In all the time I was a parent and employer, I never marked anyone. So I was delighted to give a keynote, alongside assessment guru Professor Paul Black. Inside the Black Box by Black and Wiliam, should be compulsory reading for all teachers, trainers and lecturers, and it was thrilling to see him give a masterclass in assessment with solid, evidence-based advice that you can apply straight from the hip in teaching. Marking (not against in entirely) may do more damage than most educators realise. It is a summative assessment technique, all too often wrongly used in formative assessment.
- Terminal. A marked test promotes the idea that it marks an end-point. You’ve passed or failed, a success or failure, bright or dim. Tests are seen by learners as terminal. Far better to deliver feedback in the form of comments that point to improvement.
- Mark of Cain. For many learners, marked tests literally leave their psychological mark. That mark, for the majority, is a mark of failure. The mark is seen as a score on fixed ability, fixing in the mind of the learner a view of themselves. It says nothing meaningful about how they can change and improve.
- On the mark. Even for high scorers, full competence is rarely the aim, so they see a high mark as ‘having done enough’ and take their foot off the pedal.
- Hit the mark. A score, rather than understanding and improvement, becomes the goal. What really counts often can’t be counted and what’s counted sometimes doesn’t count. Numbers are not constructive, they're just numbers.
- Black mark. Teachers who use marks as formative assessment should be marked down. The more teachers mark, the less they comment, and it is formative comments that matter to the learner. Formative assessment is all about constructive feedback.
- Marked for life. Even on summative assessment, a university degree is no more than a number (1, 2.1, 2.2, 3). So what does that tell you about several years of intellectual effort? Not a jot on any other useful skills or experiences you may have picked up along the way? ‘Predicted grades’ is another insidious practice, that stops students in their tracks. It reinforces the idea of innate ability rather than aspirational learning.
- Tests too late. A test at the end is too late. It’s a feature of old behaviourist attitudes in learning and just hammers home the old view that there’s winners and losers. It promotes the idea that you need to pass the text, not master the subject. We need to focus more on formative, not summative assessment.
Black quoted an important study of 132 mixed ability, Y7 students in 12 classes across 4 schools, using the same teaching aims, teachers and classwork. The students were given three types of feedback:
Marks plus comments
The ‘Comments' only group had a significant attainment gain with NO gain in the 'Marks' only and 'Marks plus comments’ groups. Increased interest and motivation was positive with all in the ‘Comments’ only group but only positive with high achievers in the ‘Marks’ and ‘Marks plus comments’ groups, where low achievers registered lower interest and motivation. This is, at first, puzzling. Why does more feedback 'Marks plus comments' have such a negative effect? The researchers concluded that ‘marks’ signalled the end of the matter, a terminal test, which stopped learning and further interest.
The message is clear - hold back on marking in formative assessment.
Professor Black’s message was clear. Modify teaching and get off marking and into feedback. the nuts and bolts of how you do this will be the subject of my next post ‘Never praise a child’.