Assessment – it’s all in our heads


Image: @jasonramasami

I have read David Didau’s two recent posts on assessment – here and here – with interest. David is rightly sceptical about the efficacy of assessment rubrics and has summarised the problem succinctly: “We need always to remember that any system of assessment is an attempt to map a mystery with a metaphor.” In other words, as student learning is invisible and opaque and written work is only a proxy for learning, we must be careful about the inferences we draw so that we avoid over-simplified judgements.

This has got me reflecting on how I have assessed students in my English lessons over the last few years. What follows is not advice, just a description of the developments I have been through. About three years into teaching, I stopped using descriptors almost entirely, especially with my key stage 3 classes. I would pay lip service to APP and the like, but in reality I would read the child’s work and award a grade based on gut instinct. Although I kept my little secret to myself, this never became an issue: in standardisation meetings my marking was no more or no less accurate than anybody else’s. It is easy to put work in rank order and assign a grade; it is much harder to explain why. These days, when I want to communicate or learn what quality work looks like, I always seek out examples and models to share or adapt for teaching.

My theory is that the mental models we develop as teachers – of a) what progress and standards look like in our subjects, and b) where individual students are in relation to these – are of far more importance than lists of crude, meaningless assessment sentences. Consider for a moment the sheer complexity involved in assessing a page of student writing. Any fair and accurate assessment must consider a broad range of aspects, including grammar knowledge/application, topic knowledge, understanding of textual conventions, writing habits, level of effort exerted,  working conditions (were they rushing to finish or carefully redrafting?), originality (did they only parrot what they had heard in class or did they make it their own?), etc. In other words, work is the product of many factors, only some of which are visible to the teacher.

Secondly, the accuracy of assessment should play second fiddle to what we should be attending to, which, to borrow John Hattie’s metaphor, is helping students to become ‘unstuck’ – i.e. the way that we we respond to work so a student learns more and learns better as a result. Many social and cognitive factors play a part in this and, surely, these decisions are where teacher expertise really lies.

Below is a paragraph written last week by one of my Y8 students. The class were writing from Lady Macbeth’s perspective:

LM piece

My assessment of this paragraph is far stronger when I leave rubrics and descriptors to one side. Immediately, I can see a few areas she needs to work on, such as:

1. The paragraphing of direct speech.

2. The unfortunate splice comma habit she has adopted (more noticeable in earlier paragraphs).

3. The unsophisticated syntax – e.g. ‘we both were in our night clothes’.

4. The ambition of vocabulary choice.

5. The depth of insight into Lady Macbeth’s thoughts/feelings.

However, I also know this paragraph was rather rushed; she was writing very quickly in timed conditions and this was the last paragraph. It would be unwise, therefore, to draw too many conclusions about her knowledge and skill levels from this paragraph alone. It would also be easy, for instance, to read this piece and infer that she cannot spell ‘successful’ … but perhaps it was just a one-off slip-up? (She added in the extra ‘s’ after I had circled the mistake.) If I tried to map her against an assessment grid, it would only lead to abstract and unhelpful targets based on the faulty assumption that all children become successful writers by following the same path.

Ultimately, lists and grids of nebulous assessment criteria are a smokescreen, unnecessary distractions that infantilize and over-simplify the assessment process. If I could have my way, I would ditch almost all summative assessment and throw everything into improving my expertise in delivering formative assessment. So that we could pool this expertise, subject departments would regularly meet to share and discuss the work of those tough students’ for whom progress and learning seem intractable.

Like student learning, teacher assessment skill is largely invisible. We need to find more opportunities to make this genuinely tangible.

Related post:

726 ways to achieve good exam results (or why the solution should be smaller than the problem)

Feedback: let’s build it in, not add it on

Attachment-1Image: @jasonramasami

The quantity of feedback our students need after completing a task is largely dictated by the quality of teaching they have received before and during this task. I would argue that much of the best and most useful feedback our students receive happens as they are working, not necessarily after they have finished working.

Let me explain. Last week, I was off sick for three days in a row, the longest illness I have had in nine years of teaching. (Don’t ask – it wasn’t pleasant!) It meant that my year 11 students had to plan and write a full piece of iGCSE English language coursework without my help or guidance. As a result, their first drafts were patchy to say the least, littered with very avoidable errors. As I teach just short of sixty year 11s in two ‘middle-sets’, the marking has been a gargantuan task, one I have still yet to complete. Without me to steer them, many students went way off-track.

This episode has got me thinking about feedback and its role as an in-built part of teaching. For me, feedback is an ingrained element of adaptive, reflective practice, often indistinguishable from other elements of instruction such as explanation and questioning. Too often feedback is solely equated with marking and the associated reams of red pen on paper and weekends slaving at the kitchen table. Marking, it must not be forgotten, is only an instrument of feedback, not the process itself.

Feedback – both from and to the students – informs almost every decision teachers make, whether we are planning or delivering lessons. It influences many pivotal moments:

1) During initial planning. Once a topic has been taught a few times, we become aware of the pitfalls associated with it. Our initial instruction should improve and, as a result, pre-empt much of the obvious feedback we will be required to give.

2) At an individual level as students are working.
There are countless ways to intervene with an individual – from sitting with them for a few minutes to tapping a spelling error on their work as you glide past without saying a word.

3) At a whole-class level. By peering over shoulders at work or listening to verbal responses during discussion we can quickly collect data. With this to work on, we may need to stop the lesson to re-explain, model again, show an exemplar, scrap the task completely or take any number of similar actions. Or, of course, we might decide to take no action at all.

4) In between lessons. A quick sample of work from the previous lesson usually gives some indication as to whether we should circle back over previous content in our next lesson. Even just a clear-sighted reflection on the previous lesson can be enough: What did they grasp? What did they struggle with? What should they not forget?

Last week, my year 11 classes missed out on the constant reframing and adaption that forms the nuts-and-bolts of my teaching. To offset this shortfall, lots of written feedback was required.

There is a persuasive school of thought that argues that teachers should give students lots of room to make mistakes so that feedback becomes meaningful. It is no use feeding back on something that has not challenged them beyond what they already know or can do. This, however, must be offset against the concern that mistakes can become embedded without quick remedying. Take the student who misunderstands an essay question from the word go. A quick word from his teacher as he writes his introduction would steer him on the right course. To let him languish under this misconception for the remainder of the essay might well be counterproductive.

A balance needs to be struck to ensure a high level of ‘correctness’ without the unintentional creation of a dependency culture. Barak Rosenshine (2010, 2012), who has summarised over 40 years of research into ten ‘principles for instruction’, outlines as his seventh principle the importance of a ‘high success rate’ in the classroom. In other words, successful classrooms are those in which students become used to getting things right. It is hard to imagine how this could happen without skilful and regular feedback.

I am particularly uncomfortable about the way that the research into the effectiveness of feedback has been used in some schools as the rationale for increasing expectations of marking quantity. Yes, this week, my students have required more written feedback than usual; at other times, however, these classes have only needed a lighter touch. I think quantity of written feedback should be guided by need and nothing else.

I am currently working on a number of strategies to speed up feedback and bring it into the classroom and out of my living room. These include marking with symbols, live marking/editing and gallery critique as well as staple verbal feedback.

Imagine if a school were to make two daring policy decisions.

1) We aim to ensure that the vast majority of marking and feedback will take place during lessons..
2) We aim to ensure that all students get the highest quality feedback at all times.

Are the two mutually exclusive? I am becoming more and more convinced that a nuanced understanding of how to give high-quality feedback is more essential than the quantity and format of that feedback. And what better way to engage teachers in educational research and pedagogy than by offering them a scenario that could potentially decrease workload and improve practice in equal measure?

Feedback. Let’s build it in, not add it on.

Related posts:

What if we didn’t mark any books?

Stategic marking for the DIRTy-minded teacher


Beyond PEE: reuniting reading and writing


Image: @jasonramasami

As we know, levels have been consigned to the land of assessment-past. Dragging behind them, an equally rotting receptacle of wasted human endeavour, lopes their hateful, dunderheaded side-kick APP.

One of my greatest complaints about the use of the level descriptors in English has been the way that ‘reading skills’ have been defined.  It is not just the infuriating nebulousness of these descriptors that has stunted KS3 English for so long; it is also the way reading and writing have been torn asunder as if they are two separate unrelated entities. Under the old system, if a student wrote a three page analytical essay on a Shakespeare play, I would assess them only on their ‘reading skills’ and not how they crafted the language of the essay. This led to the daft scenario of weeks and weeks spent teaching a text and pulling it apart, and scant seconds on how to write analytically. Worse still, was the tasteless PEE formula I would promote. At best it was a clunky, reductive way to teach students how to find a quotation and explain it. Hardly challenging.

With the chance to move beyond levels, it is time for us to reassert the importance of writing in an academic, formal style. In English, our students should aspire to the tentative voice of the literary critic and nothing less. The first port of call, then, should be to write assessment criteria that marry reading analysis with analytical writing skill.

It is important to remember that many students do not have access to this quite niche academic register outside school. I teach in a very comprehensive school; I teach a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds. Even the middle-class students in my neck of the woods, a fairly large town on the south coast with no university, seem to have little exposure to this genre in their family lives. (As far as I know, I have only once taught a student at GCSE whose parent has an undergraduate qualification in English. She got an A* in English literature.) My point is that all students of all abilities benefit from being explicitly taught this style because otherwise they will not only be unable to use it, but will also be pretty unaware that such a genre of writing exists in the first place!

I have made it my mission to do so this year. I teach it through lots of modelling and scaffolding, both verbal and written, and the sustained and regular use of this resource I have shared before:


Over the year, in every year group, at every ability level, I have seen genuine improvement. Not just in the how of the written style, but crucially in the what of the ideas the students generate. The great thing is that the resource itself is becoming increasingly redundant the more students have assimilated the style. It seems that inducting the students in the written genre not only makes them better academic writers, but better academic readers too. The language of the genre seems to go hand-in-hand with the ideas of the genre, each sustaining the other. David Didau’s new book, The Secret of Literacy (brilliant, by the way), has really helped to extend my understanding of this way of thinking.

Next year, I’m hoping to raise the bar again. What follows below is a list of analytical sentence structures we are going to be working with. I will interleave them through the curriculum so that they can be re-applied in a variety of contexts. Naturally, students will not just employ these sentences in their work, they will generate their own sentences too; I am not promoting a ‘write by numbers approach’. Those below, however, will form the bedrock of the tone I am hoping that my students will eventually adopt when writing about literature.

They are magpied from a variety of places. Feel free to use them if you like. However, please remember that they are domain-specific and not really applicable to any other subject. You might need to discover your own!

1. Reader response

The reader is caught between…

The reader is caught between empathy for Lennie and disgust at the cruel world he lives in.

2. Peeling away the layers of characterisation

On the exterior____________, yet on the interior we can infer__________.

On the exterior, Shylock appears desperate for revenge against the Christians who have wronged him, yet on the interior we can infer that he is he feels a deep sense of injustice for the wrongs he has suffered.

3. Character motives

________is motivated not only by___________________ but also by _____________________________.

Macbeth is motivated not only by his ambition to become king, but also by his desire to please Lady Macbeth.

4. Character development

By the close of the play/poem/novel the once _____________ has developed into_______________________ .

By the close of the poem, the once fearsome terrorist has developed into a polite and humble child who is willing to remove his shoes.

5. Reader positioning

(The writer) positions the reader/audience in favour of /against _____ by __________________________________________ .

Priestley positions the audience against Mr Birling by revealing his buffoonery in the early scenes.

6. First impressions

Our first impressions of ___________________________________ . (x3)

Our first impressions of the Birling family are that they are rich, arrogant and ‘pleased with themselves’.

7. Weighing up the importance

Even though/although ________________________________, ________________________________________.

Even though Curley’s Wife behaves at times like a cruel temptress, by the end of the novel we realise that she is a victim of a harsh, misogynist world.

8. Deepening analysis

At first glance ________________________________; however, on closer inspection ______________________________.

At first glance the family appear to be respectable members of society; however, on closer inspection, we can already sense the rift between father and son.

9. Identifying a common thread

Throughout the novel/poem/play ______________________________________________________________.

Throughout the poem, the poet explores the pain of unrequited love in a variety of ways.

10. Identifying the main thing

The most important word/sentence/idea/chapter/moment is _________________ because ________________________.

The most important word from this line is ‘top’ because it emphasises the superiority of the bird.

11. Close language analysis

Here, _________employs the word/phrase ‘__________’ to suggest/imply/reinforce ____________________________.

Here, the Inspector employs the phrase ‘millions and millions’ to reinforce the idea that Eva Smith represents many other working-class, Edwardian girls.

12. Exemplifying an idea through a character/setting/event

__________ reveals her/his belief in _____through her/his description of______________________________________.

Stevie Smith reveals her belief in the cyclical nature of war through her description of the ‘ebbing tide of battle’.

13. Contrasting alternative viewpoints

Some readers might propose that__________________; other readers, however, might argue________________________.

Some readers might propose that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock was cruel and unfair; other readers, however, might argue that Shakespeare was simply reflecting the views of the society he lived in.

14. Noting  subtleties

Here, the writer cleverly________________________________________________________.

Here, Ted Hughes cleverly employs the gruesome image of a dying hare to remind the reader once again of the way war targets the innocent.

15. Proposing a tentative idea

Perhaps, (writer’s name) was hinting that ______________________________________________________.

Perhaps Steinbeck was hinting that human beings are no different from the rest of the animal kingdom.

16. Contrast

Although both _______________________________________, they ______________________________.

Although both writers explore the idea of love, they express their ideas in very different ways.

17. Comparison

Both ______________ and ______________share ____________________________________________________.

Both Beatrice and Shylock share feelings of anger and frustration.


There are countless other sentence structures we could work with too. I think that less is more when it comes to this kind of thing. If we throw too much at them, they will catch less than we hope. Hence why these need to be introduced slowly, carefully and in context. Regular repetition too will be vital to their success.

Related posts:

The Everest writing scaffold

Again and again and again: the unheralded beauty of repetition

Adventures with gallery critique


In last weekend’s post, I argued that there might be more efficient and meaningful ways of providing feedback than standard book-marking. As such, I have been experimenting with ‘gallery critique’, an idea gleaned from Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence and David Didau’s excellent post on the strategy.

In truth, I have always been dubious of the claims made of peer-assessment, especially in essentially qualitative subjects such as English. However well – or badly – I train students to critique one-another, two nagging doubts have never ceased to plague me. First, a student is always always dependent on the ability and commitment of the person they are paired with – some children will receive poorer feedback than others. Second, students naturally place more trust in teacher-feedback than peer-feedback – and why shouldn’t they? My hunch has always been that the process of both reading each other’s work and getting down-and-dirty with success criteria is more useful than the feedback received from the process.

Gallery critique, however, is a much more seductive option because students receive feedback from a range of others. Once over, the useful feedback ‘wheat’ can be separated from the useless feedback ‘chaff’.

I am aware that many bloggers have written coherently about how they have used the strategy, but I thought I would share how I have been doing it as my early trials have been remarkably fruitful. This week I have tried the following structure with a top-set Y11 class on a Monday morning and a mixed-ability Y9 set on Tuesday afternoon.

Admittedly, I am a control freak in the classroom and mine is a very iron-fisted version…

1. In recent lessons, both classes had produced extended writing pieces: the Y9s a persuasive speech, the Y11s an answer to AQA English Language question 6. Before writing the pieces, I gave them a gentle heads-up that their work would be included in a critique. There was a noticeable sense of care in the products they were producing (see my post on taking pride in written work).

2. The students laid their work out at their tables. (My classroom is divided into six tables of four to six students.) The Y11s blu-tacked their work, the Y9s left open their books. A pile of post-its was made available.

3. Before we began, we talked through Berger’s mantra: kind, helpful, specific. I decided that I was going to give them sentence stems to help so that I could help guide their thinking. Having to think ‘what to say’ when trying to process what you have read, as well as keeping the success criteria in mind, is quite a challenge to the young working-memory. (Hence the stems.)

Screenshot 2014-03-27 21.19.30

4. I took an exemplar paragraph from one student’s work, photographed it and modelled how to give feedback according to Berger’s mantra. We discussed why this kind of well-written, detailed feedback might be more subtle and successful than listing success criteria under the headings ‘what went well’ and ‘even better if’. The Y9 one – which needs a bit of work! – is below.

Screenshot 2014-03-27 21.21.03

5. We recapped the success criteria and I ensured that these were printed out on each desk

6. I insisted on silence for the gallery critique itself. Both classes were extremely compliant and engaged in reading each other’s work – without a peep, in fact. They spent five minutes at each table, reading just one piece of work and writing their feedback on post-its. At the end of the session, each student had spent time reading five pieces.

7. The final task was to return back to their own work, to read the feedback and then filter it down to the most useful (which they did with a highlighter).

So how successful was it?

• Students received more feedback than I could ever give them through marking – and in more detail too.

• Students seemed intrinsically motivated in both classes. They clearly enjoyed it, even those who were reticent to start with. I had no complaints, even from the very weak handful in my Y9 group.

• In the best cases students gave very specific feedback – have a look below. In the worst cases it seemed too general – ‘sort out your spelling’ or ‘improve vocabulary’ were stock phrases.


• My classes clearly need more training in the language of critique. Modelling and sentence scaffolds helped direct thought, but many will need more practice if they are to make incisive comments.

• The most useful feedback was given by more-able students, yet the flip-side was the feedback they received themselves was less useful. In a mixed-ability class, I wonder if one of the teacher’s roles might be to ensure that they stick a few post-its themselves on the very best work so as to ensure that everyone receives something useful.

• The big question: does it match up to teacher feedback? Not quite at this stage, but it has the potential to. In my classroom, training students to trust one another’s judgements as much as a teacher’s will be part of the solution. How to identify good and bad feedback is another.

• The structure I am using is probably not as organic as the ‘art gallery’ style I imagine is used elsewhere; it is, however, very useful for creating the right conditions for reading and critiquing extended writing. I am quite excited about how this could be developed: as students carousel from table to table, I could ask them to hone in on certain areas of whple-class weakness.  This time I want you to look at how they have used sentence structures. This time concentrate on the effectiveness of endings…

I am excited about ways we might successfully bring feedback on extended writing more meaningfully into the classroom. Gallery critique, and the countless variations it offers, provides an intiguing option. Any strategy that might enhance student learning and simultaneously save me time is a strategy worth pursuing.

What if we didn’t mark any books?


Okay, so here goes. It’ll take some courage for me to utter the words – please stick with me. Perhaps my career is on the line for this one. What the heck. Are you ready for it?

What if I didn’t mark any books?

There, I said it.

What if we eventually realise that marking is inefficient and we came up with an alternative?

I have read so many blogs recently – and written one myself – about the importance of marking. Some of these pieces, written with the best of intentions, have even suggested that teachers on a full timetable – after they have finished planning for tomorrow, sitting in meetings, phoning a few parents and filling in data-entry sheets – mark every single book after every single lesson. Coupled with this is the evidence from everywhere you care to glance of the vital role of feedback: to take two examples there’s the Education Endowment Foundation, and, of course, Hattie’s effect sizes.

Please hear me out. This is not an iconoclastic argument against feedback, far from it. This is just an alternative suggestion – discard it if you will. There are three key reasons behind my proposal:

1. Marking is hugely time-consuming. I would say I spend at least eight hours a week on average marking even though I have developed one or two nifty tricks to speed it up. That’s a full day’s work for most professionals. Now, what if I was to redirect that energy into detailed planning? The kind of planning based on research and deep reflection with the sole aim of challenging and moving on students? I am not suggesting that we should be putting our feet up by 3.30, I am suggesting that by reinvesting the time spent marking into planning the kind of lessons, and sequences of lessons, that will genuinely move our students forward we might improve outcomes for young people.

2. Marking tends to happen away from the students, and too few students despite our best efforts seem to make great progress because of it. I can recall few, if any, ocassions when a student has made a giant leap forward as a result of my marking alone. Yes, a few technical errors and misconceptions are resolved, but how much else? The process can feel depersonalised and perfunctory – is it the most effective means of providing feedback on written work?

3. If we are going to work until 68, which is a genuine possibility, we need to find more manageable solutions to avoid our workload consigning us to an early grave.

Still with me? Okay, so the big question now is what do we do about feedback, both of the formative and summative variety, seeing as it has a crucial role in learning? The answer is not to ignore it, but to bring it to the forefront of everything we do in the classroom.

In my utopian, post-marking English classroom the following might happen:

  • The first stage of planning would be the ‘five-minute flick’. I would select a cross-section of books to check through to assess the learning from the previous lesson. Nothing would be written in them, not even a stray red tick. One or two, however, would be photographed.
  • Most lessons would begin with showing example student work from the last lesson. Together we would model the editing process, discuss common misconceptions. Students would be encouraged to edit their own work and ask any pressing questions.
  • Most lessons would involve a period of quiet writing practice and once a fortnight they would have a lesson of private reading. During these times I would see a handful of students individually to discuss the writing they have produced over the previous fortnight. We would agree on targets and ways forward; we would both record this. Over the fortnight, each student would get one-to-one time with the teacher to assess how far they have got and where they should aim next.
  • In my experience peer assessment is fraught with problems – mainly because, however well you train the class to do it proficiently, each student is at the mercy of the accuracy and commitment of the student plonked next to her. Therefore, ‘gallery critique’, where students circulate and critique many pieces of work, would become a regular occurrence. See my post on the strategy here. Students would become trained at assessing one another and as teachers we would have a huge incentive to do it well – we wouldn’t have to do it ourselves.
  • Summative assessment would take place as a holistic grade – or whatever a alternative has been decided upon in the wake of KS3 levels – based on the term’s work. The final teacher-student discussion of the term would be used for this. A decision would be made with the student present, thus ensuring the student is fully involved with the reasons behind the grading.

I have a number of other ideas but I want to keep this post as a short thinkpiece. Our education system worships at the altar of marking, but have we stopped to think about the side effects of its excessive practice? Yes, there would be questions about accountability – human nature means that some teachers might use the extra freedom as an excuse to do very little. Organisation might also be quite tricky at times.

I think there are some serious unanswered questions about the costs of marking. Maybe my proposal is pie-in-the-sky thinking but surely this is an area that could do with some serious thought and research.

Let me know what you think below.

Related posts:

Time-management in education: a ‘win-win’ solution

Why is ‘challenge’ such a challenge?

Strategic marking for the DIRTy-minded teacher


This academic year has heralded a profound change in my approach to assessment. I now mark with feedback strategies in mind. Some classic blog posts have influenced my thinking: Tom Sherringtons, David Didaus and Mary Myatts.

It is not easy to mark and plan simultaneously. If our students are to both respond thoughtfully and ‘close the gap’, our assessment must be detailed, purposeful and strategic. The structure and organisation of the improvement lessons and tasks has to be at the forefront of our minds at the point of marking. Without rigourous planning, these improvement lessons, which are a test of our flexible thinking, can become and I am speaking from experience here a complete shambles. Remember this too: DIRT (directed improvement and reflection time) is dedicated to learning that students have already struggled with. This inevitably has implications on how smoothly the lesson will run.

 Try asking these questions:

·         Which is most suitable – a redraft of the original task or a new approach to the learning?

·         How much curriculum time do I realistically have available and how can this be best used?

·         How will I model and scaffold the learning again (taking into account that we have identified weaknesses and not strengths)?

·         What will I do if the initial improvement task is unsuccessful?

Below are some strategies I am developing in my English lessons.

10 minutes of gritty editing. The first thing I always do – the ‘starter’ if you like – is that I get my students to respond to spelling, punctuation and grammar errors which I have circled and coded. I insist on complete silence (to avoid 25 helpless cries of ‘Sir’) and ensure that dictionaries, thesauruses, green pens so that I can easily identify their editing – and post-its are available. They must edit alone. If students want to ask a question – only one each – then it can be written on a post-it note and stuck on my desk. I also highlight any words I feel they could find a better alternative for and indicate with questions and symbols where they need to elaborate. My colleague, Kate Bloomfield, uses asterisks in the margins to indicate the number of errors per line this encourages students to seek and rectify the mistakes themselves.

gritty editing

Redrafting. If we just ask students to redraft, they will inevitably rewrite their original with better handwriting. A pointless waste of time. First we must model the editing process carefully. Some students may need help with concision. David Didau’s post this week – here – on encouraging his students to cut 20% of the content is a great strategy. Others struggle with elaboration. My colleague, Gav McCusker, asks his students to edit creative writing in layers – add a layer of similes, a layer of vivid verbs etc.

When can I find the time for redrafting? Time in our modern curriculum, unfortunately, does not allow for redrafting everything. Instead, we can quickly redraft at paragraph or even sentence level (see my post on the sentence escalator here for some ideas). Setting DIRT as homework has been incredibly successful I have found, especially if I mark the first draft only for improvement, withholding levels for the final draft produced at home. My less-able year 11 group use our fortnightly Friday, period 5 lesson to type up and improve a piece of work I have marked from the past two weeks. The line “the weekend does not start until you have improved” has become my refrain.

Creating new tasks focused on target areas. Allowing ourselves to become completely blinkered by the power of the redrafting process might be a mistake. If a students work is based on poorly conceived ideas, or simply does not cut the mustard, starting from scratch on a new or similar task creates a useful clean slate. New tasks show students that writing knowledge must be remembered and transferred to new contexts; they also enable us to manage the process in a  faster, sharply-focused way. After feeding back on a Y9 creative writing task written from the  perspective of a WW2 soldier, I asked students to write a descriptive paragraph in response to a wartime photograph using the following improvement targets (I had written the ‘t-numbers’ in their books):

 DIRT targets

Modelling and scaffolding.  This is where DIRT gets hard. How do we model and scaffold improvement strategies with a mixed-ability class who may need signposting in a multitude of directions? How can we simultaneously  provide 30 students with the individual guidance needed to ‘close the gap’? You will notice from the above slide that I have found one way of solving this. The improvement task is linked to the targets as well as 10 italicised scaffolds.

Another strategy that I have mentioned in a previous post is DIRTy modelling. The teacher writes a paragraph or so with the whole gamut of improvement areas covered and shares it with the class – students identify how they can improve by seeing how the teacher has met their targets in the model.

Reflecting on what went well. If you double-tick excellent passages and sentences, students can reflect and write analytically about why you have ticked here. It is a great way not only of helping students to reflect on positives, but also of reinforcing  analytical writing techniques – the analysis, in this case, is of their own writing. Comparative writing techniques can be worked on through highlighting a good and not-so-good sentence and asking students to write a comparison of the two, explaining why one is more sophisticated or accurate than the other.

Drills. Certainly not fashionable, but probably very effective. Write out your spelling mistakes 5 times. Write out 5 sentences with a correctly used semi-colon. Write out 5 sentences beginning with an …ing verb etc.

Re-teaching. Why are we so frightened of repeating ourselves? Why not just go over all the learning once more, irrespective of who got it the first time round? The research that Hattie and Yates have surveyed convincingly argues that we should repeat learning, that students should over-learn. If we repeat something that some students already know, we are reinforcing and strengthening this learning, so that it is not forgotten. Cognitive science research demonstrates this, yet many of us are frightened that repetition means no learning. As long as this kind of feedback is speedy and focused, surely it has a place, particularly when we need to feed back quickly.

Flexible curricular. If we are serious about improvement, we must centralise the feed-forward process thanks to David Fawcett‘s post for introducing me to this term – in the curriculum, streamlining superfluous subject content where we can. Our ruthlessness will be to our students’ benefit. Not only should our short-term planning be directed by assessment, so should our long-term planning. The next unit of work we plan, and even next years curriculum, must be informed by our findings. Over-prescriptive curricular and schemes-of-work can be the enemy of learning.

Ultimately, the planning and management of improvement tasks is more challenging than it first appears. I am very much a novice. My hunch is that the more strategies we have at our fingertips, the more skilful we can become at ‘closing the gap’.

Related blog posts:

My post – Marking: minimum impact for maximum pleasure.

Harry Fletcher-Wood – Slovenly language and foolish thoughts: howcan I help my students get better at writing history essays?

Canons Broadside – DIRTy ToEs – Differentiation by Assessment

Shaun Allsion – Marking Matters

Mark Miller – Revision Before Redrafting

Belmont Teach – Fast Feedback

Marking: minimum effort for maximum pleasure


This is my eighth year as a secondary English teacher. I teach a full timetable of lessons and it would be a fair estimate to say that I spend, on average, an hour a day marking… or in other words over 8 full days an academic year bent over a never-ending pile of biro-scrawled offerings.

At the beginning of this year, I decided to take a step back.  What is time well spent and what, quite frankly, is a waste of time? Could I realistically cut down the marking hours, yet continue to have a positive impact on my students? Or even better: could I claw back precious time, yet have an even greater impact on student progress than I once did. Minimum effort for maximum pleasure, you might say.

With this in mind, I have devised a strategy of using symbols, rather than laboriously writing out repeated comments in the students’ books. Have a look at this slide:


I had been marking a class set of Y10 essays on John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novella Of Mice and Men. Instead of writing out comments slowly – and slowly it must be; my handwriting is pitifully awful – over and over again, I scribbled praise comments and targets on a piece of paper. In their books I used symbols in their place. If, for instance, a student had shown analysis of language at B-standard, I would write **%; if they also needed to improve the way they made links to the novel’s context, I would write T4. Each time another student required similar praise comments or targets, the symbol could be repeated. Stars for ‘good’, ‘very good’ and ‘excellent’; symbols for the criterion successfully hit. As new praise comments and targets became necessary, new symbols were produced and quickly added to the handwritten list. When the work was handed back, students copied them from the PowerPoint slide I had quickly produced. Simple.


What I love about this system is that praise and targets are not pre-ordained (as it would be with a generic target list worked out before I had started marking). The targets are instead my direct response to their work – and thus still individualised. It also means that:

  • Students have to read their comments as well as their grade. (There is a lot of research to suggest that students rarely read comments when coupled with a grade.)
  •  Lesson time is not wasted deciphering my handwriting – Sir, does this say ‘elephant’?
  • Praise is much more focused on assessment criteria than it once was.
  •   I win back in the region of one minute per student, or, let’s say, an hour a week.
  •  It can be used again – modifications necessary of course – next time round. It is also a useful tool for guiding future peer- and self-assessment.

So where next? There has been a lot of buzz on twitter lately about DIRT (Directed Improvement and Reflection Time). Too often in the past, I have assiduously set targets, yet left it at that. Right, kids, there’s your Of Mice and Men target – now we’re doing Shakespeare. Without time to act upon them, targets are left to rot… and rot they do.

The target symbols can really help with DIRT, as they can be linked to scaffolded tasks that support improvement:



This, however, is not without its pitfalls. As I have discovered, the DIRT tasks do not always miraculously lead to oceans of beautifully sustained progress. The student below was set T7 (see slide above):


The left hand piece was his original paragraph; the right hand his improved one. He has hit his target – improving his expression through better vocabulary choices – yet only superficially so.  The link between the quotation and the 1930s context is woolly to say the least in the second as well as the first paragraph. There is still not sufficient explanation as to why the phrase ‘one behind the other’ demonstrates that they were ‘very close friends’ or ‘had a strong companionship’. Something else was needed.

Yet, in other circumstances it worked well. This student was asked to write a completely new paragraph (on the right hand side) in response to part b of the question.



Her second attempt is a significant improvement on her first, if, albeit, a paragraph with a very different focus. On reflection, it seems to me that the first student was in fact completing a reflective task, rather than an improvement task. By asking him to rewrite  a failed paragraph, he was always going to be restricted by the limitations of his first attempt – trapped forever, you might say, in its clunky assumptions. The second student had more of a chance to improve because, quite simply, she had been given a task that genuinely gave her the freedom to do so.

My DIRT strategy from now on will be two tiered:

  • Students begin by reflecting on their original piece by correcting SPG errors, improving vocabulary and responding to any questions I have written in their books (writing these could also be streamlined with a symbols approach).
  • They will then complete a written task, free from the shackles of their original offering, with the aim of improving their work by focusing on one target I have set and one target they have chosen from the list.

And this is precisely what time-saving strategies are about. They release us from our – too often – self-imposed prison cells to allow us the thinking space to become truly reflective. Minimum effort really can lead to maximum pleasure; our students can only benefit as a result.