With this week’s blog I am taking my first tentative steps into the complexities of assessment and feedback. I have a paradoxical relationship with assessment: I recognise it as absolutely integral to facilitating student progress, but on many occasions I have found it to be a hugely time-consuming and pointless chore that has got in the way of lesson planning. There is no doubt that English is a marking-heavy subject, with a set of 30 books generally being a 3-hour-plus job and there have been particular assessment lows during my career: I still haven’t forgiven whoever invented APP grids! But at the moment I am actually enthused about the potential of assessment rather than depressed by the thought of the next marking marathon.
Professor Dylan William is in part responsible for this shift in my perception as he uses an analogy that I particularly like. In Embedded Formative Assessment, he uses the analogy of a thermometer and a thermostat, explaining that the aim of a thermometer is to take the temperature whereas the aim of a thermostat is to use the reading of the thermometer to change the temperature. This is an apt reminder of the purpose of assessment – not simply to measure learning, but to implement something to make a change/ improvement. The problem is of course, that if you come home from work after a busy day and spend three hours marking a set of books, you have no time to then plan something purposeful to act upon the measurements of pupil learning that have been taken.
This time last year, I diligently carried books home each week, annotated the work students had produced and then at the end of every students’ work wrote:
- A praise comment, identifying something that they had done well
- A personal progress target (which few students actually read or remembered)
- A personal DIRT task for every student to do (often badly)
Of course the DIRT task was in theory the thermostat part as it gave each student the opportunity to go back and improve something about their work, but I found it challenging to make this work effectively. The first few times I set DIRT tasks, I found the opening 10 minutes of my lesson vaguely chaotic as half the class wanted me to personally explain their DIRT task to them: the reason they hadn’t done the original work correctly was because they didn’t really get it so asking them to improve something they had done several days before was unsurprisingly tough- particularly given the restrictions of working memory. I then started spending even more time writing really detailed DIRT tasks in order to preempt this response or setting superficial tasks that they would be able to do independently, but wouldn’t have an impact upon deep learning.
And that is why I have found whole class feedback to be something of a saviour. Instead of spending 3 hours writing more or less the same comments on 30 books, I now spend less than one hour looking through books and recording my assessment findings in my own exercise book. I do worry that their books now look less ‘impressive’, but that is totally irrelevant if they are learning more. I still write short praise comments on every students’ book because they have told me that is the bit that they like the most, but that is it. I sometimes write specific advice in a student’s book if I notice a problem, but only if I realistically believe that they will be able to read, process and act on my advice. I started by using the various whole class feedback templates that can be found online, but I now feel that an A5 exercise book is a much better tool.
Below are some photographs showing what my Assessment and Feedback book looks like:
Front page: a list of whole class issues- these are the things that I have prioritised to repeatedly revisit through daily review in order to secure automaticity.
Every time I mark a set of books I use a double page:
on the left hand page I record specific learning needs of individual children that I particularly want to target. In the past, I would have written these comments in students’ books, but now I record it in my book instead and then ensure I target each student for verbal feedback/ support in the lesson. I do not share this page with students, but I find it essential as a memory aid so that when I next teach the class I can have a quick look through my notes and remember which students I need to talk to and what about. I also think that later in the year this page will be really useful for parents’ evening appointments.
On the right hand page I record notes that I do intend to share with the class. I divide this page in half: reflective feedback and proactive feedback. In the first column I make notes about what students have done well and commonly occurring problems that I have identified. I also appoint a Star Baker – this is obviously stolen from The Great British Bake Off as no baking is actually involved, but they seem to really like the individualised praise.
The second column is the ‘thermostat’ bit. This is where I identify specific things we need to do to adjust the learning temperature. This includes a DIRT task, but also longer term things that I will be reteaching. Instead of every child having separate DIRT tasks, they all have a similar task that I can clearly explain and model so that they can all do it successfully. I simply take a photograph of the right hand page, email it to myself and display it on the board so that I can talk through the feedback with the students. If any students have produced particularly good work, I also photograph that and email it to myself so that I can display it on the board and use it as a model to explain specific strengths of the work to the class.
This wonderful blog by Tom Sherrington has changed my approach to setting DIRT tasks as Sherrington suggests using ‘R words’ to structure feedback. I love this simple idea because it isn’t about looking backwards at work that has already been completed, but thinking forwards to what students should do next. Below is a resource I made to support the English team to use Sherrington’s R words to create DIRT tasks:
The best bit of course is that because I can now mark 30 books in under an hour, I have time to plan/ modify the next lesson I teach to act on what I have read rather than just deliver the next lesson in whatever scheme of learning I am teaching.
Another assessment tool that I am currently enjoying using are Exit Tickets. This is another technique that I have picked up from Doug Lemov’s Teach Like A Champion that is easy to implement and very useful. I have mostly used these with my GCSE classes when I am teaching literature because I use Cornell Note Taking as a strategy to support students to develop a knowledge schema, but the technique can be used to assess learning in all forms. I have included a picture below in case anyone is unfamiliar with the Cornell system, but in short, students divide their page into columns: one for key quotations/ vocabulary and the other for lesson notes. We then work through the text, discussing and exploring the big ideas and the students make notes. This means that their books look beautiful and creates the appearance that they have done a lot, but this can of course be a poor proxy for learning and exit tickets are a great way to check how well they have understood what they have written.
I simply issue an exit ticket 7-8 minutes before the end of the lesson and ask students to summarise their learning in some way. Sometimes this is simply an explanation of what they have learned, but often I give them specific questions/ tasks to do – particularly if I know I am teaching children for whom a blank page to magically write something on is horribly stressful. Either way, they hand me their exit ticket as they leave the room and I sort them into two piles: ‘got it’ and ‘not got it’ (sometimes a third: ‘partially got it’). If the majority of tickets go into the ‘got it’ pile I can proceed to the next stage of learning when I next teach them. I will of course still start the next lesson with a daily review/ retrieval task to ensure that they can still remember what they ‘got’, but this can be short and I can individually target students who I am concerned about. If the ‘not got it’ pile is large then I know that the daily review session needs to be far more detailed to reteach the bits they have not understood first time round. It gets tricky when the two piles are fairly even and you have to think about how to meet the needs of those students who have understood and those who have not, but that is the joy of being a teacher!
In Teach Like A Champion, Lemov suggests that Exit Tickets are the most effective when:
- They are quick – one to three questions/ tasks to do
- They are designed to yield data- questions/ tasks need to be very focused on the key learning that the teacher wanted the students to secure.
- Have varied formats – maybe one question; one multiple choice question and one quick task.
- They have a direct impact upon the next lesson – if exit tickets reveal poor understanding across the class, reteach; if just a few students have struggled, plan how to intervene.
Like whole class feedback, exit tickets are a wonderful thermostat – they allow you to quickly measure learning, leaving plenty of time to act on what you know by planning the next lesson.
A final assessment tool I have started using are knowledge quizzes that are in many ways just a more detailed exit ticket. So far I have used these with GCSE students when we have finished studying a literature text and I need to ensure that they have sufficient knowledge to be able to successfully transition into essay writing and the numerous cognitive demands of that process. I give them a selection of tasks/ questions to answer that require them to recall learning, but I also set requirements for how they should structure their answers. This allows me to simultaneously assess their knowledge of the text we have studied and the vocabulary/ sentence structures that I have taught them. I can quickly mark each student’s sheet of answers, recording notes in my trusty assessment and feedback book as I go. I calculate a % accuracy score for every student, making a note of who achieved below 80% as they are going to need additional support. I then go through answers that were commonly answered incorrectly with the class at the beginning of the next lesson, instantly plugging knowledge gaps before moving on to essay writing.
I also stole an idea from Martine Blandin and fold the sheet into sections so that when I give back sheets/ go through whole class feedback they can record notes that are relevant to them:
Please do contribute additional ideas for assessment tools that operate as a ‘thermostat’ in the comments section.