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…

Rethinking Assessment: Essay Self Assessment

3773861315_5200510f5b_oHow do we use assessment to improve the quality of our pupils’ work? This is one of those questions that is often at the forefront of teachers’ minds. There can be nothing more discouraging than spending a lesson going through in detail how to complete a piece of work well, only for our students to hand in assignments that fall short of the standard we had hoped for. Sometimes it can seem that our pupils are simply ignoring our advice. It can be very exasperating for us, as teachers, and I have no doubt that it can be similarly exasperating for our pupils, many of whom no doubt believed that they had submitted a high quality piece of work.

So what is the answer to this quandary?

I’ve been thinking about assessment for some time, and have tried in recent weeks to develop new and improved mechanisms for providing meaningful feedback to my pupils. I’ve produced “assessment tracking sheets” for my pupils, have overhauled the system of marks that I use, and tried to further develop my use of self- and peer-assessment. I’ve felt that this has all been a move in the right direction, and have had useful conversations with my pupils as a consequence (even if there is still a tendency amongst some to regard peer-assessment as an excuse for me not to mark their books)!

I still did not feel, however, that I was getting close to my goal of using assessment to significantly bolster pupil performance. Sticking a mark scheme in front of a pupil and asking them to mark their neighbour’s work produced somewhat erratic results, and also ate up a great deal of lesson time. Whilst the school’s senior management believed such an exercise was a tremendous example of “Assessment for Learning,” in my view it was fundamentally flawed, since whilst some pupils found it a useful exercise, I was not convinced that it was leading to a great deal of learning.

I was particularly inspired last week, however, by a blog post I read by Miles MacFarlane. In this post he summed up the assessment philosophy in his own school in the statement:

Efficacious learners honestly reflect, self-evaluate, and assess their own work against criteria they understand. They are independent and reflect meaningfully on both their content mastery and their skills as learners.

One particular element of the assessment cycle at Miles’ school particularly caught my attention. Miles says that before completing a task, students and their teachers

Explore the characteristics of exemplary models of the product they are creating. These characteristics form the criteria by which they will assess their own work.

Miles continues:

Throughout an activity, students consult the criteria to see whether their product meets the requirements. They are also encouraged to add value by going beyond the criteria. Before submitting their completed work, students self-assess against the criteria and reflect on their learning processes and strategies. Teachers respond to student assessments providing feedback on both the product and their learning strategies.

Spurred on by this post, I have created a self-assessment proforma for essay writing that I am trialling with one class at the moment. This proforma provides a checklist of the key elements of an outstanding essay, broken down into the key components, (introduction, main body, conclusion and general points.) This checklist is intended to reinforce what is required of a good essay in a simple, straightforward way that can be easily understood by my pupils. The intention is that once they have finished writing their essay, they tick the box indicating that they have included each of these elements in their essay. If pupils are able to tick all the boxes, then they should be reasonably confident that their work is of a high standard. If they are unable to, then they are advised to edit and amend their work so that they are able to complete the checklist more fully.

Also on the self-assessment proforma is a copy of the mark scheme issued by the examination board for essay work. Pupils are asked to read through this scheme and to grade their essay accordingly, before commenting on why they have given their essay this mark, and what they would do differently next time in order to produce an even better essay.

This is the first time I have used this particular proforma, and I have yet to see how well my pupils are able to use it. I am looking forward, however, to marking their essays and reviewing their self-assessment. If it works then I am confident that it will lead to a much greater understanding amongst my pupils about what makes a good essay, and enable them to dramatically improve the quality of their own work. If this, or a similar tool, is used regularly, then hopefully I will see a sustained improvement in the quality of all of my pupils’ work.

Have you developed any assessment tools that have enabled you to promote and develop the learning of your pupils? Please do share them below!