Moving from marking towards feedback

How can speeding drivers be induced to slow down, given that conventional solutions, such as replacing speed limit signs and police crackdowns, seem not to work?

In 2003, officials in Garden Grove, California…. decided to take another approach. In five Garden Grove school zones, they put up what are known as dynamic speed displays, or driver feedback signs: a speed limit posting coupled with a radar sensor attached to a huge digital readout announcing “Your Speed.”

Officials in Garden Grove were betting that giving speeders redundant information with no consequence would somehow compel them to do something few of us are inclined to do: slow down.

The results fascinated and delighted the city officials. In the vicinity of the schools where the dynamic displays were installed, drivers slowed an average of 14 percent. Not only that, at three schools the average speed dipped below the posted speed limit. Since this experiment, Garden Grove has installed 10 more driver feedback signs. “Frankly, it’s hard to get people to slow down,” says Dan Candelaria, Garden Grove’s traffic engineer. “But these encourage people to do the right thing.”

The signs leverage what’s called a feedback loop, a profoundly effective tool for changing behavior. The basic premise is simple. Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors.

Thomas Goetz, Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops, Wired.com

A feedback loop, a profoundly effective tool for changing behavior.

If we are to believe the meta-analyses, feedback is powerful: Hattie rated its effect size as 0.73; the EEF Toolkit suggests it can cause eight months extra learning in a year; providing feedback which moves learners forward is one of the five Assessment for Learning strategies.  Even if we are no longer to believe Hattie, there’s an intuitive logic to giving students individual information as to how to improve; if even that fails to convince, perhaps it’s worth remembering that every time we use a thermostat, we rely on a feedback loop.

The basic premise is simple.

The details aren’t.  To quote Wiliam: “Providing effective feedback is very difficult.  Get it wrong, and students give up, reject the feedback, or choose an easier goal. (2011, p. 119)”  Many pitfalls can diminish the power of our feedback: vagueness, too much detail, too prompt a response, involving the ego rather than the task (by using levels and grades, for example).  There has been much highly-informed comment on this topic recently; I’m discussing it because I was invited to do so, not because I have particular expertise or solid answers, so all I’m offering is some examples of things I’ve been working on, and some questions I think worth considering.

Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it)

Real time information means drivers can see the immediate effect of their actions; over the last couple of years I’ve been trying to reduce the time it takes to get feedback to students..

Feedback in real time

Over the last year, I’ve been trying to offer more feedback while students are writing, rather than waiting to mark.  Hints and reminders – as to the question, the form of an answer or a particular spelling – can help ensure they are on track by the time their work is handed in.  Last week, in trying to get everyone to write a perfect point sentence, each student drafted their response on a mini-whiteboard; I kept giving feedback until it was excellent, at which point they recorded the result in their books.  Likewise, any check for understanding, like a hinge question, allows me to catch misconceptions early.

Repeated, real time feedback until the point sentence is corrected

Repeated, real time feedback until the point sentence is corrected

(For context: we have been studying whether Britain should intervene in Ukraine, examining the historical record regarding Appeasement, the invasion of Iraq, and the conflict in Ukraine for insight; all the pictures of student work in this post relate to that).

Near-real time feedback

Since January I’ve been marking every book, every lesson.  Each student receives a red, amber or green mark, leading to an action: red, a scaffolded repetition of the initial task; amber, an elaboration or improvement; green, an extension.  I also provide feedback on four or five literacy corrections.  Each lesson, students spend a few minutes responding to the feedback.

I’ve made a few modifications this term.  Moving to random colours (orange, pink and purple) has been an attempt to remove the implication of a judgment upon students (this is particularly important because amber (or, now, pink) means students have grasped the gist but need to add details or nuance).  And I’m checking more regularly, on which more below.

Getting basic details right - spellings, capitals, grammar

Getting basic details right

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A scaffolded repetition of the initial task, ensuring accuracy.

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An expansion of the task, justifying the student’s initial responseCIMG8230

An extension of the task, challenging a student who mastered it

So:

  • every student is improving work every lesson
  • students receive work differentiated according to their actual attainment and need
  • a culture of redrafting and constant improvement develops
  • students get two attempts to complete every piece of work
  • absentees catch up
  • students’ chance of remembering is improved (by having time to forget and then being forced to recall)
  • I can catch problems and celebrate successes promptly
  • I never have to worry about a big marking load

So, question 1:  How can we get feedback to students quicker?

Then give them an opportunity to change those actions

Information about the gap between actual and reference levels is considered as feedback only when it is used to alter the gap.”
Royce Sadler (1989), p. 121

Dynamic signs invite drivers to do one thing: slow down.  They don’t address mobile phone use, drunk driving or inconsiderate over-taking.  But they are a powerful lever, because change is easier in small doses; to quote the Heath Brothers in Switch, “If you want a reluctant Elephant to get moving, you need to shrink the change. (p. 129)”

A narrowly focused next step

One of the things I like about dot-marking is that it focuses almost exclusively on a single ‘next step’ (more so than on the current level of performance), achievable in the few minutes available for students to improve their work.  This, alongside my experience of coaching teachers towards single ‘action steps’ this term, has led me to mark recent essays in the same way; although I identified and noted a range of features of the work, I asked each student to make just one change, the most powerful one I could identify, rather than attempting general improvements.  So I can now be confident that every student can write a point sentence well – and then move on to the next step.

An opportunity to change

In a recent book scrutiny, I noticed a colleague who used the school’s literacy code, but often added in the correction for students; the chances they’ll learn from this are pretty slim, because it doesn’t demand thought on their part.  As Dylan Wiliam notes, feedback should be more work of the recipient than the donor.  There is no point in writing anything if students aren’t doing anything with it: this is implicit in all I’ve said, but there has to be time in every lesson (or however often a teacher does this) to make improvements.  Quite how long this should be is an open question: I am for around a couple of minutes explanation and about six minutes writing, but if it takes longer and I see students making significant improvements or dealing with knotty problems, I’ll let it stretch longer.

The information needed to change

I can breeze into a lesson and know what I want from students.  They, on the other hand, may have gone a week without thinking about history, and not understood in the first place.  So I’m increasingly reminded how important it is to revisit the model or the content from the previous lesson, or offer a new explanation of what’s expected (or what happened).  This is also likely to increase students’ chance of recalling the topic.

A powerful nudge

It’s an opportunity, but it’s one which students are bound to take up.  Carrying books around every lesson is a lot more annoying than carrying bits of paper (as I did last year), but it does mean I can check each time whether students have taken up feedback.  What about those who don’t though?  Here’s an extreme example: I sat with the student whose work is shown below and had him redo the work four times, the last three over break.

J improvements

The reward was twofold, firstly, this great point sentence:

J final

Secondly, the massive, unexpected grin as the student surprised himself in realising he could do it.

However, effectively checking whether all students have reached this point in the lesson is still beyond me; the move on to the next task is an awkward, subjective judgment call.  I wonder if I can use students’ coloured cards to help me here…  (switch to the blue pages in your planner so I know you’ve finished) but I’ve not tried this yet.

So, question 2: How can we give students the best possible chance of acting on feedback (that is, making feedback feedback)?

Pushing them toward better behaviors.

We know the speed signs induce better behaviour there and then; I wonder whether they affect drivers’ actions for a while after they’ve left the school zone, making them more conscious of their speed and responsibility.

This is a very recent thought derives from this table, but I’ve not yet gone far beyond it:

Formative assessment progress

Pryor and Crossouard (2010), p. 270

Most of our feedback focuses on specific pieces of work.  But marking is our most frequent individualised teaching.  Although some teachers are good at holding writers’ conferences or checking they’ve spoken to every student in a lesson, it’s rare I give detailed oral feedback to every student in a lesson.

The feedback I give in books reaches every student every lesson: I wonder how I can use it to help students change their concept of history, or themselves.  Some of this is implicit in the examples I showed of student feedback above: giving (better) evidence, for example, is intrinsic to being a historian.  Extension questions in particular often ask students to act in ways imitative of historians.  I wonder whether I can do more though, whether providing a deeper rationale for the tasks might help students understand historical practice better.

Becoming a better historian by avoiding pronouns

Becoming a better historian by avoiding pronouns

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Insight into how history can inform contemporary action

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Formulating one’s own questions

So, question 3: How does feedback reshape students’ understanding of themselves and the discipline?

Residual questions

That I can answer:

1) What about workload?  a) It’s a lot, but in terms of the reasons I’ve given above, it’s worth it.  b) It’s less work than many other approaches.  I was working with a colleague this term who was struggling with a massive, time-consuming marking load: writing lots, infrequently, much of it too late to be of use to students.  I was never good at marking regularly before; this way I’m always up to date, no set of books takes long, and it’s actually useful.

2) What about levels?  I’ve not given students levels for years (unless, in my old school, students came in their own time and explained to me their target)…  I can imagine that it might be possible to give students helpful grade-related feedback, but for all the reasons that levels and grades inhibit student learning, I can’t see why anyone would go to the trouble it would take to ensure the feedback worked, when they could do the same more easily by eschewing grading.

That I can’t answer:

1) Is this feedback too paltry?  Particularly for students with significant additional needs?  I will sometimes write individually scaffolded sentences for a handful of students, but the need to write the target and the degree of independence needed can make it a struggle for a few.

2) How do you ensure students do what you ask?  I’m doing better at double-checking now we have books, but how long can you keep the feedback loop going?  I feel uncomfortable when the answer to a failure of the feedback loop is getting students to do further work in my, and their time; how I can ensure all students respond well to feedback in every lesson remains a challenge.

3) Am I teaching students what Royce Sadler calls ‘the moves?’  I need to ensure students know how to improve.  In the TLT session on which this is based, John Tomsett spoke of the power of showing a model to students of how to respond to feedback: I did this recently to show what good response to literacy corrections is, I need to do the same for response to the historical targets.

Moving from marking to feedback

As a cyclist, I see flashing reminder signs and speed limits ignored left right and centre.  I have also witnessed a rapidly-approaching driver slow down as they approached a dynamic speed limit sign.  I know they work.  For years, like local authorities repainting speed limit signs, I’ve been marking books.  What I really want is to move from painting signs to getting drivers to slow down; to move from marking to feedback, in a way as effective as Garden Grove.  I suspect if I can successfully answer these three questions, I’ll get nearer doing so:

  • How can we get feedback to students quicker?
  • How can we give students the best possible chance of acting on feedback?
  • How does feedback reshape students’ understanding of themselves and the discipline?

References

Heath, Chip and Heath, Dan, (2010), Switch: How to change things when change is hard, London (see also my review)

Pryor, John and Crossouard, (2010), ‘Challenging formative assessment: disciplinary spaces and identities,’ Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, Vol. 35, No. 3, May 2010, 265–276

Royce Sadler, D. (1989), ‘Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems,’ Instructional Science 18, 119-144

Wiliam, Dylan (2011), Embedded Formative Assessment, Bloomington, IN

Further reading

I’ve written about Closing the Gap marking and using colour-dot marking to mark every book every lesson.

There are a wealth of great posts out there on feedback and marking, but I’d particularly draw note to this recent one from Goldfish Bowl, this from Alex Quigley and the work of David Didau.

6 responses to “Moving from marking towards feedback

  1. As usual, thoughtful and powerful. Today I was twittering with @FarrowMr about thresholds as a route to mastery (he raised it), and it strikes me that the approach you outline above could very well lead to this approach…in that, as you hone what is the key point each student needs to take action on, this will inevitably lead to identifying the threshold elements needed to significantly move the student on. Can it be captured in a systematised way? (not sure – would be subject specific). At the very least, the reaction to the feedback you get as a teacher will help to inform you as to what is effective for the student…a positive feedback loop??

    • I think you’re right about this… certainly I saw point sentences as the key ‘lever’ – trying to do anything with evidence or explanation in a paragraph without a clearly set out point would be purposeless. So, yes, I think one could come up with a series of steps, and initially, that wouldn’t be too complicated. Where it broadened out into conceptual and substantive understanding – that is, finding and filling the gaps in knowledge and understanding, it could get seriously complicate, but, as you say, very useful.

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