How one science department stopped writing marks in exercise books and improved student outcomes

It is one of the most time-consuming tasks performed by teachers in the UK. Hours upon hours are spent reading through student’s work, commenting on work completed in class or on assessment pieces. I remember the feedback lessons well – moving around my classroom frantically trying to ensure every child had read and responded to my comments, including completing the tasks I’d set for them to prove they’d now made progress as a result of my feedback (like my comments are actually better than my teaching!).

I forget which colour pen was used … there were so many! The feeling of dread when SLT carried out a book scrutiny; if there wasn’t a feedback sticker every three pages in every book from every class, with student responses and then further comment from me – well, we didn’t want to even think about what might happen. It wasn’t until I moved to a new school that I realised there were other ways of looking at feedback, that there really isn’t a need to be so mechanistic.

You could say I had a bit of an epiphany: if teachers spend less time marking books they can spend that time planning amazing lessons. Maybe they would then feel less stressed, less tired and that they were having more of an impact on the young people they get up for every day.

I introduced the topic with heads of department and discussions ensued. Then I went to senior leaders, suggesting we give each department the professional freedom to decide the most appropriate way of providing their students with excellent feedback that will enable them to make progress. With attention already on the ‘workload challenge’, senior leaders were open to the concept of empowering teaching teams to take professional responsibility for the education they provide, reducing workload for all teachers and promoting positive professionalism by reducing stress caused by the endless stream of marking exercise books – work most likely already assessed in lessons.

Not only has this policy worked, it has transformed the school

Senior leaders agreed such a policy would likely lead to positive outcomes for both staff and students. And now, two years later, I’m pleased to report that not only has this policy worked, it has transformed the school, staff and students, and undoubtedly contributed to an improvement in GCSE outcomes.

No books

In the science department we implemented a total ban on teacher marking of exercise books. We devised a robust assessment and feedback system in its place to ensure students were not compromised in any way. We named it the Science progress programme (SPP).

Essentially, the SPP consists of short, fortnightly assessments in biology, chemistry and physics throughout KS4 (years 10 and 11). We call these Cumulative SPPs. Each SPP assesses students’ cumulative knowledge of topics spanning the entire GCSE specification, and matches the level of demand seen in the final exam papers.

A graphic image showing a woman climbing a mountain of paperwork

Source: © Alice Mollon/Ikon Images/Getty Images

Students are given a week’s notice of topics that will appear (unspecific, eg ‘electricity’ or ‘communicable diseases’) and our expectation (and culture, now it’s embedded) is that students prepare outside of school, with only one weekly revision session offered by the department.

Though the SPP set-up means teachers are marking once a fortnight, each assessment consists of only 20 marks per subject and because teachers in our department only teach and mark their specialism, this actually results in a very realistic workload despite the frequency of assessment.

In his book, Feedback: the communication of praise, criticism and advice, John Hattie puts feedback as the second most significant thing that can affect the learning process of students, yet there is much debate as to what form this is best delivered in. In our department students do not receive any written feedback on their assessments, all feedback is verbal, to the whole class. Our feedback strategy is to walk students through the questions, in the style of a walking-talking mock. We explain the set-up of the question, address misconceptions, and talk through the cognitive processes that would result in the correct answer. Students make notes and/or adjustments on their assessment paper and are informed of which type of questions will appear in the next SPP (in a slightly adjusted format). This gives them the opportunity to demonstrate progress in their knowledge and understanding as a result of their teacher’s verbal feedback.

Teachers and students track their percentage scores from each SPP together, and parents receive an update six times during the academic year. Our only expectation is that students show a steady increase in their score over time – this could be only a few percentage points each time, but over the two years amounts to something substantial. The major benefit is that all students feel they can make progress, regardless of their target or which set they’re in. As a result, we see a huge level of engagement with the programme.

Carrot or stick?

We also have a rewards system. Students are awarded a pin badge after demonstrating a steady increase in their SPP scores. Once they collect all three subject badges they are invited to a rewards lunch. It’s a great way of celebrating their success and is appreciated by all. The benefits to engagement, motivation and progress far outweigh any financial cost of badges and pizza.

The results

The impact of our no-marking policy has been substantial. In the first year of operating the SPP programme our progress within science moved from -0.3 to +0.3. There was also no performance gap between boys and girls, and a significantly reduced gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students. These trends are set to continue.

Our teachers report multiple positive outcomes to themselves as individuals: they feel trusted as a professional educator, appreciate the increased time they have to plan inspiring lessons and curriculum enrichment events, enjoy improved job satisfaction as a result of seeing the positive outcomes of their work over a shorter period of time, and experience significantly less work-related stress.

Students enjoy the challenge, support and recognition of their efforts by fully engaging with the SPP programme – they trust and expect their teachers to provide them with meaningful feedback in the most efficient way, which has actually led to an improvement in teacher-student relationships and student behaviour. They understand the importance of our feedback now, and as a result value it highly.

It is our professional responsibility to continually reflect upon our practice and evaluate our educational offering. I believe that with sound reasoning, careful planning and a bit of passion, every science department could modify their current marking policy in favour of a more positive methodology, to suit their setting. If we create a culture where everyone believes they need to improve, not because they’re not good enough but because they can do even better, there is no limit to what we can achieve.

Ian Powell is head of science at John Ferneley College