Creative Approaches to Feedback

Let’s be honest, however much you enjoy teaching, English teachers are rarely thrilled by a huge pile of marking and English teachers inevitably have one of the biggest workloads of all curriculum areas. I’m sure we’ve all felt the rising dread as a student delightedly declares that they have written a brilliant story proudly citing the eighteen page length as an endorsement of its brilliance. Even with carefully constructed success criteria, crafted models and an insistence on proofreading, feedback will often frustratingly focus on students’ failure to utilise these steps in the writing process.

Feedback isn’t always merely a necessary evil though. When we’ve taught something really well, of course there a sense of joy in seeing students demonstrate what they’ve learned. Traditionally, this is followed up with a comment highlighting strengths and areas for development but does the act of writing a lengthy summative comment at the end of their work really maximise the impact we are going to have on a student’s next piece of writing? Consider this comment:

You’ve used a really wide vocabulary here and included a good range of devices. Next time you need to proof read your work more carefully to spot errors with commas. I’d also like to see you build more clear links between your paragraphs

Thirty odd comments like this (along with some helpful annotation and literacy error marking)are a significant investment of our time but is there really any impact here? Surely the student was aware that they had deliberately crafted their vocabulary and included devices that had been meticulously covered in the lesson. Telling students that they have done what you asked them to do doesn’t feel like a particularly useful step. The targets are potentially useful but is this a student that misunderstands commas or just hasn’t bothered to put them in? Similarly, do they have a range of techniques for cohesion between ideas, if not, this target isn’t going to have any real influence on their next piece of work. Of course this might be followed up with a conversation, additional teaching or some other well crafted follow up activity, but if it isn’t, perhaps a different approach would save time and have more impact on developing the individual child as a writer.

The following principles are crucial for maximising the impact of feedback:

  • Feedback should be more work for students than us.
  • Feedback strategies have to help students improve their work – if there’s no impact, we shouldn’t be doing it.
  • We must refuse to accept work that doesn’t reflect real effort.
  • A wide range of formative strategies are good for students and teachers

So what are the alternatives? Below are twenty approaches to summative comments and fifteen reflective activities that encourage students to engage and respond with the work they have produced and the work of their peers.

Teacher Feedback – 20 Alternatives to Summative Comments

  1. Highlighter Focus – Select a focus e.g. sentencing, accuracy or vocabulary and highlight weak areas under that heading. Students can respond by redrafting this. No summative comment needs to be written.
  2. Ticks and Targets – Tick (and double tick) strengths and write short, targets aimed to improve students writing. The idea is that students probably know what they’ve done well already so this technique reinforces positives and allows the teacher to focus their time on comments to help students improve.
  3. Annotation Only – Annotate student work with strengths and targets to help them improve their writing. Don’t repeat these annotations with a summative target as well – it’s more helpful for students to see where they could make improvements.
  4. Paragraph Focus – Ask students to select their weakest paragraph and focus your feedback on how they could improve just that section.
  5. Marks Only – A technique to use with GCSE and A-level students. Simply put a number mark on an exam response and carefully go through the correct way to answer the question as a class. Students should annotate their mark explaining why they got it (strengths) and what they could do to improve it based on your lesson.
  6. Basic Error Marks – Don’t correct spellings and punctuation. Mark them and build in 5 – 10 minutes time for students to correct them with their purple pen
  7. Live Marking – Give the class an activity and ask them to come up one at a time with their work. Live mark it with them sat next to you and add annotations. Do this as verbal feedback and ask students to add their own annotations to their work as a result of your conversation using their purple pen or simply add annotations with them sat next to you.
  8. Dot Marking – As explored by Doug Lemov in more detail here. As students are working, walk around and place dots in the margin where there is something that needs to be improved or reworked. This allows students to instantly respond to feedback without you writing specific targets. The non-intrusive nature of a dot focuses students quickly. You could have a particular focus e.g. I’ll dot sentences that need rewording or opportunities to improve vocabulary.
  9. Verbal feedback – Talk to students about their work and get them to improve it. There’s no need to ‘evidence’ this. If you feel uncomfortable, run a short session explaining what students should expect from verbal feedback and how they should use it to improve their work.
  10. Taxonomy of Errors – Read a class’ work and keep a list of errors made by the class e.g. in a poetry essay you might get no key word analysis, vague comments on effect etc. Give out a table of errors and ask students to work through their work marking where they have made them. You could divide them into basic, intermediate and advanced to emphasise the difference between foundation errors that shouldn’t be made and those working at a higher level.
  11. Post-it/Sticker Targets – Write targets on a post-it or sticker so students can move it to a new piece of work when they can put it into practice. Students can also ‘transfer’ targets by writing them in but a post-it is instantly moveable.
  12. Reject Work – If work is not of a good enough standard e.g. underdeveloped or with basic errors make students redo it. Marking it is a pointless exercise. Give students a chance to do it again or use the department ‘effort’ reports to monitor this.
  13. Burning Questions – I’ve seen this discussed on a number of blogs but I cam across it from @davidfawcett27 here Ask students to select a focus for your feedback in the form of a ‘burning question’ this is something you may have to model for them at first. Keep your feedback succinct and address the specific area the student identified.
  14. Class Symbols – Negotiate a set of basic symbols for marking writing e.g. triangle for key word analysis, circle for effect on the reader etc. Students have ownership as they have created the key (they should have a copy in their books) Use this code to quickly mark work and ask students to use what’s missing to set effective targets
  15. Colour Coding – Pick two colours one for good and one for weak elements and simply mark examples of both in students’ books. They should discuss what is highlighted with a coaching partner and then add notes to identify strengths and weaknesses.
  16. Collaborative Marking – Demonstrate careful marking and ask students to mark their own writing along with you. If writing an exam response, explain that you’ve included a quotation and ask students to tick or note down if they haven’t included this.
  17. E-mail Marking – Ask students to submit their work to you electronically (most likely to be A-level students) and mark their work by adding annotations and notes in ‘track changes’ mode – this can be e-mailed straight back.
  18. Criteria Marking – Especially useful for A-level students. Create a sheet with exam criteria and highlight where they have met it. This is followed up well be a conversation on where students haven’t quite got it or brief annotations explaining where they could have put something extra in.
  19. Number Errors – Write summative numbers of errors but don’t mark where they are e.g. five spellings, six vocabulary and 3 apostrophes. Students have to go back through their work and find the errors as well as correct them sing their purple pen.
  20. Colleague Marking – Should we always mark our books alone? Perhaps marking with another colleague and applying one of the above methods (or even summative comments) might help us to be more rigorous. Swapping a sample to mark or marking them alongside could be a really good exercise in seeing how our students compare to other classes.

Student Feedback – Reflective Activities

Peer assessment is as much about reading and reflecting on other students’ work as it is about a student’s own writing. High quality peer assessment needs to be structured, modelled and practised to be good – Self and peer assessment are not about ‘saving time’ on marking but should be a central part of our teaching and help students to learn.

  1. Peer Assessment Carousel – Students pass on their books and focus on one thing e.g. what’s the vocabulary like? and write a comment. The books are then passed on again and the focus shifts. As well as focused targets, students read several pieces of work.
  2. Paired Coaching – Students are paired up (perhaps according to ability) and discuss each other’s work for three minutes each. During each ‘coaching’ session students make notes on their work in purple pen. This will need to be modelled for students to ensure they understand what really good coaching looks like. It’s amazing how well they do this.
  3. Class Live Marking – Give students a copy of exam criteria and mark a piece of writing as a class using an example answer on the board (ideally a photographed student response). Model ticking and setting targets from the criteria. Students should then repeat the process on their own work or someone else’s.
  4. Detailed Summative Comments – Show students a model of a really good summative comment with strengths picked out and a thoughtful, specific target outlined as well. Students then complete this for someone else’s work. It’s as much about them really engaging with someone else’s writing as producing their own.
  5. Success Criteria Annotation – Having negotiated some success criteria as a class, students should annotate where they have met it in their own writing using a different coloured pen. They can also set their own targets based on what they haven’t achieved.
  6. Structured Proof Reading – Negotiate some basics that all students should be able to do (make challenge is high enough – think about KS2 standards) and create ‘proof reading’ bookmarks. Students should work through these before handing anything in and students should become more aware of conscious crafting by thinking about what they can definitely do.
  7. Focus Grids – Create a grid with three or four key focuses and ask students to assess some else’s work showing how they have done within each area. This could be divided into WWW (what went well) and EBI (even better if…) to give students a clear structure for their comments.
  8. Gallery Critique – Lay work out on tables or stick it to walls and give students time to walk around reading and adding comments to work. They could spot minor errors or add ideas for improvements as well as positive comments. Model what you want students to do by actively writing on work as well.
  9. STAR redrafting – Give students a table with four columns – substitute, take out, add, rearrange and ask them to self or peer assess work thinking about these four key redrafting skills. Put some suggestions under each heading e.g. improve a word, change a sentence start etc. This can be a really powerful tool for getting students to instantly improve their work and internalise the process of redrafting. Changes can be made in a different coloured pen.
  10. Crystal Ball – When approaching a task discuss the ‘pitfalls’ and list them e.g. in analysis connotations might be superficial. In peer assessment focus on looking for and improving these with purple pen. Another way to approach this is to ask students to identify them and keep them hidden. They can then look for these mistakes in someone else’s work.
  11. Error Grid – Give students a list of potential errors and ask them to work through each one giving them a RAG rating. It gives you a crude assessment of the work but also allows them to set targets. Very helpful for writing tasks or an early assessment of a skill where the key elements are still becoming embedded.
  12. ROW work – (Reflect on Work – often caller DIRT time) Identify a section of work with a specific target for improvement and ask students to write it again. This can be assessed by students annotating where they have met their target so they are clear on how they have improved their writing.
  13. Literature Questioning – Model reading a piece of literature analysis and adding some questions to the margin e.g. Does Lady Macbeth begin the play like this? And ask students to read each other’s essays and do the same. You can set a minimum number of questions to encourage real engagement.
  14. Wiggly lines – Ask students to colour code some else’s work for weak and strong parts. Underline with a straight line strong parts and a wiggly line weak parts. Ask students to then redraft weaker areas.
  15. Discussion Stems – Use discussion stems (displayed on the board or as cards) to have a conversation about writing or reading. This depersonalises the process and structures the conversation e.g.. what is the least successful paragraph? Where could you have added more detail? etc. Students can make notes on their writing using a different coloured pen to note down ideas.

If anyone has any more brilliant strategies that have really worked or have had some experience using any of these, please do add them to the comment below.

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