Thursday, 31 December 2015

Two Stars and a Wish... For Better Feedback: Part 3

In this post, I want to take some time to consider the importance of peer feedback for exam classes.  I think that it's important that, when planning peer/self assessment activities, we (as teachers) consider what we want students to gain from the activity. When it boils down to it, there are a few possible options: if they mark their own work then you can spend more time planning; you need a plenary task and this should be fairly simple; you want them to see models of work produced by other students; or you want them to have a greater understanding of how they're being assessed. For me, it's always the latter.

For exam classes, I often liken the exam to an elaborate tap dance: you have a short amount of time to demonstrate a variety of steps and the smallest mistake can cost you your grade.  Just like with the tap dance, practice is key, as is understanding precisely what the examiners wish to see.  It's true that you can also use other analogies for this but the essence of it is simple: the more students understand what's being assessed, the easier they will find it to produce this in exam conditions.

I've tried a number of ways of getting students to get to grips with mark schemes; often this means creating an 'understandable English' version that cuts through all of the vague examiner terminology that litters mark schemes in my subject.  I find that this is best done with students, rather than giving them a diluted version straight off.  After this, I then use various tools to ensure self/peer assessment is productive.

First and foremost is the checklist.  This works well when assessing writing skills, as students need to apply certain skills to 'check off' the examiner's list.  However, it's clear that these need to be differentiated.  As I teach mixed ability at KS4, I will often use this as a chance to stretch key students by giving them the checklist for the next band up, or giving them a choice between that of their target grade and the next one up.  This then gives students a clear set of criteria to check their work for.

Another tool that works well, especially for reading skills, is the 'humble highlighter' that I looks at in a previous post (  This means that students can identify where they've used certain skills, using steps as in the slide below.

It is also useful to model assessment to students, as effective training will help them develop a successful approach to assessing their own work.  As part of this, I often given them a selection of strengths/targets that they might look to apply for different grades, which they can use if they are struggling with the mark scheme criteria.

Another place that students can look for suitable strengths and targets is in my own marking: they can use this to identify if the piece of work has met past targets, or if it needs to develop further.  I've found the use of 'writing sprints' beneficial for this (an idea that was recently suggested by a colleague). In this students write in five minute chunks.  At the start of each 'sprint' they set themselves a single target for that five minutes.  At the end, they annotate where they've met the target and set themselves another target for the next paragraph.  This constant approach to reflect also encourages them to proof read as they go along in the exam, rather than leaving until the end when they could risk running out of time.

The final tool that I used to help develop student-led assessment is me.  By reading their feedback as I mark their books, I can check their understanding of the mark scheme.  One example is the use of 'ambitious' vocabulary: I recently marked a book where a student had said that they'd met their target of using it through their use of words such as 'however' or 'definitely'. Whilst the student had improve the range of vocabulary used, it was clear that these choices would not be ambitious enough for the exams.  Checking their self assessment then allowed me to leave some questions for them about what ambitious vocabulary is, making links to some of the bonus spellings I'd given in a recent spelling test as examples.

Overall, I feel that this understanding of how to assess helps students in two ways.  Primarily, it means that they understand what examiners are looking for and, as a consequence, helps them to display these skills under exam conditions.  However, it also works to develop their independent revision skills, meaning that they now have a way of reflecting on their progress when doing their own revision outside of the classroom.

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