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Workload and English mocks

You can also read this post on the No More Marking blog here.

Last weekend, I posted a question to English teachers on Twitter.

Most of the answers were in the range of 10 – 30 minutes. People also pointed out that the time it took to mark mocks varied depending on whether you wrote lengthy comments at the bottom of each script or not.

My own experience of marking the old spec GCSE English Language papers was that it took me about 15 minutes to mark each paper, which included some fairly brief comments. I also found it difficult to mark for more than about 90 minutes / 2 hours in one go, and if I did try and mark for longer than that, I would get slower and need to take more frequent breaks.

If we take 15 minutes, therefore, as a relatively conservative estimate, that means that if you teach 28 pupils, it will take you 7 hours to mark those scripts. That doesn’t include any moderation. If we assume a 90 minute moderation session for each mock, plus 90 minutes to go back and apply the insights from moderation, that means we are looking at a total of 10 hours.

That’s for one English Language Paper. There are two English Language papers, and two English Literature paper. So if you want pupils to do a complete set of English mocks, that’s a total of 40 hours of marking for the teacher.

With the old specification which included a lot of coursework, I think most English teachers spent the bulk of year 10 teaching and marking coursework essays, and didn’t get on to doing mocks until year 11. I was really pleased when coursework was abolished as I felt it would free up so much more time for teachers to plan and teach, instead of mark and administer coursework. However, it does appear as though a lot of this gained time has now been replaced with equally time-consuming mock marking, with mocks being introduced more and more in year 10. Many schools have three assessment points a year. If you were to do two mock papers three times a year in both year 10 and 11, then a teacher who taught one year 10 class and one year 11 class would spend 120 hours of the year marking GCSE mocks. That’s three normal working weeks, or nearly 10% of the contracted 1,265 annual hours of directed time.

In our first No More Marking Progress to GCSE English training days last week, we looked at how schools could use comparative judgement to reduce the amount of time it took to mark an English mock paper. The exact amount of time it takes to judge a set of scripts using comparative judgement will depend on the ratio of English teachers to pupils in your school. But we think that at worst, using comparative judgement will halve the amount of time it takes to grade a set of GCSE English papers; that is, it will take 5 hours instead of 10. The best case scenario is that we can get it down to 2 hours. That includes built-in moderation, as well as time to discuss the results with your department and prepare whole-class formative feedback. You can read more about the pilot, and how to sign up for it, here.

Of course, workload is not the only issue we should consider when looking at planning assessment calendars and marking policies. At No More Marking, we like to evaluate the effectiveness of an assessment by looking at these three things.

  • Efficiency and impact on workload
  • Reliability – is the assessment consistent?
  • Validity – does the assessment allow us to make helpful inferences about pupils, and does it help pupils and teachers to improve?

In future blog posts, we’ll consider how reliable and valid traditional mock marking is. But for now, it’s clear that on the measure of efficiency, traditional mock marking doesn’t do that well.

Sharing Standards 2016-17: The results

In July, I will be leaving my role at Ark Schools to work for No More Marking as Director of Education. 

Over the last 6 months, No More Marking have been working with primary schools in England on a pilot of comparative judgement for year 6 writing called Sharing Standards. Comparative judgement is a quick and reliable method of marking open tasks like essays and stories. The easiest way to understand it is to try out the demo on the No More Marking website, but you can also read my explanation of it on this blog here.

The results of this pilot were published last Tuesday, and you can read the full report here.

Overall, 199 schools participated in the pilot, and a total of 8,512 writing portfolios were judged. 1,649 teachers in those schools did the judging, and the reliability of their judgements was 0.84.  This allowed for the creation of a measurement scale featuring every portfolio, and then for the application of a national gradeset: Working Towards, Expected Standard and Greater Depth. The overview report on the No More Marking website features exemplars of the portfolios at each threshold. Here’s a piece from the portfolio that was judged as the best.


80% of the judgements teachers made were comparisons of pupils in their own school. 20% were comparisons of pupils from other schools. This allowed for the creation of a national scale, but it also meant that it wasn’t possible for teachers to favour pupils from their own schools, as they were never asked to directly compare their pupils with pupils from other schools.

The other nice thing about this structure was that it allowed teachers to see tasks and pupil work from other schools. I particularly noted the popularity of tasks that asked pupils to write from the point of view of a character in a novel, and the variety of novels selected as the basis for this task. And in discussions with teachers after, it was interesting to try and pick out the aspects that made such types of writing more or less successful. Very often it was subtle uses of syntax or vocabulary that made the difference. For example, some pupils trying to capture the voice of Bruno in ‘Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ would use the same very precise and measured sentence structure of Bruno. Others would get this right, but then fall down by using modern slang terms that just didn’t ring true.

And this brings me to the most exciting next step for comparative judgement. As Jon Brunskill writes here, once you have the fascinating data set of accurately graded portfolios, you can then ask: now what? Why are some pieces of writing better than others?  What aspects of writing matter, and how can we teach them? Of course, good teachers have always been doing this, but it’s also always been made harder by the way that traditional methods of marking writing lead to disagreement and disputes. If you can’t get reliable agreement on what good writing is, it’s obviously going to be much harder to teach good writing.

Take a look at the exemplar portfolios here and start this process yourself! Next year, No More Marking will be running similar national assessment windows for all primary year groups. See here for more details about how to participate.


How do bad ideas about assessment lead to workload problems?

This is part 7 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

Bad ideas can cause workload problems. If you have a flawed understanding of how a system works, the temptation is to work harder to try and make the system work, rather than to look at the deeper reasons why it isn’t working.

The DfE run a regular teacher survey diary. In the survey from 2010, primary teachers recorded spending 5 hours per week on assessment. By 2013, they were spending 10 hours per week on assessment. Confusion and misperceptions around assessment are creating a lot of extra work – but there is no evidence they are providing any real benefits.

So what are the bad assessment ideas which are creating workload but not generating any improvements? Here are a few ideas.

Over reliance on prose descriptors when grading work
Like a lot of teachers, I used to really dislike marking. But when I would stop and think about it, I realised that I actually really liked reading pupils’ work. It was the process of sitting there with the mark scheme trying to work out a grade and provide feedback from the mark scheme that I disliked. And it turns out there is a good reason for that: the human mind is not good at making these kind of absolute judgements. The result is miserable teachers and not very accurate grades. There is a better way (comparative judgement).

Over reliance on prose descriptors when giving feedback
Prose descriptors are equally unhelpful for giving feedback. A lot of the guidance that comes with descriptors recommends using the language of the descriptors with pupils, or at least using ‘pupil friendly’ variations of the descriptor. The result is that teachers end up writing out whole paragraphs at the end of a pupils’ piece of work: ‘Well done: you’ve displayed an emerging knowledge of the past, but in order to improve, you need to develop your knowledge of the past.’

These kind of comments are not very useful as feedback because whilst they may be accurate, they are not helpful. How is a pupil supposed to respond to such feedback? As Dylan Wiliam says, feedback like this is like telling an unsuccessful comedian that they need to be funnier.

I like the approach being pioneered by a few schools which involves reading a class’s responses, identifying the aspects they all struggled with, and reteaching those in the next lesson. If this response is recorded on a simple proforma, that can hopefully suffice for accountability purposes too.

Mistrust of short answer questions and MCQs
Short answer questions and multiple-choice questions (MCQs) can’t assess everything, clearly. But they can do some things really well and they also have the bonus of being very very easy to mark. A good multiple choice question is not easy to write, to be fair. But once you have written it, you can use it again and again with limited effort, and you can use MCQs that have been created by others too. Unlike feedback based on prose descriptors, if you use MCQs to give feedback then pupils can actively do something helpful in response to your feedback.

How can we measure progress in lessons?

This is part 6 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

With national curriculum levels, it was possible to use the same system of measurement in exams as in individual lessons.

For example, national curriculum tests at the end of year 2 and 6 were measured using national curriculum levels. But you could also use NC levels to measure progress in individual lessons and at the end of terms. For example, you could have a task at the end of a lesson, and then you could tell pupils that in order to be a level 4a, they would need to perform in a certain way on the task; to be a 5c, they would need to reach a certain standard, and so on.

You can see the attraction of this approach: it is coherent, because you are always using and talking about the same grades. It’s also great for accountability. When Ofsted call, you can offer them ‘real-time’ assessment data based on performance from the most recent lesson.

However, in practice this system led to confusion. Pupils might be able to perform at a certain level at the end of a particular lesson. But when they came to sit their test at the end of the unit or the end of the year, they might not be at that level. As Rob Coe says here, levels started to take on very different meanings depending on how they were being used. Far from providing a coherent and unified system, levels were providing the illusion of a coherent system: everyone was talking about the same thing, but meaning something very different.

So what is the answer? I don’t think exam grades can be used to measure progress in lessons. What happens in the lesson is an ‘input’, if you like, and what happens in the exam is an ‘output’. It makes no sense to try to measure both on the same scale. Here is an analogy: we know that if you eat more, you put on weight. But we don’t measure food intake and weight output with the same scale, even though we know there is a link between them. We measure food with calories, and weight with kilograms. Similarly, we have to record what happens in lessons in a different way to what happens in the final assessment.

If you do try to measure activities in an individual lesson with the same scale as the final exam grade, then I think one of two things can happen. One is that you use activities in the classroom which are most suited for learning and for formative assessment: for example, in English you might use a spelling test. Activities like spelling tests are not very well suited for getting a grade, so the grade you get from them is very inaccurate, and causes a lot of confusion. The second option is to start to alter all of the activities you do in class so that they more closely resemble exam tasks. So you get rid of the spelling test, and get pupils to do a piece of extended writing instead.  This makes it more likely (although not certain) that the grades you get in class will be accurate. But it means that you are now hugely restricted in the types of activities you can do in class. You have effectively turned every lesson into a summative assessment.

We should record in-lesson progress in the way that is most suitable for the tasks we want to use. And lots of very useful activities are not capable of being recorded as a grade or a fraction of a grade.

How can we close the knowing-doing gap?

This is part 4 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

One frequent criticism of memorisation is that it doesn’t lead to understanding. For example, a pupil can memorise a rule of grammar, or a definition of a word, but still have no idea how to use the rule or the word in practice. This is a real problem. I would say almost every pupil I have ever taught knew that a sentence began with a capital letter. They ‘knew’ this in the sense that if I asked them ‘what does a sentence begin with?’ they would instantly respond ‘a capital letter’. Yet many, many fewer of them would reliably begin every sentence they started with a capital letter. This is a classic example of a knowing-doing gap, where a pupil knows something, but doesn’t do it.

Frequently, I see people using examples like this one to prove that explicit instruction and teaching knowledge do not work, and to argue that we should use more authentic and real-world teaching practices instead. For example, if we just ask pupils to read lots of well-written books and articles, and do lots of writing, they will implicitly understand that sentences begin with a capital letter, and use capital letters in the same way in their own work too. Unfortunately, this kind of unstructured, discovery approach overloads working memory. If only it were possible to pick up the rules of the apostrophe simply by reading a lot of books – the world would be a lovelier place, but it wouldn’t be the world.

So what is the answer? The approach with the best record of closing the knowing-doing gap is direct instruction. I will discuss one specific direct instruction programme here, Expressive Writing, as it is the one I know best. Expressive Writing aims to teach the basic rules of writing. Whilst it does introduce some rules and definitions, this is a small part of the programme. The bulk of the programme is made up of pupils doing a lot of writing, but the writing they do is very structured and carefully sequenced.  The programme begins with the absolute basics: pupils are given a list of verbs in the present tense, and have to convert them to the past tense. Then they are given sentences that use those same verbs in the present tense, and they have to cross out the words and replace them with the past tense verb. Then pupils are given sentences with a blank which they have to fill in with either a past or present tense verb. As the programme continues, pupils are expected to do bigger and longer pieces of writing. Each activity is carefully sequenced so that pupils are never expected to learn too many new things at once, or take on board too many new ideas, and there is frequent repetition so that important rules are not just things that pupils ‘know’ – they are things that become habits.

To sum up, there is such a thing as the knowing-doing gap. Pupils can memorise a definition and not know what a word means, and they can memorise a rule and not know how to apply it. But this does not mean either that memorisation is redundant, or that discovery learning is better at producing true understanding. The way to close the knowing-doing gap is through memorisation and practice, but through memorisation and practice of the right things, broken down in the right ways. Expressive Writing offers one way of doing this for writing, and I think Isabel Beck’s work does something similar for vocabulary. In the next post, we’ll look at how this approach can be applied to the creation of formative and summative assessments.

Is all practice good?

This is part 3 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

I can remember having a conversation with a friend a few years ago about the value of memorisation and practice. I said how important it was for pupils to remember things and to practice using them. She disagreed: she was sick to death of reading cookie-cutter, spoon-fed coursework essays that all sounded exactly the same, and all sounded as though they had regurgitated the words she had said in class in the lesson. For her, practice and memorisation were killing the life of her subject.

I completely recognised the truth of what she was saying. I had marked my fair share of coursework essays and felt exactly the same thing. So, why, if I am agreeing that this kind of practice is so damaging, am I still defending practice and memorisation?

For me, it is all about what we ask pupils to remember and to practise. If we ask pupils to write down their teacher’s thoughts on the opening of Great Expectations, memorise what they have written, and reproduce it in the exam, then we are not helping them to understand Great Expectations or come up with their own views on it.

But what if we ask pupils to remember the meanings of Tier Two vocab words? What if we ask them to memorise key quotations from Great Expectations? What if we ask them to practise and practise using the apostrophe? Is that just as damaging? I would argue that on the contrary, this kind of practice is really useful.

Something similar is true of maths. If a teacher asked a pupil to memorise the answers to problems like 372 * 487 and 657 * 432, it would seem very odd. But if you ask pupils to memorise the times tables, that’s much more understandable.

Why? Why is some content worth memorising, and why is some content not worth memorising?

Dan Willingham puts forward some really useful guidelines here. For him, there are three types of content particularly worth remembering and practising.

  • The core skills and knowledge that will be used again and again.
  • The type of knowledge that students need to know well in the short term to enable long-term retention of key concepts. In this case, short-term overlearning is merited.
  • The type of knowledge we believe is important enough that students should remember it later in life.

I would add one thing to the first bullet point. The type of core skills and knowledge that will be used again and again are often the fundamental building blocks of a subject. They are things that have been broken down and decontextualized, like times tables or the sounds that different letters make. Memorising these can seem inauthentic. It feels more meaningful to plunge straight in to real maths problems or real books. But the building blocks give you flexibility. If a pupil memorises a model essay on Great Expectations, that has no usefulness unless they are asked that one question. If they memorise 700 Tier Two words, those words have use in understanding Great Expectations, and in thousands of other contexts too.

One criticism of memorisation is that it drives out meaning. The next blog post will look at how we can make sure the things our pupils remember do have meaning.

Herbert Simon and evidence-based education

Who is Herbert Simon?

Herbert Simon was one of the great scholars of the twentieth century, whose discoveries and inventions ranged from political science (where he began his career) to economics (in which he won a Nobel Prize) to computer science (in which he was a pioneer) and to psychology.

Simon was one of the towering intellectual figures of the twentieth century. He wrote a classic on decision making in organizations while still in his twenties, and among many other achievements he went on to be one of the founders of the field of artificial intelligence, a leader in cognitive science, an influential student of the process of scientific discovery, a forerunner of behavioral economics and, almost incidentally, a Nobel laureate in economics.

Those quotations are both taken from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman is himself a Nobel Laureate for his work on decision making. Kahneman goes on to say of Simon that he is

perhaps the only scholar who is recognized and admired as a hero and founding figure by all the competing clans and tribes in the study of decision making.

As well as the fields which Kahneman lists, Simon also made some contributions to education. Of particular significance for primary and secondary educators is this paper, which Simon wrote with John Anderson and Lynne Reder in 2000, shortly before he died in 2001. It is about mathematics education, but it has applications for all subjects. It is strikingly critical of some very popular educational practices and recommends other practices which frequently get a bad name. For example:

He criticises authentic, real-world learning tasks.

Contrary to the contention that knowledge can always be communicated best in complex learning situations, the evidence shows that: A learner who is having difficulty with components can easily be overwhelmed by the processing demands of a complex task. Further, to the extent that many components are well mastered, the student wastes much time repeating these mastered components to get an opportunity to practice the few components that need additional effort. There are reasons sometimes to practice skills in their complex setting. Some of the reasons are motivational and some reflect the skills that are unique to the complex situation. While it seems important both to motivation and to learning to practice skills from time to time in full context, this is not a reason to make this the principal mechanism of learning.

He defends drill, in the face of criticisms that it drives out understanding

This criticism of practice (called “drill and kill,” as if this phrase constituted empirical evaluation) is prominent in constructivist writings. Nothing flies more in the face of the last 20 years of research than the assertion that practice is bad. All evidence, from the laboratory and from extensive case studies of professionals, indicates that real competence only comes with extensive practice.

He rejects discovery learning, and praises teacher instruction

When, for whatever reason, students cannot construct the knowledge for themselves, they need some instruction. The argument that knowledge must be constructed is very similar to the earlier arguments that discovery learning is superior to direct instruction. In point of fact, there is very little positive evidence for discovery learning and it is often inferior (e.g., Charney, Reder & Kusbit, 1990). Discovery learning, even when successful in acquiring the desired construct, may take a great deal of valuable time that could have been spent practicing this construct if it had been instructed. Because most of the learning in discovery learning only takes place after the construct has been found, when the search is lengthy or unsuccessful, motivation commonly flags.

Simon is also critical of the state of education research.

New “theories” of education are introduced into schools every day (without labeling them as experiments) on the basis of their philosophical or common-sense plausibility but without genuine empirical support.

We see that influential schools have arisen, claiming a basis in cognitive psychology… but which have almost no grounding in cognitive theory and at least as little grounding in empirical fact. This is particularly grievous because we think information-processing psychology has a lot to offer to mathematics education.

So, for instance, in the 1993 draft of the NCTM assessment standard for school mathematics, we find condemnation of the “essentialist view of mathematical knowledge” which assumes “mathematics consists of an accumulation of mathematical concepts and skills” (p.12). We can only say we find frightening the prospect of mathematics education based on such a misconceived rejection of componential analysis.

He is also optimistic that the findings of cognitive psychology can offer a basis for a better understanding of teaching and learning.

Human beings have been learning, and have been teaching their offspring, since the dawn of our species. We have a reasonably powerful “folk medicine,” based on lecturing and reading and apprenticeship and tutoring, aided by such technology as paper and the blackboard–a folk medicine that does not demand much knowledge about what goes on in the human head during learning and that has not changed radically since schools first emerged. To go beyond these traditional techniques, we must follow the example of medicine and build (as we have been doing for the past thirty or forty years) a theory of the information processes that underlie skilled performance and skill acquisition: that is to say, we must have a theory of the ways in which knowledge is represented internally, and the ways in which such internal representations are acquired. In fact, cognitive psychology has now progressed a long way toward such a theory, and, as we have seen, a great deal is already known that can be applied, and is beginning to be applied, to improve learning processes.

Anyone working in the field of evidence-based education needs to consider Simon’s work and this article very seriously.