Coded marking – feedback of the visual kind

No! Please don’t close this tab – I don’t mean visual in the sense of VAK and all that nonsense, hear me out…

As we all know, practice, both independent and guided, is crucial in the learning process. Yet when it comes to preparing students for the demands of public examinations, it becomes a necessity. That’s why I practise exam questions with Y11s and Y13s A LOT and whenever we do one, as is good practice, either I mark it, they mark their own or their partner marks it. I used to get quite scared of letting kids mark other pupil’s work: What if it’s meaningless? What if they just tick and flick? What if they don’t ‘get’ the criteria? Will they get anything from this process? What if they just don’t take it seriously? Then you are faced with three options: (1) plough on despite these concerns and do nothing; (2) mark it all yourself and annihilate your weekends or (3) make the marking process simple, idiot-proof (no offence to my lovely students!) and meaningful. The other secret option is to just keep on chucking the same mark schemes that trained examiners often struggle to decode at pupils and expect them to not only understand them but also apply them correctly, which, as anyone who has failed to pass a “seed test” during the exam marking process will tell you, is not easy.

I chose option 3, obviously.

WHY

My aim is simple – feedback needs to improve the child, not the work necessarily, and therefore I want my students taking on the marking codes almost as tips to use in future work, e.g. that 6 marker that looks a little bit like this one and is essentially asking the same thing/testing the same skill but doesn’t look exactly like it. I want them asking themselves next time – have I used the words of the question? Have I referred to the figure? etc etc… You will notice that the codes are not very specific to the question – in fact they don’t use the words of the question at all. Sometimes, like in the example of the human/physical causes of flooding question, this is very hard to do and may seem counter intuitive. Why not add a code for ‘human causes’ and one for ‘physical causes’ – and actually why not just for the word “shape”, which was SO important for good performance in this question? I don’t because I want to make the feedback as general as possible in this instance. That’s not to say I won’t mention that at all while we mark a pupil’s answer under the visualiser together or that I won’t mention it to them pre or post them marking their partner’s work as we chat about the marking process. But it’s all about how far my feedback will go: yes I can mention that stuff and yes they can dutifully code away but I need my feedback in this instance to teach them general lessons – for this example, general lessons about how to tackle 6 markers which have a statement, a figure and a “do you agree?”. I need the feedback to suddenly activate in their minds when they face a question like in the future – be that in front of me in class or in that exam hall in the summer.

My bad – “use of Figure” should have also been a code for this one…

I actually make it very clear to my pupils every time we start this coded marking process: “These codes are based on what I think generally makes a great answer in these types of 4/6/9 markers so please try to find them in your (partner’s) work. You are unlikely to get a carbon copy of this question ever again – actually this is basically the first and last time you will do this EXACT same question – but we need to learn some lessons from our performance as a class.”

The pupils then begin coding, either their own work or their partner’s. Visually, their weakness or points for improvement immediately become very, very clear. As I walk around and monitor, I will often be narrating it (in the final minute or so), before the pupils do their EBI and WWW: “If you are not seeing enough circles, then what you need to do next time/what needs to be your EBI is that you need to *insert what that code meant this lesson*”. Or it becomes the start of my private conversation with a pupil in whose work I do not spot any double-underlines, or asterisks, or rectangles, etc…

As with anything I propose in my blog, this requires real training. You must do it often so that your pupils get used to it and you must really sell it to them. My Year 11s will see me start writing the codes on the whiteboard (because often I don’t have them on my PPT, they’re off the cuff) and just get their green pens and go for it! In terms of impact, I don’t want to overstate it but it is noticeable. Early on in Year 10, these Year 11s I just mentioned struggled with using the figure appropriately in answers, using the words of the question (that’s what WoTQ is!), developing or elaborating, etc… But because it was so often a code in this marking process, I’ve started to see fewer and fewer issues.

WHY

I know I am not the first person to propose coded marking – I certainly didn’t invent it! What I’m proposing is:

  1. The codes are general and lead to general tips for success being learned – i.e. what will make you successful in all 6 mark ‘analyse’ questions (A-Level)?
  2. As they’re general, you use as few codes as possible.
  3. You do this often so that pupils get used to the process and therefore take away more from it.
  4. Be responsive – for example, you’ve spotted something as you walked around which made an answer successful but you didn’t think of it, add it to the board quickly!

I’ve included 4 examples throughout this but the general idea is hard to get across in writing. Essentially you need to know the questions and their demands well – you need to known your exam board, spec and generally what success looks like. Then you work backwards from that and create short sentence codes and in no more than about 5/6 you will have hopefully covered all the bases!

ISSUES

I’d say the main issue is that the process can reduce quite complex exam questions (like the 9 marker below) into their component parts in what is seemingly quite a reductionist fashion. It can all become very atomistic as pupils end up with loads of one code, maybe even two or three, but none for another and that just happened to be quite an important part – say the “assess” part of a 9 marker. Bits like this – the assess, the evaluate, relative important at A-Level, etc – cannot just be left for this marking coded to remedy. It just won’t happen like that. As is said of vitamins and the like, this coded marking process only supplements a good, balanced diet (of great teaching), it is not a replacement and I’m certainly not peddling panaceas.

In fact, for an expert teacher it may seem silly, unnecessary or counter-productive to carry out this whole chunking via codes approach I am advising. But therein lies the issue – we are experts. Despite what we might say about how GCSE and A-Levels are getting harder (they definitely are – don’t get me wrong), our years at school, sixth form/college, university and then in the classroom put us in a position whereby understanding, breaking down and then tackling complex exam questions is not a big issue – but it is for our students, who are by their very nature, novices.

Hence we chunk and break down in order to eventually make what is easy for us similarly straightforward for our pupils.

As always, if you have any questions about this or would like to offer up advice/tweaks/improvements then please feel free to contact me via Twitter!

Abdurrahman Pérez (@mr_perez5)
November 2019

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