Review by Harry Fletcher-Wood

Associate Dean at the Institute for Teaching

15 Oct 2018, 5:00


What does the research say about marking and feedback?

A recent Schools Week story reported a survey which claimed that three in five teachers are still conducting deep or triple marking.  At the risk of flogging a scrawny horse a few steps further, this seemed a worthwhile prompt to highlight a few critical papers on marking and feedback.

My first stop is A Marked Improvement?, the EEF’s review of the evidence on marking, which found that “No high-quality studies appear to have evaluated the impact of triple impact marking” and, indeed, noted a “striking disparity between the enormous amount of effort invested in marking books, and the very small number of robust studies that have been completed to date.” Most of the evidence comes from universities or English as a Foreign Language teaching. Most focuses on short-term impact; much of it investigates how students feel about the feedback rather than how much they learn as a result of it.  The review found an absence of evidence about the effect of marking, rather than evidence of an absence of its effects, but it may at least encourage us to consider how worthwhile deep or triple marking is.

Elliott, V., Baird, J., Hopfenbeck, T., Ingram, J., Richardson J., Coleman, R. Thompson, I., Usher, N. and Zantout, M. (2016) A marked improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking. Education Endowment Fund.

So, if we’re unsure about marking, how can we help students improve?  Marking is just one kind of feedback. Perhaps we should ask, ‘How have students used the information I provide to reach the goals I’ve set?’ rather than registering how many times we’ve marked it or how dense our comments are. The literature on feedback is broad, dense and often contradictory, but an authoritative review comes from John Hattie and Helen Timperley.  Entitled The Power of Feedback, it invites us to consider three types of information we might provide students:

  • What students’ goals are: “Where am I going?”
  • What students have achieved: “How am I doing?”
  • What changes are needed: “Where next?”

It also suggests thinking about levels of feedback, beginning with feedback about the current task: this is the most common form of feedback, the most powerful way of helping students improve the current task, but it is likely to limit students to improving the current task only – they won’t know how to apply the feedback to other tasks.  There is also feedback about the processing of the task: helping students gain a deeper understanding of what they are doing; and feedback about self-regulation: helping students improve their learning behaviours.  All of the above can be productive, particularly if they are combined (for example, if we offer feedback about the task itself and how to improve as a learner).  Conversely, Hattie and Timperley suggest avoiding feedback about the self as a person – “Good girl” or “Good boy”, for example – and note that, while students like praise, it does not help them improve since it does not contain information about how to improve.

Hattie, J. and Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), pp.81-112.

Hattie and Timperley emphasise that “How students interpret feedback is critical.” Another recent review (Winstone et al., 2017) asked how teachers can encourage students to embrace and respond to feedback, not just act as “passive recipients.” Various factors can make this harder: poor communication by the donor, limited willingness to receive it and the ‘communication channel’ chosen (spoken, written and so on).  Although the review concurred with the EEF’s findings – there is a limited amount of valid evidence in the field – it suggested ways to help students appraise their current skill, regulate themselves and understand the assessment process. These included offering exemplar work, encouraging redrafting and helping students plan how to react to feedback.

Winstone, N., Nash, R., Parker, M., and Rowntree, J. (2017) Supporting Learners’ Agentic Engagement With Feedback: A Systematic Review and a Taxonomy of Recipience Processes. Educational Psychologist, 52(1), pp.17-37.

Finally, in one intriguing example of encouraging students to embrace feedback, the teacher conveyed their high standards – and their belief that students could meet those standards – by adding a note which said: “I’m giving you these comments because I have high expectations and I know you can reach them.” Students who received these messages were more likely to redraft their work voluntarily and were more likely to improve their grades as a result.

Yeager, D., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Garcia, J., Apfel, N., Brzustoski, P., Master, A., Hessert, W., Williams, M. and Cohen, G. (2014). Breaking the cycle of mistrust: Wise interventions to provide critical feedback across the racial divide. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), pp.804-824.

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