The impact of the pandemic on marking and feedback

Angharad Simpson, assistant head (teaching and learning) at Nottingham High School, encourages school leaders to reflect on the options now available for marking

Bags for life full of exercise books, dog-eared essays in manila wallets and hours spent writing painstaking comments on pupils’ work – might all these be vestiges of a bygone era?

One unexpected outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the way in which it has transformed marking and feedback for teachers and pupils. As we nudge, tentatively, ever closer to ‘normality’, school leaders and middle managers may wish to reflect on the options now available for marking, with which teachers and learners are increasingly familiar. Such reflection on feedback practices is crucial, given that feedback is regarded as having a very high impact on learning for a low cost (Education Endowment Foundation, 2018).

Electronic marking via the comment function and private message option on Google Classroom has revolutionised the giving of feedback in many schools. Teachers are delighted to no longer have to carry home several bags full of books each evening, as they can now access pupils’ work online, but beyond a welcome respite for the forearms, what are the other benefits of marking electronically?

Crucially, electronic marking via Google Classroom creates a 1:1 dialogue for improvement between learner and teacher in a way that traditional marking often did not. This is critical, for as Wiliam stresses, feedback is only successful if students use it to improve their performance (Wiliam, 2016).

Comment function

The teacher may highlight a sentence and use the comment function to pose a question to the student, such as, “What evidence from the text could you include to support this idea?” The student then duly replies to the comment with an addition and therefore improves the quality of their answer. Of course, students could have done this with a pen in their books, but the convenience and immediacy of feedback received electronically means that students are responding to feedback more often and at a higher level.

Furthermore, the private message function enables students to message their teachers whilst completing their homework, asking for clarification or making their teacher aware of knowledge gaps which are hindering their progress, such as, “I found the mole questions very tricky here Miss, can we go over this again please?”

In this way, it could be argued that electronic marking is joining up the learning which goes on in class and at home. In addition to the dialogic features available, the electronic classroom facilitates the sharing of support materials for students in ways that exercise books never could.

Sharing materials

Teachers can quickly and easily share additional scaffolding with students to support them in their learning at home, through YouTube tutorial links, Quizlet lists or PowerPoints and worksheets from last year which might be useful. In this way, students are also being supported to become increasingly independent in their working. Rather than giving up on a homework as being ‘too hard’, they can use the smorgasbord of materials provided by their teacher(s) to assist them in completing the work.

Eventually, they come to learn what sort of scaffolding materials are on that smorgasbord, so that by the time they reach the next phase of their education journey they may feel confident to find such materials for themselves.

Electronic marking also allows the teacher to get to know the personal strengths, weaknesses and working habits of every learner. Using electronic marking ‘live’, while students are working on documents in the lesson enables the teacher to see in real-time a pupil’s thought process and where exactly things are going awry.

Electronic submission tells no lies; a teacher can see exactly when and for how long a pupil worked on a piece of work and at what time it was submitted, so the student who seems to always hand work in online at 2am can be referred to the pastoral team for some support, and the one who has copied and pasted four paragraphs can be identified immediately.

For stretching and challenging the most able, the use of extension materials to engage pupils is longstanding. The use of electronic feedback makes this much easier to do, and therefore more likely to happen routinely amongst a busy staff body. Whereas pointing a student towards some wider reading or a relevant current affairs article with your red (or green?) pen in their exercise book is quite tricky, pasting a URL into the feedback box takes mere seconds.

Similarly, many electronic learning platforms such as Google Classroom allow teachers to ‘set’ work to one pupil in the class, several or all. This means that following a conjugation homework the particularly talented linguist can easily be set some slightly different questions on the preterit tense to challenge them on their irregulars, while the rest of the class goes back over the basics for consolidation.

Such differentiation was, of course, always possible, but the advent of electronic platforms for marking makes it considerably easier and therefore, more likely to take place routinely in schools. With increasingly personalised learning experiences on the agenda in many schools, such tools for differentiation have arguably come at a very timely moment.

Voice recording

The use of voice recording tools for the giving of feedback has also become popular over the past year. Platforms such as Mote and Vocaroo allow teachers to quickly and easily record themselves speaking as personalised audio feedback for pupils, and paste the URL of the recording onto the work for students to access.

Studies such as the UCL Verbal Feedback Project (2019) have demonstrated that verbal feedback is effective in increasing both engagement from students and improving attainment, and therefore may lead practitioners to question the perception that ‘written feedback is king’ (UCL Access and Widening Participation, 2019, p4).

Despite the recognised benefits of verbal feedback, some students and teachers have previously shown concern for students who may forget what was said, especially in the world of two-year linear examination courses, and thus the advent of the audio feedback tool may have strengthened the case for verbal feedback further.

Does the bell toll, therefore, for the humble exercise book? I suspect not, as its convenience, price point and reliability will render its services useful for many years yet to come. Where technological platforms are available, however, their flexibility and increasingly customisable nature in the field of marking and feedback makes them an obvious area for future exploration in schools.

A blended approach of learning with an online platform as an extension to the pencil case enables teachers and students to select the right tool for the job in any academic task, be that exercise book or Google Doc, a handwritten comment or audio feedback recording.

Flexibility and choice abound, and this, surely, is a positive thing.

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