Assessment and feedback: making it work for everyone involved

Written by Jemma Sherwood Tuesday, 27 November 2018

'Assessment and Feedback: Making it Work for Everyone Involved' is a workshop being run by Jemma Sherwood at the Head of Mathematics Conference in Birmingham (Aston University) on Friday 14th Decemeber 2018, some tickets still remaining.

Assessment and feedback are different, but related, ideas. Anything that involves seeing what pupils can or can’t do at a particular point in their learning journey constitutes assessment. How we use that information and what we tell pupils in response to it constitutes feedback.

This makes assessment and feedback two of the intrinsic parts of the teacher’s job. We assess and feed back to our pupils in lots of ways, some formally, many more informally. How many of the following do you employ?

  • Marking books with ticks and crosses
  • Marking books with written comments or targets
  • Obtaining pupil responses to written comments
  • Q&A with mini-whiteboards
  • Q&A with hands-up
  • Asking questions to the class
  • Talking with pupils about their work
  • Exit or entrance tickets
  • Mini-quizzes
  • Longer topics tests
  • Setting GCSE papers
  • Online homework or assessments
  • Gap analysis
  • Self-analysis sheets

From each of these activities we can gain an insight into what our pupils can imitate in the short-term, and what they are learning in the long-term, but each comes with varying degrees of success and requires varying degrees of effort. Our job, as Heads of Maths, is to find and promote those activities which are most useful (to teacher and pupil) and which require the least effort. Fortunately, we have a wealth of research and information to help us make these decisions.

In my session at the Heads of Maths conference, we will analyse these activities and more, while asking ourselves the following questions, considered from the viewpoint of pupils and teachers.

  1. What positives (in the context of learning) does this activity bring?
  2. What negatives (in the context of learning) does this activity bring?
  3. How much time or effort does this activity take?
  4. Is the gain worth the time or effort invested?

As a taster, let’s consider the idea of marking books. In their hugely influential work, Inside the Black Box (1998), Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black taught us that giving numerical marks in books alongside comments was pointless – the presence of the mark would nullify the effect of the comment. From that point, comments and target-setting in books became prevalent in schools, who tried to get teachers to be more detailed than just “6/10. Try harder.” The intention was honourable, the implementation diabolical. By 2015 we had teachers up and down the country writing comments, handing books back and asking their pupils to respond, taking the books back in, responding to their pupils’ comments, only to hand the books back and never have the page looked at again, apart from by SLT in book trawls, who smiled at the best practice they were seeing, which was clearly going to raise standards. Except it didn’t raise standards, it raised teacher dropout rates and levels of exhaustion.

This is a problem because, put simply, we have no evidence whatsoever that this kind of marking is effective. None. The EEF wrote a report in 2016 entitled, “A Marked Improvement: A Review of the Evidence on Written Marking” which concluded that there are not enough robust studies to assert the efficacy of written marking.

What a hugely important conclusion! All those hours invested are, quite probably, a huge misdirection of time. Schools are enforcing unevidenced practice because they see it done elsewhere and assume they must follow suit (driven, of course, by fear of the double-pronged stick of Ofsted and league tables.)

So, in response to our four analysis questions above we have something a bit like the following:

Assessment/feedback type: Written marking (comments/responses/targets)

Use as assessment: Teacher assesses pupils’ work when reading books.

Use in feedback: Teacher writes comments or targets, pupils read and possibly respond. Teacher may be able to plan next steps based on the activity, but this is dependent on how far after the lesson the books are marked.


Question Teacher perspective Pupil perspective
1 - Sees what pupils can/can’t imitate during a lesson.
- Sees how well pupils present their work and their thought processes.
- Is given a target to improve and chance to consider the target.
2 - Doesn’t find this information out until books are marked, which can be weeks later.
- Cannot plan next steps if books aren’t marked immediately.
- Doesn’t learn anything about long-term retention of material.
- Target given too far after the event (they’ve forgotten what the lesson was about).
- Comment either so specific it doesn’t cover enough work in enough detail, or so generic it is useless.
3 30 books take approximately two hours. Lesson time to respond to comments – this may be a positive or a negative use of time, depending on context.
4 No. If book marking were to inform planning, it would need to be immediate and after every lesson. This is impossible (5 hours of lessons a day would be accompanied by 10 hours of marking). Probably not. There is some benefit in having to remember something from two weeks ago in order to respond to comments, but this can be achieved in better ways.

Join us at the Heads of Maths Conference in December where we can take the time to find some better ways of assessing our pupils, of gaining feedback for us, and of giving them feedback.

About the Author

Jemma Sherwood

Jemma has been teaching mathematics since 2004 and has been AST, SLE and, most recently, Head of Department. She is an NCETM Level 3 PD Lead, a Teaching Award winner, and has written for Oxford University Press. Jemma loves discussing maths ed and is particularly interested in how teachers can improve their subject knowledge. She blogs, when she remembers to, at

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