completed an assessment document for each activity and across the course of the year, a student in Year 7 may have a record which involved up to 10 focused assessments. Staff used a RAG (Red, Amber, Green) rating, which indicates whether a student has been able to perform particular skills or apply particular tactics. For example, in terms of “Doing” a student may have Green ratings for their grip and clear in badminton, an amber for their serve and red for their net play. The red rating may indicate that a student simply cannot perform a particular skill or that he/she was absent for lessons when this was taught. This gives clear feedback to the student as to the areas that he/she needs to improve, while also giving vital information to the member of staff taking the group for Year 8 badminton as to the further opportunities that need to be provided.

assessing without levels

Rather than recording a final handwritten level in their planners at the end of a six week block, staff recorded performance in three areas in terms of their doing, thinking and behaviours using a RAG rating. Staff may use the RAG rating to indicate a baseline and then adjust that rating if there has been a clear improvement over the six weeks.

The detail included in the assessment document has huge benefits for staff and students alike. Skimming through your planner to find “5c” next to a student’s name for Rugby in the first term gives you very little to go on come the Year 7 parents’ evening in March, as staff frantically search for some indication of how that student could improve in this area.

The assessment without levels document was extremely useful when giving feedback at parents’ evening. Staff could identify specific areas that students could work on, for example, decision making in a 2 v 1 situation, identifying strengths and weaknesses in performance or accurate use of technical language.  The quality of feedback to Year 7 students and parents has improved considerably since adopting assessment without levels. The final lesson in our Units of Work for all activities is based on House competitions. The structure of these lessons means that staff can speak to individual students and give feedback based on their assessment in that activity. The colour coding and visual representation of the data on staff IPads has helped to engage the students and the nature of the assessment under the headings of Doing, Thinking and Behavioural Change, enables students to clearly identify their strengths and areas for improvement in specific activities and allows them to set targets to develop and progress.

For those people staring with horror at the number of colourful boxes included in the assessment document, fear not. The spreadsheet is set up in such a way that it generates the Doing, Thinking, Behavioural Change and Overall Progress columns automatically. In addition to this the spreadsheet will generate an overview of progress in each of these areas in each of the activities covered by the student during the year.

Following the successful pilot scheme, we introduced assessment without levels across Key Stage 3 in September 2014 and are developing a similar system that can be used at Key Stage 4. Our developments for September 2015 include a recognition of exceptional performance and the development of a report card that will be automatically generated from the spreadsheet data.

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


Rethinking Marking

Gold star on notebookEnglish Teacher, Katie Baldwin shares a practical evaluation of various feedback strategies and her research into the value our students place on effective marking.

There is widespread consensus that providing students with regular and meaningful feedback is important if they are to make good progress. There are, however, a couple of troublesome questions that require practical solutions if this is to be achieved. Firstly, ‘How can I find time to provide regular and meaningful feedback in amongst all of the other things that take up my time as a teacher?’ Secondly, ‘How can I be sure that students are actually engaging with the feedback I have provided?’

I’ve spent some time over the last year, exploring various approaches to marking that will hopefully work towards providing some of the solutions we need.

I’ve read a number of blogs, articles and publications on the subject of marking students’ work, but have perhaps found surveying students’ opinions on the ways in which their work is marked the most useful. At times their responses were as expected and elsewhere, a little more surprising.

The vast majority of responses indicated that they found feedback from teachers (both written and verbal) to be ‘extremely helpful’. This tallied with my experience of observing that our students do like us to read and respond to their work on a regular basis. What I hadn’t fully understood, however, prior to carrying out the survey was the value our students place in the various component parts of the feedback we provide.

They were asked to rank, in order of importance to them, the following aspects of teacher feedback: ‘the level/grade achieved’, ‘praise’, targets for improvement and ‘an opportunity to respond to the feedback’.

60% of responses indicated that they found, ‘an opportunity to respond to the feedback’ to be of least importance. Given the emphasis that we, as teachers, are currently being asked to place ensuring that students engage with feedback, these findings suggested that there was work to be done to help our students understand why we are asking them to do this.

In terms of what the students identified as most important, responses were spread across two aspects. 53% felt that being informed of what level/grade they’d achieved was most important, whilst 43% selected ‘targets for improvement’. So it seems that perhaps students appreciate finding out what they need to do differently but are less enthusiastic when it comes to putting this into practice.

Given these findings, I have been looking at several approaches that can hopefully move students towards a point where they are becoming more actively involved in the process of reviewing their own work…

Marking Approach How it works Pros Cons
Coloured Dots Coloured dot stickers are placed on students’ work in places where they need to make amendments or improvements. Teachers can provided a set of targets on the whiteboard, allowing students time to identify and copy down those which apply to them. Alternatively, students can be asked to think for themselves to create a different target for each colour.  Time is saved as teachers do not need to spend time writing out the same targets across a number of pieces of work repeatedly. Targets can be designed to suit each different piece of work. Students are encouraged to directly engage with areas for improvement. Sticker system can be confusing, especially for less able students.Teachers would need to ensure that they were fully stocked with stickers all of the time!
Highlighters Very similar to the coloured dot approach. Students can also be given highlighters and asked to identify where certain targets (displayed on whiteboard) are applicable within their own work. Highlighters are readily available. Precise areas for improvement can be identified and revisited with ease. A quick and straightforward approach. Again, relies on students being sufficiently prepped and able to recognise specific issues within their work.
Codes Codes are written onto students’ work which relate to a set of targets. We use this approach alongside target cards within the English department. E.g. W1 = writing target 1 on the student’s target card which is kept in the back of their exercise book. Differentiation can be easily achieved by altering the extent to which students are involved in designing their own targets. Relies on students reviewing past targets as they embark on each new piece of work. Can still be quite time consuming if teachers rather than students are writing out the targets in full.
Coloured Pens Pieces of work are ‘double marked’: in one colour by the teacher and then in a second colour by students who go through correcting and amending their marked work as appropriate. Encourages students to engage with a ‘drafting’ process and can in turn develop literacy skills. Students like using the coloured pens provided. Investing in sets of pens can be costly.The amendments that students make may only be superficial as they are not necessarily engaging with more complex areas for improvement, only SPAG.
Question and Box Rather than creating a target at the end of a piece of work. The teacher poses a question. Beneath the question, a box is drawn to indicate the length of response they are expecting from the student. Time (DIRT) can be incorporated into lessons following the marking. Students are given a clear indication of the extent to which they are expected to respond. Encourages clear and timely progression in development of specific skills. Writing questions and drawing neat boxes in exercise books can be fairly time consuming. Perhaps this approach is more appropriate for more significant and developed pieces of work. Students often need one-to-one support in responding to the questions that have been posed and it can be difficult to provide this for larger class sizes within the time constraints of a lesson starter.
STAR Marking This is along the lines of ‘2 stars and a wish’ that many of our students are familiar with from Primary schools. STAR = something I like, target, action, response. There is a clear requirement for students to respond to the feedback that has been provided and praise is also incorporated. A more time consuming approach again…

Presentation of Learning Night: Parents’ Evening with a Twist

After reading Ron Berger’s ‘Ethic of Excellence’ and watching the mightily impressive High Tech High clip with their CEO, Larry Rosenstock, speaking about his philosophy of education, there seemed to be one common thread that linked both men’s view on education:

The power of publicly exhibiting and critiquing student work so their peers, teachers, local experts and parents can examine the work and offer specific and helpful feedback. Specifically, the positive affect this public exhibition can have on student commitment and motivation to produce high quality work consistently.

A worthwhile link here is to Jamie Portman’s blog posts that summarise his visit to High Tech High in San Diego, California. Essentially, every single part of the school is one giant exhibition of student work and peer feedback (the corkboard and sticky note idea is just one simple, yet exceptional feedback strategy) with the students responsible for designing and creating their own displays.

With all this world class practice in mind, myself and Matt Dooling (@MattyDooling) decided to replace a traditional parents’ evening format with an interactive, ‘presentation of learning’ night with our Year 12 BTEC PE classes. Here is how we planned and executed the night:

With all this world class practice in mind, myself and Matt Dooling (@MattyDooling) decided to replace a traditional parents’ evening format with an interactive, ‘presentation of learning’ night with our Year 12 BTEC PE classes. Here is how we planned and executed the night:

Student trying to duck! Not for long...

Student trying to duck! Not for long…


  • To give students and parents an opportunity to compare their own/child’s work against their peers, hopefully learning from their own and others’ assignments
  • Improving our BTEC students’ communication skills, engage with and take responsibility for their own learning and quality of work, stimulate student reflection and use the work displayed as a basis for discussion and target setting
  • To share our BTEC PE course structure and unit content with parents, other local schools who teach BTEC PE and experts in individual sporting fields
Discussing progress: BTEC PE student with parents and Mr Dooling.  Work displayed in the background

Discussing progress: BTEC PE student with parents and Mr Dooling. Work displayed in the background


  • Students were asked to exhibit two assignments from a range of units up on a board in an open plan classroom. Students were only told which two assignments they needed to display close to the night itself to ensure everyone involved received an honest picture of student progress so far (so students couldn’t cheery pick their best assignments – we encourage consistent effort across all units of work)
  • The assignments were fully and correctly marked – although it didn’t matter if the student hasn’t met all the marking criteria
  • All success criteria (assignment briefs, teacher feedback sheets) were displayed along with the work itself. This was especially helpful for parents and the local expert coaches who were in attendance
  • Students were still allocated a 10 minute formal slot with a member of our PE team to discuss their general attitude to learning and progress so far, whilst referring to their work displayed up on the board. A conversation then took place between a member of staff, student and their parents regarding the quality of the student’s work
  • Before or after their formal appointment students and parents looked at other students’ work to compare the standard – an open door policy
Local rugby expert with Mr Pickup, parents and a BTEC PE student

Local rugby expert with Mr Pickup, parents and a BTEC PE student


  • Members of the senior leadership team at Wilmslow High School attended
  • Other local secondary school PE teachers from Poynton High School that run their BTEC Sport course were invited to compare the quality of the work between both sets of students and discuss any teaching and learning ideas with our PE team
  • Local experts (Premier Football Coach Ltd and RFU coaches) analysed relevant assignments and discussed the content of these assignments with the students to check their understanding
  • Current year ten and eleven students and their parents were invited who are contemplating choosing the BTEC Sport course when the progress to our sixth form. This increased their understanding of the course that they will potentially be studying in the future – is it the right fit for them? Will the continuous coursework assessment style suit their learning and working habits?

The feedback received was extremely positive from all involved:

  1. Parents left with a much better understanding of how the BTEC PE course works with all its intricacies – how many units are studied / assignments that need completing / success criteria / marking policy etc…
  2. Students, through being able to discuss their work with their peers, local coaching experts and teachers from other schools had a clear sense of what level they were currently working at and what they needed to do to improve. They discovered whether they were producing work of an exceptional quality or, in fact, were coasting and capable of working harder and to a higher standard
  3. Wilmslow High School and Poynton High School PE teachers found the evening to be a useful, informal collaboration of sharing best practice, especially the delivery of similar units, comparing the quality of student work and BTEC Sport marking policies. This will serve both departments well moving forward throughout the BTEC Sport course this year and in the future.

Finally, this email received from a member of our SLT made our PE team feel this experiment was worthwhile and should be built upon for future ’presentation of learning’ nights:

Dear PE team,

Really impressive: a huge step forward in terms of how we make students more accountable for their quality of work. Some really positive feedback from parents who now have a much better understanding of the course and of how they can support/monitor their son’s/daughter’s work.

So, why not try a little experiment that could revolutionize your school’s parents’ evenings? Instead of teachers and parents dominating the traditional ten minute parents’ evening conversation why not flip the model and allow students to lead the learning conversations?  For one thing, it will stop all those nasty dry mouths we’ve all experienced from talking for three hours non-stop!