Andrea Mapplebeck discusses workload issues associated with feedback and marking.

The current situation

Feedback, including written marking, is frequently cited as an important practice in promoting student learning, and I can think of no teacher who would disagree with this notion. Reflecting on what students are producing is a helpful means of both ascertain their levels of understanding and a way to reflect on how well lessons are achieving their aim of supporting learning. All of which indicates the potential benefits feedback and marking may have for both teachers and students. Yet reviews of research about written marking have concluded that the quality of existing evidence is insufficient to provide definitive answers as to what approaches are impactful. Alongside the apparent lack of clear guidance on what constitutes effective feedback practice, there appears to be no definitive understanding about what “feedback” actual is, with a broad range of different definitions provided by those within the field, if they are indeed stated at all. Nevertheless, despite this lack of clarity, teachers are working extremely hard at the moment with a significant amount of time being invested into marking students’ work to provide feedback.

Support for teachers and leaders

Over recent times, there have been a number of different publications produced to try and support teachers and leaders in order to turn back the tide of excessive workload including marking. This has included a number of publications produced by the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group focused in particular on, and questioning the amount of work teachers are undertaking associated with marking, data management and lesson planning. The key question raised by the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group associated with all of these practices is “what is the impact that any of these different forms of work have on student outcomes?”

Yet despite this question being raised, there are still countless work scrutinies carried out throughout schools where teachers are questioned about the quantity of work produced in books. I have worked with staff who are concerned if nothing is written in a book during a lesson, even though students may have learnt a great deal through a variety of different activities. This begs the question, does everything we learn need to be written down? Alexander (2014) argues that in British classrooms, there is a proclivity for written work to be seen as “real” work, with oral interactions that occur not as highly valued and seen as a prelude to, rather than a form of, learning.

Ofsted has tried to assuage concerns and reiterated in a recent blog post that “we don’t want to see a specific amount, frequency or type of marking. You know what’s right for your pupils and we trust you to design systems that reflect their achievement” reiterating they “think there is too much marking being expected compared with the resultant benefits to pupils’ learning; too much reliance on meaningless data; and too little meaningful assessment of the right things at the right point in the curriculum” (Harford, 2018).

As a way of supporting schools with tackling this difficult and “hot” potato in order to develop practices that work for both students and staff, the Department for Education (DfE) has recently produced a Workload Reduction Toolkit building on the principles of the previous Independent Teacher Workload Review Group. The toolkit encompasses different tools that can be used collectively or in isolation to help school leaders: identify the workload issues within their establishment; address these issues; evaluate the impact of changes they implement. Support materials, and audit tools, along with exemplar policies are all provided to help leaders and their staff work out a manageable way forward.

What’s next …

Many schools are thinking critically about these issues and are embracing the opportunity to try different methods with their marking and feedback policies, such as some who have made headlines with their approach to marking being that they don’t do it. However, further exploration shows most if not all, do use a number of different approaches for assessing their students, as well as a variety of ways of providing feedback, with the aim of reducing workload, and more importantly helping students progress in their learning.

While it is clear there is not yet a right answer to marking and feedback, I would question that there ever will be a “one size” that fits all, especially with the variability across students and the alternative ideas they enter the classroom with. However, it appears that there is now the possibility for schools and leaders to:

  • experiment with differing approaches to marking and feedback

  • be flexible with assessment opportunities across different subjects

  • continue to reflect on the purpose of marking and feedback through professional dialogue with colleagues.

There is therefore the potential this could enable workloads to begin to become more realistic, with new approaches that benefit both teachers and students shared and evaluated. This hopefully means that endless hours of providing detailed written comments that have little or no impact on students’ progress or the teaching of the curriculum may be coming to an end, in order that teaching and learning are working well in order that students are benefiting from a deep and rich education.

Further reading

Last reviewed 9 October 2018