Low Cost, High Impact Feedback

Screenshot 2018-06-16 07.12.00When we changed our feedback policy a few years ago, we were quite pleased with it – we’d looked at all the evidence around what makes good feedback, and thought we’d come up with something sensible and fair.

We established several key principles of effective feedback for each department to contextualise, such as providing time for students to do something with the feedback, highlighting the importance of using feedback to inform planning and distinguishing between feedback and marking. There were no silly requirements for different pens or extensive written comments every couple of weeks.

And yet, I don’t think we went far enough.

On reflection we could have spelt out that we do not necessarily expect to see written feedback at all; that we have no centralised expectation as to what feedback looks like in a subject and that we do not stipulate how often feedback should occur at all. We could have done more to stress that policies should be set by departments and to say that quality assurance should only be made against these policies.

I also think we could have done more in providing our teachers with tools and/or exemplification of how to practically implement strategies for giving different kinds of feedback in an efficient manner. It is easy to forget that just because the principles are right and that the intent to alleviate burdensome workload is there that teachers will magically know how to adopt low cost, high impact feedback strategies.

It’s interesting, for instance, to see how whole class feedback has evolved as more and more teachers try it with their classes and understand how to make it better and more efficient. For what it’s worth, many of the examples of it I see being shared still have too many unnecessary and inefficient aspects, potentially undermining the purpose of saving teacher time in the first place!

Our policy is now just one page long and I think now makes it crystal clear that we expect subject leaders to balance the needs of our students with what is reasonable and sustainable. Departments are free to shape their own policies in a way that they think is best with the emphasis on Low Cost, High Impact.

Behind the school policy are also examples of what this might look like in practice. Live Marking, Book Sampling and Whole Class Feedback are not original but perhaps what is different is how we have tried to show how these strategies actually work in practice. Our Low Cost, High Impact guides are the result of trials in classes to work out the most efficient and sustainable approaches.

The important thing is for these or other strategies to become habitualising them into daily practice. Only then are can they really be considered to have High Impact at a Low Cost.

High Impact, Low Cost feedback strategies:

 

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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.

What does Growth Mindset mean to me?

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Today saw the launch of our school commitment to Growth Mindset, featuring a wonderful keynote speech from Matthew Syed followed by a selection of workshops run by some talented teachers based around the theme of continual improvement. I will blog about the day and our ongoing experience of developing Growth Mindset over the coming weeks and months.

The following is a transcript of my address to the staff at the beginning of the day, which explores what a Growth Mindset means to me.

This is a fantastic school. You are truly fantastic body of staff.

But each and every day at school all of us fail. I fail in every lesson that I teach. You fail in every lesson that you teach and every lesson that you support. We all fail.

If you doubt this, just take a look at a set of books after a lesson you have just taught, or ask students to recall the details from a lesson the previous week. As Dylan Wiliam says, ‘If you are not failing you are just not paying attention. Because we fail all the time.’

Teaching, it seems to me, will always be inevitably bound up in failure. Our job as teachers is to get better at recognising our failures and develop the ability to learn from them for the future.

I have failed a great deal in my teaching career. There are a myriad of things that I used to do in and believe in, but have subsequently rejected.

  • The belief that thesauruses are valid aids to learning in my subject.
  • The belief that we should teach books that appeal to the students.
  • The belief that English is a skills-based subject and should be taught accordingly.
  • The belief that skills generally can be developed in an abstract way outside of individual subject domains.
  • The belief that a carefully worded explanation will stick in a student’s mind.
  • The belief that there is no value in repeating something once it is mastered.
  • The belief that a correct answer in a lesson means that a concept or skill has been understood.
  • The belief that organising the curriculum into half term units building up to one single assessment is a good thing.
  • The belief that more of something always equates to better.

Yet, for all the frustration of repeatedly going down the wrong path, I embrace every one of my many failures. I embrace them because they have helped me to reach a better understanding of how students learn and how to try and make that learning stick. I am therefore of my use to my students.

Seeing failure as a necessary path to betterment is I think something that many of our students are not very good at. It is a notion that lies at the heart of Growth Mindset – the focus of our work here today and for the months and years to come.

Our students do not embrace failure. They wont take risks. And this manifests itself in many ways – giving up too easily, misbehaving as a form of distraction and playing it safe rather than taking a chance. It is a problem for our brightest and our weakest. Who has had the disheartening experience of seeing students’ heads on desks in exams when there is still plenty of time left?

Now, maybe we don’t provide enough opportunities for our students to get things wrong. There is an argument that with so much high stakes assessment in the education world today, students are simply not allowed to fail. There is an important discussion to be had here, but that is for another day.

So what is Growth Mindset?

In a few minutes our guest speaker, Matthew Syed, will explore in much greater detail and more eloquently than I can the idea of Growth Mindset – what it means and how we can begin to foster it amongst ourselves and our students.

For me, Growth Mindset is about recognising (or rather deeply absorbing) the fact that we will can all improve: that it our responsibility to get better and that we must encourage and model this mindset amongst our students.

For example, I would like to see our students get better at failing and using their failures and the subsequent feedback from them as a means of improving. I want them to see that there is always room for more improvement: for it to be normal to think that there is never any end point to personal development.

I would like to see our students be able to delay their gratification. To learn that the real reward of education lies at the end of a long journey of hard work and application.

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I would like to see our students battle against learned helplessness. To take responsibility for their lives and to make sure they are as accountable for their development as we are as their teachers.

I would like to see our students get better at conceptual thinking. To be able to talk about and solve problems when the answer is not immediately in front of them, and to see the connections between their different subject domains which is, for me, the sign of genuine, authentic learning.

I would like to see our students strive for excellence. For each and every task that they complete or piece of work that they submit to be their very best effort. For us and them to never settle for second rate.

These are some of the things that I think are embodied within the idea of Growth Mindset.

After Matthew’s Keynote address you will go to a series of workshops put together by a number of the many dedicated and inspirational teachers at our school.

Much of what is in these sessions is underpinned by cutting edge educational theory and research. You will hear some interesting ideas, some new perspectives and hopefully gain some practical approaches that you can apply to your own practice. All of these workshops feed into the idea of Growth Mindset in some way.

This afternoon you then will review the new school feedback policy, which is a document that attempts to articulate some important aspects of the Growth Mindset philosophy. It starts to take the abstract and make it real.

Let me be clear: today is not simply about sharing a bunch of ideas that I, or anyone else, think you should immediately implement in all your lessons starting this Wednesday.

There is no silver bullet.

And to try and absorb the intellectual underpinning of these sessions, or to put into practice all that you see today simply wouldn’t work. I know for a fact that all the workshop leaders have spent hours and hours honing their sessions in readiness for today, and I think they would all agree with me that what they are sharing is only the tip of the iceberg.

Everything that we do to enhance our teaching comes with an opportunity cost. We are all such busy people, so to do something new or something different means that something else has to be sacrificed. Today is an opportunity to step outside the maelstrom of everyday teaching and to reflect deeply on where we are as a school and where we would like to head.

The price is that we are out of our lessons, so I think this means we have a bit of a moral obligation to make this time really count. To make sure it makes a difference.

I guess what I am ultimately hoping you will all take from today is a sense of what is possible. To understand the potential that we all have as teachers, no matter how long in the tooth we are, or how many such INSET talks we have sat through in the past.

As Hattie says, ‘Know thy impact’. To which I would add, look to make it stronger.

Our school really is a fantastic school, but it could and can be even better. But only, if we know how to make it better and we are given the time and opportunity to make that happen.

Today is the first step in that process. I believe that this is just the start of something big.

I have had my say; the rest is over to you.