Every so often the issue of marking and feedback emerges and fractious debates kick off. Teachers with marking ingrained as a daily habit, can view it as essential; whereas, many teachers see it as extraneous to their core work and simply not worth the time and effort. 

So, if marking is murder, is it worth the effort? And is ‘marking or verbal feedback’ even the right question to be asking about feedback anyway? 

Last year, the EEF published a guidance report on ‘Teacher feedback to improve pupil learning’. A key tenet of the guidance was that there is a perennial see-saw of methods: 

“One can see this as a ‘feedback methods see-saw’ that has tipped back and forth between an emphasis on extensive written feedback and a focus on more verbal methods of feedback, which may take less time.”

Teacher Feedback to Improve Pupil Learning, Page 4

In the last week, I have read that written marking is an act of care for pupils and pretty much irreplaceable as a medium for responding to pupils’ writing. Conversely, many teachers have responded by restating the significant workload that can attend marking (the EEF guidance cites that KS3 teachers were spending over 6 hours a week on marking) and questioning its impact. 

Like the see-saw in the aforementioned analogy, the arguments over written feedback invariably don’t get us very far.

What does recent evidence reveal?

The best available evidence on feedback cited in the guidance report is inconclusive when it comes to the question of ‘marking or verbal feedback?’ Indeed, it is more accurate to state that both written marking and oral feedback can be effective… if they follow key principles. It is less conclusive, nor does it make for good online arguments, but it is a more accurate state of affairs. 

The research evidence indicates some helpful steers. It might even avoid some stale arguments. It doesn’t matter so much about the colour of the pen for written feedback (perhaps the red pen needn’t be dead), nor does whether teachers use grades or not make a conclusive difference either. It doesn’t appear to matter to learning how frequent feedback proves.

It is inconclusive whether pupils think their teachers care more because they mark their writing. Personally, I think good teachers show they care in a hundred meaningful ways that means you needn’t mark for the sake of it. 

Indeed, in an interesting study involving year 7 pupils in Wales, those pupils who received ‘enhancing formative feedback comments’ didn’t make any obvious gains over those pupils who didn’t receive such comments. When comments like “very good” were used, pupils didn’t beam with uncontained pride, they were simply “poorly understood by the students and did little to enhance the learning process”. Perhaps ‘tick and flick’ and a nice comment daubed here and there is less welcome than we think?

What about “a good murder”?

Professor Valerie Shute offers a helpful analogy for teachers considering how regularly they should mark, or whether oral feedback can be impactful: effective formative feedback is like a ‘good murder’. She states:

“Formative feedback might be likened to “a good murder” in that effective and useful feedback depends on three things: (a) motive (the student needs it), (b) opportunity (the student receives it in time to use it), and (c) means (the student is able and willing to use it).” 

Valerie Shute (2008)

The murder analogy offers a helpful lens on maintenance marking, or ‘tick and flick’. Does the pupil really need it (motive)? Wil they be provided time to respond to it (opportunity)? Will they use it (means)? 

A common alternative to written marking is whole-class feedback. Once more, using Shute’s ‘murder’ model is helpful. If you are giving whole-class feedback, do pupils think they need it, or do they think it is even feedback for them or their peers (motive)? Is the whole class feedback session structured with enough time and support so that they use the feedback meaningfully (opportunity)? Did they understand our feedback, and do they know what to do next with your whole class summary (means)? 

For too long, teachers have been forced to endure the see-saw of feedback methods based on not much more than routine compliance, the need to please parents, or simply to retain long-held rituals. 

If marking is murder…and plain hard work to get right…we should think much more about these long-standing routines. We should think about the seeming-heroics of marking every book, as much as we should consider the likely effectiveness of ‘tick and flick’, writing “great work!”, and similar. 

[Image from Roger Evans: https://www.flickr.com/photos/28681973@N00/25648519032]