Rethinking Assessment: Closing the Gap

teacher-marking_1455046cThere’s been a great deal of discussion in my school recently about the kind of feedback that teachers should provide to pupils when marking written work. The debate continues to rage between those who believe that pupils should not, under any circumstances, be given a mark for completed work, just a comment, and those who think that a mark should be given at all costs. I’m stuck somewhere between those two posts at present; I can see the argument that if a mark is provided, pupils will skip over the teacher’s written feedback quickly and not pay attention to it, but I also think that when completing examination-style work, a mark is vital.

I do wonder, however, whether the feedback that we teachers provide our pupils with is always as useful as it could be. What is the value of a comment such as “Good!” or “Excellent!” if it does not also provide some suggestion as to how a pupil can progress further? And if a constructive comment is provided, such as “make sure you start each paragraph of your essay starting with a clear point,” how do we know that our pupils actually understand what we mean and will heed this advice and act on in next time they complete a written task?

Last year, I created a “History Progress Sheet” in an attempt to ensure my pupils digested the feedback I provide when I mark their work. In this table they record the date, the title of the piece of work, their mark, a summary of my comment, and a short personal reflection (one or two sentences) about how they can improve their work in future. This has generally proven to be very useful indeed; it compels my pupils to read my comment and to provide a response to it. Over time, it provides pupils (and me) with a quick and easy to read guide to the progress they’re making. Each time I set a piece of work, my pupils are asked to look back over their progress sheet and to try to take on board previous comments when completing their new task.

Of course, this is all well and good in theory. Unfortunately, as with many of these initiatives teachers develop, in the day-to-day busyness of the classroom, it can sometimes be forgotten. My school has lessons of just thirty five minutes, and by the time pupils have arrived five minutes late to the lesson, I’ve got them settled and focused and distributed exercise books, I can sometimes feel pressurised to get on with the main body of the lesson, not least because we have a lot of content to cover.

I’ve been challenged to think more carefully about my written feedback to pupils by this post on Tom Sherrington’s excellent website that I have recently discovered via Twitter. In this post Tom describes a visit to Saffron Walden County High School to observe their approach to marking and feedback. Saffron Walden call this, ‘closing the gap’. This simply means that pupils are required to act on the feedback that they have been given by their teachers. Teacher comments are often shorter but pupils have to address issues raised by feedback straight away. In humanities subject like my own, this involved redrafting work to take account of feedback.

Now, this is nothing new, and I’m sure that many of us often ask our pupils to redraft work if we feel that it is unsatisfactory or particularly weak. What does strike me as quite revolutionary, however, is embedding this notion of ‘closing the gap’ so wholeheartedly into assessment policy. Redrafting is not something reserved for those who have not invested sufficient time or have somehow failed; redrafting is something that is routinely done, by all pupils, in order to raise standards.

‘Closing the gap’ seems to be an excellent exercise and I have no doubt could radically improve the quality of children’s work. It also ensures that pupils read teachers’ written feedback on their work – and indeed, that teachers are required to write useful, constructive comments that direct a pupil how they can improve their work.

Since reading Tom’s post, I have been giving serious consideration to how I can incorporate ‘close the gap’ into my own assessment strategy. In order for this to happen, it is clear that some ‘content coverage’ time will be lost, which, in a subject such as history, could potentially be a real issue. I am convinced, however, that time invested in ‘closing the gap’ will be far from wasted; indeed, providing pupils with the opportunity to critically reflect on their own work and to respond constructively to teacher feedback seems like an excellent way to promote their learning. I would far rather that my pupils learnt a little less content but had a mastery of the skills required to write an essay and complete source work exercises.

I wonder if my Head of Department will agree…