I wrote in this post about how many examples of poor feedback and ridiculous marking I have come across in recent years, much of which is still going on now. Examples of ridiculous and pointless marking include tick-and-flick, “dialogic” or “triple” marking, anything that makes more work for teachers than students, and anything that provides feedback far too long after the original work was completed (we all know how short our students’ memories are!)
I also mentioned how we are trying to find a better way in our maths department, and the exit ticket forms the basis of this.
After discussions with SLT I’ve designed a new Feedback Policy for the department (note, not a Marking Policy). As with everything I do, it’s a work in progress and I want to get things right. When thinking about feedback I have three overarching aims:
- Feedback must help students to improve.
- Feedback must be useful to teachers.
- The benefits must outweigh the costs.
I will come back to these at the end, but first here is the policy.
The Feedback Policy
It is recognised that marking and feedback are separate but linked ideas. Marking can be done by students or a teacher. Useful feedback can be given by the teacher, who has the expert knowledge to do so. In the Lower School our feedback policy is as follows:
- Teachers give feedback every lesson, to individual students or to the whole class.
- Exit ticket in approximately 50% of lessons.
- Exit tickets contain questions intended to help you ascertain the limit of students’ current understanding.
- All exit tickets marked but no extensive comments required. Instead note down mistakes/misconceptions, give whole-class feedback when exit tickets are returned. Use this as a teaching opportunity, students write their corrections in red on the ticket. This ensures feedback is given and considered on a regular basis.
- Use the feedback you receive from exit tickets to inform your planning.
- Move around in lessons, correcting spelling and mathematical errors as you see them.
- Take advantage of opportunities to assess students’ grasp of the work – quick quizzes, whiteboards, for instance. Regular low-stakes testing helps them to remember what they’ve learnt, and helps you to see what they can remember. Numeracy Ninjas in Y7 & Y8 (and above where appropriate) is one way we will all do this.
- All homework and class work to be self-marked, teacher to check completion and quality during the lesson.
- All half-termly assessments to be marked by the teacher. Students complete an analysis sheet after the test has been returned to them, and all paperwork is to be kept in exercise books.
- During periods of examination preparation, such as in Years 11, 12 and 13, there is no requirement for exit tickets.
The Rationale Behind the Feedback Policy
John Hattie, in his meta-analysis Visible Learning popularised the idea that feedback is very effective and acknowledged that, of all types of feedback, one of the most powerful kinds is feedback to the teacher. In fact, a lot of the positive effects of marking in all subjects have been found to be due to the effect marking has on the teacher’s further planning. There is little evidence to suggest that marking in itself improves students’ learning. If the teacher knows as soon as possible what students can and can’t do, then they can plan and tailor the curriculum accordingly, addressing misconceptions before they become embedded and harder to eradicate, and directing students’ learning appropriately.
Dylan Wiliam, considered by many the authority on “assessment for learning”, observes in his book Embedded Formative Assessment, that although the effect sizes of feedback are large, a decent proportion of the effects of feedback are negative. This means we cannot even guarantee that feedback, in any form, will have the desired positive effect on learning. Wiliam has said he regrets using the phrase “assessment for learning” and now prefers the phrase “responsive teaching”. Formative assessment should reveal student weaknesses so that the teacher can act on them.
It has become the accepted orthodoxy in schools over the last ten years or so that marking must take the form of written teacher comments on work (rather than grades) and, in more recent years, that students must respond to these comments. The emphasis on comments came from Wiliam and Black’s 1998 booklet, Inside the Black Box but, contrary to what many believe, this work did not say that numbers or grades on work are wrong per se, but simply that if a comment is accompanied by a number or grade then the student will not pay attention to the comment and it becomes pointless. The work made no effort to justify the overall effectiveness of written comments, only to say what stops them having any impact. Dialogic marking, where student responds to teacher, has been adopted by countless schools across the UK and creates an extreme workload for staff. It is unclear where this idea originated, but in recent years the blame was laid at Ofsted’s door, “Ofsted requires that we mark in this way”. Ofsted may have praised it in the past but is now quick to acknowledge that it is highly onerous and that there is no evidence of its efficacy whatsoever. They have issued guidance that states that they do not wish to see any particular style or frequency of marking, only that teachers follow their school or department’s policy. The NCETM has also produced their own guidance for marking in secondary schools which draws on the same themes.
In 2016 the EEF produced a review of the evidence on marking and found that there is a distinct lack of any evidence to demonstrate what effect marking has on learning or, put more clearly, “no-one knows how best to mark or even if marking is worth the effort at all” (Didau).
In the light of the lack of evidence of the efficacy of marking, coupled with the time and effort it takes, we should see if there is a way of providing more regular instant feedback that is less onerous on the teacher and allows them to spend time planning more effective and targeted lessons.
Daisy Christodoulou, in her 2017 book Making Good Progress? The Future of Assessment for Learning, which has a foreword written by Wiliam, draws a distinction between subjects such as English, which are built around a Quality Model of assessment (a student performs a task and they are judged on how well they performed on the task) and subjects such as maths, which are built around a Difficulty Model of assessment (students answer a series of increasingly difficult questions). Written comments in books should be based around improving the quality of work; dialogic marking or comment-writing does not make a lot of sense for a subject with a difficulty model of assessment.
Looking for a Better Way
My predecessor had introduced the exit ticket in 2015, which is an idea taken from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion. It quickly proved to be popular with staff, who could see the positive impact on planning and preparation, but we had the problem of being constrained by whole-school policies on comment-writing: the tickets were being marked by staff who were writing comments, but who quickly found that they were writing the same things over and over again – not an efficient use of our limited time. It was clear that students generally make similar mistakes and have similar misconceptions. The introduction of the tickets was designed to improve on the existing ways of marking, which it did, but it still proved onerous when we were unable to move away from school-wide expectations. Now that general thinking on marking is starting to change, helped greatly by Ofsted’s mythbusting, we are able to implement exit tickets as my predecessor had originally intended.
When exit tickets are marked the teacher ticks what is correct but also indicates mistakes or omissions by, for instance, circling, but does not correct them or try to find a comment for the sake of a comment. The teacher makes a written or mental note, as necessary, of the errors and misconceptions and uses these to plan the next steps. They may choose to devote more lesson time to the topic and can spend their freed-up time sourcing or creating appropriate resources to address the problems. If it is only minor misconceptions then they can judge how long to spend addressing these. When the tickets are given back, the teacher feeds back to the whole class, and every student is expected to annotate their ticket with the feedback. This means that those who made mistakes get them corrected the next lesson rather than in a fortnight’s time, and that those who didn’t get to know what kinds of mistakes to watch out for, which should increase their chances of future success on similar work.
The important thing to note here is that all students are getting timely feedback which is specific and targeted, and none are left behind unintentionally. In addition to this we have the added bonus in maths that it is very easy for students to mark their own work, so no piece of work goes unmarked, in contrast to other subjects where there may be large numbers of pieces of work that, for no reason other than hours in a day, cannot get marked. We also regularly assess our students through mini-tests, end of half term tests, and Numeracy Ninjas in each lesson, as well as targeted questioning, use of mini-whiteboards and other regular ways of getting instant feedback.
Part of the Bigger Picture
We have started a mastery-inspired curriculum which has been carefully designed to allow teachers the time they need to teach topics well in the broader context of the aims of a knowledge-based curriculum. This means teachers can adapt their sequences of lessons in light of the feedback provided by the exit tickets and other types of feedback without worrying that they have to move on to the next topic. We have built in time to regularly revisit old content so that students are less likely to forget their prior learning (this is called distributed/spaced practice) and we have designed the sequencing of topics to build upon prior learning in what should be, for mathematics, a logical progression from Y7-Y11.
As the scheme is new this year I am in regular conversation with the department about the speed of the scheme of work and am treating it as a working document, adapting timings when necessary. We are, as a department, investigating more effective methods of assessment and spend a lot of time reading the most recent publications in both mathematics and general education to inform our thinking. We are starting to build more time into department meetings to disseminate what we read in order that the other maths teachers understand the rationale behind what we are doing. None of this, including the feedback policy, is done without study of research and educational thinking first.
Taking books in fortnightly or twice a half term (which we used to do when I started my school) is of little use to the teacher, who cannot effectively respond to what they find from weeks previous as their teaching sequence has moved on. Writing comments at these times (whether or not students respond) is pointless again – students either don’t remember the work from a fortnight before or don’t give it too much thought, as they have moved on. If there were misconceptions, these haven’t been addressed and students have been left to allow these misconceptions to become embedded, making it harder to fix them. In mathematics it is almost always the case that the teacher has to find different ways to write the same comments, as students often make the same kinds of mistakes. This is why there is a huge bank of common misconceptions identified in mathematics education research, and why an experienced maths teacher can regularly tell you exactly what students are going to get wrong and why.
The exit ticket, coupled with whole-class feedback, provides a way for the teacher to get instant feedback and plan lessons appropriately. The time they save through not writing comments enables them to think carefully about the next steps and to get better or more resources wherever necessary.
It is understandable that, given the emphasis in recent years on written comments in books, that to move away from that entirely makes people feel nervous and concerned that we are not providing students with guidance or feedback. This is absolutely not the case. In fact, the policy anticipates more regular and appropriate feedback and allows teachers more time to plan for responsive teaching.
Addressing the three feedback aims
At the start I stated my three overarching aims for feedback:
- Feedback must help students to improve.
- Feedback must be useful to teachers.
- The benefits must outweigh the costs.
Aim 3 is addressed in the fact that a class set of 30 exit tickets takes 5-10 minutes to mark and make notes-to-self on. We see students’ work very regularly and can spend our time then responding to errors and misconceptions by planning lessons that address these straight away, which addresses aims 1 and 2. All students’ book work and homework is marked (by them) so we can circulate and see where they made mistakes and help them.
This might not be the best way to do feedback, but it sure is exponentially better than anything I’ve ever done before.
UPDATE: A number of people have asked to see what the exit tickets look like. Many of my colleagues will use exam questions or pre-type questions. Of course these can be saved for the future and then printed each time (we always print to A5 size). I often do this but also sometimes handwrite a selection of questions on the board, which I choose based on what’s happened in the lesson. Here are some examples:
I spoke at MathsConf10 yesterday on this very topic, quite a few people have asked for a copy of the slides, so here’s the presentation. I’ve left some of my notes on each slide as well, if it’s helpful. The presentation augments some areas of this post so, taken together, the post and the slides should cover most of it.