Comment-only marking: Improving feedback and enhancing motivation among pupils

One of the underpinning arguments for comment-only marking is that where work is graded, many pupils do not pay attention to qualitative feedback in improving their work, but instead rely on the attained grades (Butler, 1988). It is also suggested that lower-attaining pupils make better progress in the absence of grades, since grading tends to be demotivating for them. Some examples of teachers' comments on pupils' science work are highlighted by Black, Harrison and Lee (2003, p. 45), such as:

Example 1. James, you have provided clear diagrams and recognised which chemicals are 'elements' and which are 'compounds'. Can you give a general explanation of the difference between elements and compounds?

Example 2. Richard, clear method, result table, and graph, but what does this tell you about the relationship?

You could share the above two examples with a beginning teacher you work with and ask them to make positive comments about what has been achieved by James and Richard and give feedback that guides what the pupil needs to do next (Wiliam, 2008). Before reading further, Task 12.7 looks at supporting a beginning teacher with comment-only marking.

Task 12.7 Developing comment-only marking

This task is adapted from one originally taught as part of the science PGCE programme at King’s College London. Complete the following steps during weekly mentoring meetings:

Step 1. Support a beginning teacher in planning and teaching a lesson with clear learning outcomes, which includes a task in which pupils have the opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of the learning outcomes. For example, in a lesson on photosynthesis (associated with the topic: 'photosynthesis as the key process for food production and therefore biomass for life, the process of photosynthesis', and 'factors affecting the rate of photosynthesis' (Df E, 2013, p. 9)) with pupils in the 14-16 age range, learning outcomes are:

  • • To write the word eguation showing the process of photosynthesis
  • • To explain how photosynthesis leads to growth
  • • To recognise the limiting factors in photosynthesis.

To accomplish these learning outcomes, pupils completed a piece of extended writing.

Step 2. Ask the beginning teacher to mark pupils' work and provide some written feedback on their extended writing on photosynthesis.

Step 3. Looking at the written feedback the beginning teacher has provided, you could consider the following questions by imagining yourself as a 15-year-old pupil, and discuss:

  • • How does the feedback make you feel?
  • • Does it help you see if you are on the right track?
  • • Does the feedback point out the work's limitations and encourage you to do something about it?
  • • Does it tell you how to improve the work?

Step 4. Now discuss the positive outcomes of planning, marking and providing feedback based on pupils' learning with the beginning teacher.

Self- and peer-assessment to support learning

As a mentor myself in various capacities, I have noticed that, during first attempts to include self- and peer-assessment, beginning teachers often involve pupils in marking their own or one another's work against a list of accepted answers. This is a good starting point, but the deeper point of self- and peer-assessment is to raise pupils’ awareness of where they are in their learning; of what they can do to improve; and of the criteria for high quality work (Black and Harrison, 2001). So how can self- and peer-assessment be taken further? An example strategy for self-assessment is the use of traffic-lights against the planned learning outcomes. You can advise a beginning teacher to use this strategy as it can benefit pupils to think independently about what they have learned or not learned, which may act as a first step for them in becoming a self-regulated learner (Quigley, Muijs and Stringer, 2018). For example, you could guide the beginning teacher to teach a lesson on 'acids and alkalis’ (linked to the unit of work 'chemical reactions' and particularly, 'the pH scale for measuring acidity/alkalinity; and indicators' (DfE, 2013, p. 8) for 12-year-old pupils, where pupils should be able to state that:

  • • Acids have a pH value less than 7
  • • Neutral solutions have a pH value of 7
  • • Alkalis have a pH value greater than 7
  • • Red litmus paper turns blue in alkaline solutions
  • • Soap solution is an everyday example of an alkali
  • • Lemon juice is an everyday example of an acid.

The beginning teacher then needs to facilitate pupils to use the traffic lights for each of the above learning outcomes - where green indicates good understanding, amber indicates partial understanding and red indicates little understanding. Items highlighted in red by pupils are the basis of further work, which may take different forms. You therefore need to support the beginning teacher to accommodate/change their planning and teaching for future lessons. For example, they might allow pupils to revise independently, or facilitate pupils to teach one another.

Next, to support a beginning teacher to include peer-assessment in their planning, requires you first to discuss the benefits of peer-assessment outlined by Black and Harrison (2001) with them, highlighting the fact that pupils may be more likely to pay attention to one another's feedback than to that of the teacher. You can then ask them to develop or re-use some pupil-friendly criteria for tasks, linked to planned learning outcomes. Next, you can encourage them to facilitate comment-only marking among pupils on one another’s work, using, for example, the 'two stars and a wish’ technique (Wiliam, 2008, p. 13). You may need to explain to the beginning teacher that this technique requires them to encourage pupils to write two positive comments on their peer's work and to identify one area for development. You can then support the beginning teacher to summarise the peer-assessed comments into two to three next steps for their next lessons and encourage them to plan the upcoming lesson(s) accordingly.

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