Saturday, July 02, 2011

7 reasons why 'marking' sucks

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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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’.


Mark Berthelemy said...

Hi Donald,

In my experience as a teacher and working with teachers, the term 'marking' is used to cover the whole realm of providing both formative and summative feedback.

Having said that, I would tend to agree with all your points, although predicted grades can still be a useful pointer as to whether a student is achieving their potential. They are used to help identify those who need extra support, or a bit of a push. In the best schools they are just one of a number of indicators - unlike past and current governments' prediliction for single measurements as indicators of success!

Unknown said...

I have long been a fan and advocated the book. However, it's not enough just for the classroom teacher to read and apply. Senior leadership teams need to be convinced since they usually drive marking/exam policy in schools.

Donald Clark said...

Mark: In my experience as a parent - marking is high on ticks and scores, low on comments, and when comments are provided they're the vague general comments black advised against. Agree about predicted grades but no need to make them explicit to student or parent to keep that sense of future attainment open.

Francis: How do people get through a teaching career without seeing the obvious fact that formative feedback is essential for students? It's like a profession led by people who studiously ignore good practice.

Unknown said...

I have no answer to that, to be honest. Now, I have no hard evidence for this but my gut feeling is that if you look at the type of professional development courses teachers sign up to they will largely be to do with preparing children for a GCSE/A Level (getting a grade C or an A), dealing with a condition (e.g. Asperger's) or improving behaviour.There seems to be a reluctance to explore anything that isn't 'practical'.

Dylan Wiliam co-authored Inside The black Box and played a leading role in developing Assessing pupil Progress which is all about formative assessment and was introduced to schools towards the end of the last government. He said on one interview (on Teachers TV!) that he just couldn't get the powers that be to understand what it was all about. They just wanted more testing.

In my old role I found that even where there were departments that 'got it'and wanted to introduce it, they were getting demands from their SLT for termly or even half termly National Curriculum levels for their pupils using APP. This would usually be driven by the introduction of a computer programme into the school designed to track pupils progress. DW envisaged formative assessment happening all the time but the summative being done once or twice per year.

On a more positive note: