Less is more: pitfalls to avoid when feeding back mocks

lessismore12-171010141840-thumbnail-4It’s that time of the year when GCSE and A Level students up and down the country are sitting mock assessments. Many of these will be dictated by the school calendar, and many students will sit more than one. Whilst there is not the space here to dissect the relative merits of mocks, one would hope schools are thinking carefully about their value and the impact on students and teachers.

However mocks are set, they have to be marked. Given this usually takes hours – particularly for those with multiple exam classes – and students spend hours answering them, teachers understandably want to make the effort count. Often, however, this desire to do the best for our students can lead us to make silly mistakes, to increase our workload and reduce the impact for our students.

The following are some of the pitfalls I try to avoid when feeding back to students. They are based on a combination of my own experiences in the classroom or things that I have seen in the schools where I have worked. I do not intend to rubbish anyone who does any of the following, as we all do things that if we slowed down and thought about we would probably wouldn’t do anymore.

  1. Don’t write detailed individual comments on students’ work

Ok, this may not appear to directly relate to feeding back, but it does affect it. If you go to the trouble of writing copious personalised comments, you inevitably want your students to read them. In my experience, the 2-3 minutes they spend reading your comments, is never worth the 4 or 5 hours you spent writing them. Do yourself a favour and collate misconceptions at class level and invest class time addressing those instead.

  1. Watch out for conveying undesirable messages

Always be mindful of the unintended consequences of the language you use, even when you are trying to motivate students. Comments like, ‘the examiner wants to see X’, or ‘you can pick up easy marks if you do Y’ are actually quite destructive. In the short term, you might come across as clued up on the specification, but in the long term you risk devaluing students’ hard work and contributing to the wider perception that schooling is only about passing exams.

  1. Avoid relying on self-assessment or peer assessment

This is not a criticism of self or peer assessment per se. I am referring to instances where it is used in place of teacher marking. If you need to use students to mark your papers then you probably have too much work and you should address that issue directly, rather than sweeping it under the carpet. Also, longer answers, exam mark schemes and rubrics are hard enough for experts to interpret, let alone children. Students who mark their own work will do it badly, won’t learn anything from the experience and you will get dodgy results.

  1. Going through every question on the paper

Laboriously trawling every question is tempting, but ultimately a waste of time. I totally understand that we want our students to understand exactly why they gained a mark here, or missed a mark there, but this kind of forensic approach pretty much contravenes every rule about attention, working memory and motivation. In other words, the learning process. You would never try and cram so much content into an ‘ordinary’ lesson, so why do so when feeding back?

  1. Wasting time on spontaneous explanations

Closely related to the above is when we try to tell students what they should have written instead. With the possible exception of simple questions where the answer is either one thing or another, this attempt to provide an explanation on the hoof is unlikely to ever work. If students didn’t get something when you explained it carefully the first time round, they are unlikely to achieve an epiphany in a cobbled together explanation you haven’t planned for. Better to plan for addressing common errors in a more systematic way.

  1. Avoid unnecessary and burdensome DIRT activities

Giving students little personalised activities to tackle when they get their papers back sounds a good idea. After all, we want students to be able to recognise where they went wrong and take steps to address their misunderstandings without always having to rely on us. The problem, however, is that to design these kinds of activities well enough so that they are meaningful takes time, which could be better served planning 2-3 high leverage tasks for the whole class or for groups of students. You also run the risk of creating more work for yourself and getting in to a never ending feedback loop you cannot close.

  1. Be careful interpreting at question level

The closer you get to the exam the more sense it makes to focus your time on the questions that students performed badly on, right? Well, yes and maybe no. Obviously, you will be guided by students’ performance on specific questions – identifying areas of weakness before it is too late is surely one of the points of a mock exam. The problem, however, is that sometimes question level analysis can lead you astray. It is not always the whole question that needs addressing, but rather a specific step in a process is missing or a concept has not been fully grasped. Students need to understand what specifically needs attention, not simply to do better next time on the 8 marker question!

So, what to do instead? I am trying to keep to the following three things:

  1. Keep a record of the class strengths and weaknesses
  2. Note down exemplar responses, for better or worse
  3. Use these notes and exemplars in the coming weeks – not all at once

Not terribly original, I know. But it is intended to keep me sane and maximise the impact of my efforts on my students’ learning. Hopefully, I will stick to these principles, though I know this is often easier said than done.

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