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Feedback and marking

‘Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback …. Yet the reality is that teachers spend huge amounts of time marking books. My question is, to what end?’

Judy Gleen, 2016 

Topics on this page:

  • The purposes of feedback
  • Finding out about formative feedback practice
  • Putting feedback into practice in the classroom
  • Reflection on your verbal feedback
  • Whole-class feedback
  • Students giving feedback to each other
  • Self checking
  • Written feedback
  • Marking with grades and/or comments
  • Marking and teachers’ workload
  • Marking expectations
  • Questions that new teachers ask about marking
  • Discussion about marking
  • Reading

Educational research highlights that learners learn best when they understand what they are trying to learn and what is expected of them. Therefore, students should be given regular feedback on their work and what they can do to improve. 

These ideas are explained in Inside the Black Box (Black and Wiliam, 1998), which sets out how teachers might use formative assessment as part of their classroom practice. This involves teachers focussing on what happens in the classroom, the teacher–student interaction, how students and teachers get feedback from one another, and how the evidence is used to decide the next steps for learning.

The purposes of feedback

A teacher’s feedback communicates to students the assessments they have made of their performance and indicates what changes they should make in the future. It is the most important part of the assessment process because it should result in students moving forward in their learning. Teachers’ feedback can be given verbally or in written form through ‘marking’ and do much more than just make students aware of how well they are doing.

A teacher might want to feed back different things. They could provide some judgement on quality of the work they have evaluated, they could comment on the effort that the student had put it, or they could reflect with the student about their learning process e.g. how they approached the task. The feedback can also take different forms: it could be written or verbal; it could be provided electronically; or it could involve some form of grading.

The different purposes for feedback focus on the type of change a teacher is looking for. It can be about:

  • a student’s work and their attainment, e.g. to discuss how it can be completed or improved
  • the next steps for the student e.g. to discuss how they can get better at this type of task or how to learn more about a topic
  • self-regulation and self-evaluation e.g. to discuss how a student can better manage their learning or questions to help them evaluate themselves how well they are doing.

Most good teacher feedback will encompass all three of these elements, as appropriate. Feedback that focuses on the task in hand can help students to improve that task, but unless they understand how they can apply improvements to similar work it will not actually develop their learning. The ultimate goal for all teachers is to create self-sufficient learners, which is why discussion of self-regulation and evaluation needs to be a regular part of feedback.

The term ‘feedback’ could be seen as misleading. The most important point to remember about feedback is that it looks forward to the changes that students should make and how they should make them.

Observe two or three lessons with different teachers and how they use formative feedback in their lessons.

  • How does the teacher use questions to probe students’ thinking and how does the teacher feedback to students about their responses?
  • Do they manage to give verbal feedback to individual students?
  • What one-to-one oral feedback is given in the lesson? What is the context for this? How does it work? What is the result?
  • Does any peer or self-assessment and feedback take place?

If there is an opportunity, talk to one or more students about feedback in general. You might explore:

  • whether they understand the purpose of feedback
  • whether they prefer verbal or written feedback and why
  • the type of feedback that helps them most
  • the kind of action they typically take in response to feedback received
  • what they think the relationship is between receiving feedback and their learning.

Putting feedback into practice in the classroom

Once a teacher has gathered some evidence about a student’s performance in relation to the intended learning, they consider what they have found out and decide what should be done next. 

During day-to-day assessment in a lesson, this requires a quick decision by the teacher about the best approach. This is a key decision, because giving the right feedback, whether positive or negative, is crucial. A teacher must decide what change/s the student needs to make, and provide specific guidance on how they do this. The feedback should be clear and targeted.

The main thing to remember about feedback is that it must help students to improve their geographical learning. It can be helpful to bear in mind to focus on improvement rather than correction. Sometimes it might work better if you focus on the task rather than the individual student response. It is not the act of giving feedback that is important. 

The quality of feedback and ensuring that the right message is understood by the recipient is more important, and of course, to bring about improvement in their understanding of the subject, the feedback must have a geography focus. Also, the lesson and the activity must provide opportunities for students to express their understanding; this is essential to initiate the interaction where formative assessment happens.

There is no single ‘right’ approach to giving feedback. It should be appropriate to the context. In lessons, it will most often be a quick verbal response to a student that praises, comments or corrects a response to a question. It could be a brief one-to-one chat while a student is involved in an activity. This type of feedback is often particularly powerful because of its immediacy and the focussed attention the teacher gives the student. Do not underestimate the effect this can have on learners.

Teachers are increasingly using technology to set quizzes that can identify students’ misconceptions. These quickly gather responses and can give students automatic feedback. Ofsted (2023) reported that this approach meant students were less likely to have  misconceptions about the subject, but when they are identified the teacher must decide how they should be addressed. Technology can give teachers useful information to help plan subsequent lessons.

Teacher feedback to individuals often engages students in a dialogue. This should encourage them to think about their work. It should be reflective and focused to explore understanding and give students an opportunity to express their ideas. In this context the teacher can use prompts very effectively to focus learning. 

Prompts can take the form of reminders, or they can be used to scaffold learning, e.g. can you explain why? Prompts can also be used by the teacher to give examples of what students might do, e.g. have you tried? A student might have gone beyond the intended learning and needs to be prompted with higher goals. This form of feedback promotes a student mindset that focuses on improvement and encourages self-regulation skills and metacognition (see Metacognition).

Childes (2021) points out that establishing a receptive culture is important. If the student rejects the feedback, nothing is achieved. If students feel that making mistakes is part of the learning process, this can support their willingness to receive feedback and act upon it. The self-esteem of the student must also be considered. If a teacher is being critical about the quality of work this needs to be approached sensitively. Try to avoid making direct comparisons with other students.

The amount of feedback has to be considered too. The Education Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit suggests that feedback is most effective when it is used sparingly and that too much feedback, especially focusing on weaknesses, can be dispiriting. If students receive excessive feedback, they can struggle to identify the key messages.

Some things to consider to make sure that feedback is effective are that:

  • Feedback should be based on an accurate assessment of learning and ensure that the student fully understands the meaning of the feedback
  • A teacher should be specific about how the student should act on the feedback; if targets are vague nothing will happen
  • High expectations should be set for all, but feedback should be appropriate for individuals and it should recognise the effort made and be encouraging so that students are motivated to develop their learning
  • Students need opportunities to carry out follow-up actions, e.g. time should be specifically allocated or a similar task set for the student to complete.

A teacher’s challenge is to make use of the evidence in front of them, make an assessment and judge immediately what action is needed to move students on. It could require teacher action, e.g. some re-teaching, or it could require feedback to the student about how to move them forward. 

As a new teacher, you should think in advance when you plan a lesson about the possible scenarios and options available. This will help you to respond more confidently and flexibly to different situations.

It is important to take notice of the impact your feedback is having on learning. Think about some verbal feedback you have provided to students in lessons and consider:

  • the context and content of the feedback
  • what you want the students to change – their work, their learning processes or developing self-regulation
  • how you approached the feedback and whether you need to change anything you did
  • the student response, and whether they acted on the feedback
  • whether you would give the same feedback again. Think about why, or why not.

Whole-class feedback

Whole-class feedback can be particularly useful when a number of students have made a similar mistake. A teacher may halt the class and address a misconception, giving verbal feedback and immediate guidance to the whole group. This might also necessitate re-teaching. Whole-class feedback may also be given when a teacher identifies some common issues in written work and discusses these with the whole group, pointing the way forward.

The use of IT can enhance the feedback. Images of students’ work, especially diagrams or concept maps, can be captured on a smartphone and displayed to the whole class for discussion and evaluation. In this way a teacher can share ongoing work and the whole group can share ideas and work together interactively to improve the interim drafts.

  • Harris (2017) chapter 4 gives some practical advice on how to model by displaying work for the whole class and asking them to critique it.

Students giving feedback to each other

Involving students in providing feedback can avoid all feedback being channelled through the teacher. If students do not have to wait for teacher feedback they can continue working and allow the teacher to better target their own comments where they are needed most. 

See Peer and self-assessment.

Ofsted (2023) reports that students who understood assessment criteria – focusing on the knowledge to be drawn on – were better at explaining what ‘quality’ meant and could interpret teachers’ feedback. In this way, peer feedback can enhance efficiency as well as positively affect achievement and improve learning. However, to be productive, students should be taught how to be proficient in providing peer feedback so that they can understand the main purposes of their learning and grasp what is needed to achieve. 

  • Look at some interesting examples of different types of feedback in the GA’s Uneven development project.
  • Download Marking work. From this example you will see the use of different kinds of prompts (for reminders and for scaffolding). You can also see the use of positive comments and how examples can be given to move students forward.

Self checking

Written feedback

Written feedback is given when a teacher reads students’ written work, checks whether they have understood the geographical ideas and provides feedback to help individuals make progress. The written feedback should give each student specific guidance on how to improve, and it is important that students are given the time, opportunity and help to work at the improvement. If this is not followed, the written feedback will have no impact. Students should be helped to see the wider implications of the feedback they receive for future activities.

Feedback of this type is time-consuming for a teacher, so it must be worthwhile. Ofsted(2023) stresses the importance of subject-specific feedback. When feedback was generic in nature and the same comments are repeated, they saw no evidence of it having had an impact on students’ work and it did not address misconceptions or gaps in their knowledge

There are some acronyms to get to grips with here, such as providing dedicated improvement and reflection time (DIRT) for students to engage with feedback comments. Two useful frameworks to use are: praise, improve, encourage (PIE); and praise, error, next steps (PEN).

  • Read Balderstone and Lambert (1999), which discusses marking and homework and contains thought-provoking advice.
  • Refer to Weeden (2017) pp. 193–3; Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 227–8; Rooney (2006) for different approaches to marking written work.

You will realise from these readings that there is a variety of marking practices used by schools in geography. As Balderstone and Lambert say, marking can too often seem ‘aimless, bland and mysterious.’ Homework and marking often go hand-in-hand and teachers should ensure that the time they spend on homework and marking is used effectively and, above all, it is ‘fit for purpose.’ See Geography homework. 

Marking with grades and/or comments

Traditionally teachers have used grades when they mark books with the intention of providing students with a view on the quality of the work. One of the powerful ideas from Butler (1987) and subsequently by Black and Wiliam (1998) was that teachers’ comments, not grades, were most effective in enabling students to make sustained improvement. 

Butler also found that if the teacher used both comments and a grade, it was a waste of time. The students focus on the mark and ignore the comment, and so the comments are worthless.

In the video, Wiliam reflects on what research has shown about the value of feedback grades and comments and its effect on students. Make notes on about the most effective feedback to give and some possible strategies to use so you can explore these in school. Bear in mind that for day-to-day marking there are some disadvantages of relying on grades because they:

  • Are rarely an accurate measure of attainment
  • Emphasise competition between students and can demotivate low attainers
  • Rarely challenge high attainers, who regularly obtain good marks
  • Have no formative value because they do not indicate how students can improve.

Marking and teachers’ workload

One problem with marking with comments is that it is very time-consuming. It can become an onerous task and have a disproportionate impact on a teachers’ workload. This was highlighted by the DfE’s Marking Policy Review Group (2016) who noted:

‘Marking has evolved into an unhelpful burden for teachers, when the time it takes is not repaid in positive impact on pupils’ progress’. 

The DfE recommended that all marking should be ‘meaningful, manageable and motivating’ and pointed out that, ‘The quantity of feedback should not be confused with the quality‘.

Changes to Ofsted inspection criteria (2016) also make it clear that marking style and frequency should be decided by the teacher, and ‘inspectors must not give the impression that marking needs to be undertaken in any particular format and to any particular degree of sophistication or detail’.

As a result of this report, many schools reconsidered their marking policies and the effects on teacher workload and have identified ways to provide feedback to students and move learning on that are more efficient of teachers’ time. Newer policies tend to be more about feedback and less about marking. They tend to emphasise:

  • Verbal feedback during classroom tasks
  • Whole class feedback through discussion
  • Live marking or feedback to improve work interactively (using IT)
  • Modelling to provide feedback/guidance before the task takes place
  • Self-assessment through quizzes or multiple choice
  • Peer assessment using success criteria.

Live marking is one strategy that has several benefits. As students complete their work the teacher circulates and ‘marks’ work. This is particularly appropriate when students are undertaking an extended writing task, as you will have more time to circulate and mark the work of more students.

You do not have to mark everyone’s work, indeed you can differentiate by giving feedback to some who may need more support at an early stage and allow some to work independently for longer. One advantage of live marking is that it helps to ensure that all work is improved before it is handed in and completed to a higher standard.

Marking expectations

Taylor (2017) notes that many schools still expect teachers to mark books, perhaps reflecting the expectations of parents, the students themselves and other stakeholders. However, practice is changing and most school policies recognise that the marking must be worthwhile and it may be only one form of feedback that a teacher provides for students.

  • Read your school policy and any geography department guidance about marking.
  • Refer to the geography department marking policy and look at some work that teachers have marked in line with this policy to see how it operates in practice.
  • Ask if you can sit alongside your geography mentor as they mark some work so they can explain what they are doing and why. Discuss with them how this marking will influence their teaching in future lessons.
  • For some examination classes, photocopy four or five pieces of work from a class and ‘blind mark’ it. You should use the same marking criteria that the teacher will be using and make comments to help students improve. Compare your marking and comments with that of the class teacher and discuss any differences.
  • Complete Task 8.1 A and C in Biddulph et al (2021).

While you must follow the marking policy in your school, you also need to consider how your marking can be both effective and time-efficient. Biddulph et al (2021) point out that a new teacher has choices to make about marking; they do not have to assess every piece of work that a student does and they should focus on priorities.

Three questions for new teachers to consider about marking are:

  • What is the best way to provide feedback to students and move their learning on, without physically marking all the work a student completes?
  • How does my marking impact on students’ learning? Does it merely place a burden on me?
  • Does my marking correct work without helping to improve the student?

The Education Endowment Foundation (2016), ‘A marked improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking’ provides this advice about effective marking:

  • Careless mistakes should be marked differently to errors resulting from misunderstandings. The latter may be best addressed by providing hints or questions that lead students to underlying principles; the former by simply marking the mistake as incorrect, without giving the right answer.
  • Awarding grades for every piece of work may reduce the impact of marking.
  • The use of targets to make marking as specific and actionable as possible is likely to increase students’ progress.
  • Students are unlikely to benefit from marking unless some time is set aside to enable them to consider and respond to it.
  • Some forms of marking, including acknowledgement marking, are unlikely to enhance students’ progress.

Mark Enser comments that for teachers, ‘obviously the idea of spending the weekend working their way through a pile of books is intolerable (and rightly so) and yet the learning processes thrives on feedback.’ See The Blagger’s Guide to… Marking for his feedback alternatives to marking.

  • You might find it informative to talk to some students about their views on marking. How important are grades and comments to them? How do they use them? Does it matter if teachers do not physically ‘mark’ their work? Why?

Questions that new teachers ask about marking

What standards should be adopted? You can evaluate standards of a student’s work in three ways. It can be compared with what a student has done previously (ipsative marking), one student’s work can be compared with others (norm referencing) or work can be marked using pre-determined criteria (criteria referencing). See Weeden (2017) pp 190-1 and fig 8.

How do I know I am marking at a similar standard to other teachers? This is important, and a good department will have ways for geography teachers to moderate their marking within the department. As a new teacher you should discuss this with other geography teachers and ask them to do some informal moderation of your marking.

At what depth am I going to mark the work? At one end of the scale, you could merely acknowledge that the work has been done; at the other end of the scale, you would focus in detail on a student’s understanding of key concepts and provide thorough feedback and advice on how to improve. 

The current thinking in schools tends to be that schools should mark less in terms of the number of pieces of work marked, but mark better. Discuss with your mentor how to balance how you mark work across your classes to be effective for learners and manageable for you. See some useful suggestions from practicing teachers about of how to achieve efficient marking: Rogers (2017) Idea p. 66; Harris (2017) pp. 167-169.

Should I always correct geographical misunderstandings in students’ work? Yes. This is the main reason for marking written work, so it should have a high priority.

Should I pay attention to the quality of presentation? Do I correct all errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation (SPAG)? These are likely to be included as part of the school policy, but teachers also set their own standards in this regard. Additional marks are given for SPAG in current GCSE examinations. See Rogers (2017) p. 67.

Am I making it clear to students how I have marked their work? Your system and its meaning must be transparent to students. See Gleen (2016) for some tools for effective marking, and Kay et al (2016) for different marking techniques.

How will I convey to students what they have to do to progress? How do I expect them to respond? See Weeden and Lambert (2006) pp. 13-17. This discusses strategies to make written comments in geography more effective for developing students’ learning and suggests ways to engage students in the dialogue.

  • Read Butt (2008) Orientation Piece – Marking work, which discusses the ways in which marking and assessment of student’s work should become part of the dialogue between teachers and students.

Discuss the above questions and readings with your geography mentor. How do they advise you to make your marking meaningful, manageable and motivating?

Discuss the pros and cons of marking with your mentor. Find out:

  • the rationale behind the marking policy followed in your school
  • the marking expectations in the geography department; for example, frequency of marking, feedback, reward systems and the use of grades (or not) for attainment and effort
  • their advice to make your marking meaningful, manageable and motivating.

Discuss with them what you have read about research findings and marking, asking:

  • whether they agree with Wiliam’s findings on comments versus grades
  • what methods of feedback they use. Do they use the PIE (praise, improve, encourage) or PEN (praise, error, next steps) as described by Weeden (2017) or other alternatives?
  • how they build in ‘time for reflection’ after handing back marked work with comments
  • how students respond to written feedback on their work, and what they are expected to ‘do’ with the feedback they receive
  • what types of feedback comments they find are most effective at getting students to improve
  • in what situations they feel giving verbal feedback to a whole group can be more beneficial than written comments.

Reading

  • Balderstone, D. and Lambert, D. (1999) ‘Sunday evening at the kitchen table’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D., Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition, Abington: Routledge.
  • Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the Black Box, Slough: NFER/Nelson.
  • Butler, R (1987) ‘Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: effects of different feedback conditions on motivation perceptions, interest and performance’, Journal of Educational Psychology 79(4), pp. 474-82.
  • Butt, G. (2008) Orientation Piece – Marking workGeographical Association on-line.
  • Childes, M. (2021) The key principles to effective feedbackImpact, Chartered College of Teaching, May.
  • Copping, D. (2016) Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking: Report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group, DfE.
  • Elliott, V., Baird, J., Hopfenbeck, T.N., Ingram, J., Thompson, I., Usher, N., Zantout, M., Richardson, J. and Coleman, R. (2016) ‘A marked improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking, Oxford: Education Endowment Foundation.
  • Enser, Mark. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing, chapter 5.
  • Gardner, D., Weeden, P. and Butt, G. (2015) Assessing progress in your Key Stage 3 Geography Curriculum (eBook), Geographical Association.
  • Gleen, J. (2016) ‘Marking books’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge, chapter 12.
  • Kay, R., Harries, B. and Hunt, P. (2016) ‘Mark my words’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Rogers, D. (2017) 100 ideas for Secondary Teachers: Outstanding Geography Lessons, Bloomsbury Education.
  • Rooney, R. (2006) ‘Effective feedback as a focus for CPD with a developing geography department’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Taylor, M. (2017) A marked improvement: Where are we now?, Impact, Chartered College of Teaching, September.
  • Weeden, P. (2017) ‘Assessing Geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 14.
  • Weeden, P. (2015) ‘Feedback in the Geography Classroom: Developing the use of assessment for learning’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Weeden, P. and Lambert, D. (2006) Geography Inside the Black Box, Sheffield: Geographical Association/NfER Nelson.