Maximising the impact of teacher marking

By Naomi Winstone
Published 15 Dec 2020

Dr Naomi Winstone is a researcher at the University of Surrey. AQA funded a research project she led together with Dr Rob Nash (Aston University) exploring how much A-level students retain from teacher feedback.

Grading pupils’ work and providing feedback is one of the most important activities that teachers undertake; it's also one of the most time consuming. A 2016 report by the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group expressed concerns about the burden that marking places on teachers.

The question is, is this time well spent? Do pupils actually use the feedback they receive to help them improve? A review of the evidence on written marking, published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), concluded that there's very little research evidence to document how pupils respond to written feedback.

We’ve been trying to address this situation by conducting research into how learners process, understand and implement feedback. A few years ago, we began to explore students’ memory for different kinds of feedback information. We ran a series of laboratory and online studies, in which participants received detailed feedback on writing tasks and then shortly afterwards completed a surprise test to see how much of this feedback they remembered.

We consistently found that participants were very poor at remembering feedback: on average, they recalled only around 15–20% of comments. But our findings also revealed something interesting about the types of feedback people were most likely to remember. Prior research has shown that learners prefer directive feedback on how to improve, so we thought these comments would be more memorable. Surprisingly, we found that participants were much more likely to remember past-focused, evaluative feedback, while directive comments proved to be more forgettable.

Sixth-form field study

We were keen to see if this effect also operates in real-world situations. When pupils are in the exam hall taking high-stakes assessments, how much feedback from mock exams and benchmark assessments might they remember and apply to the papers they are completing?

We conducted a field study, funded by AQA, with Level 3 learners in two sixth-form colleges. We recruited 279 students from a range of subjects: psychology, sociology, biology, classical civilisation, geography, music technology, philosophy, religious studies, and Spanish. All the students sat a mock exam paper, which their teachers marked in the usual way. The students received their feedback and were then given a surprise memory test where they had to write down as much as they could remember from their teacher’s comments.

We found that, on average, students remembered only around 25% of the feedback they had received. Students tended to remember more of their teachers’ evaluative comments than their directive comments, although the difference was not as great as we had previously found in our lab studies.

Interestingly, students were also more likely to remember feedback about the process than about the task. Process comments focus on how students approached the assessment and are therefore more transferable to future assessments. In contrast, task comments focus on the specific questions answered by the students and are likely to relate to their understanding of the topic.

Putting research into practice

Our findings highlight that simply providing students with lots of feedback does not enable them to reap its benefits. The EEF review called for a greater emphasis on practices that support students to understand and respond to feedback. To help ensure that our findings make a real difference to both students and teachers, we've produced the Developing Engagement with Feedback Toolkit for educators in higher education. We've also worked with teachers to develop a version for further education.

So far, our work has provided new and intriguing evidence that students’ memory for feedback could depend in part on how the feedback comments have been framed or worded. However, we still don’t know which comments are more likely to be used, or implemented. We hope in the future to conduct a more complex study, in which researchers might track the relationship between memory for feedback and implementation of feedback on a subsequent task.

Hopefully our focus in this area  will help to maximise the impact of marking and make teachers’ investment in this activity really count!

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