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Reframing post-lesson assessment and feedback: A case study

Written by: Adam Kohlbeck
7 min read
Adam Kohlbeck, Deputy Headteacher, Birkbeck Primary School, UK

Why is feedback worth our thinking? 

In 2016, Ofsted produced its report ‘Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking’, placing teacher workload at the forefront of leadership thinking. For many, written marking as a means of post-lesson assessment is not something that has ever been questioned. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF, 2021) confirmed that feedback is a vital tool in a teacher’s armoury. However, feedback is the action that follows accurate assessment, and the principle is too often applied through strict written marking policies. Harford (2016) writes: ‘There is remarkably little high-quality, relevant research evidence to suggest that detailed or extensive marking has any significant impact on pupils’ learning.

Hasbrouk and Tindal (2017) produced data on the age at which most children in a class can be expected to achieve reading fluency (a minimum of 90 words correct per minute). They found that most pupils reach this threshold in the summer term of Year 3. This suggests that written marking has very little if any place before Year 4. 

Hattie and Timperley (2007, p. 81) point out that ‘evidence shows that the type of feedback and the way it is given can be differentially effective’. This reminds us that assessment and feedback can be effective if the right conditions are created, but that it is vital to prioritise the active ingredients of effective feedback.

Creating a system that facilitates valuable thinking 

Our intention was to create a feedback system in direct response to the evidence on formative assessment and cognition. We wanted to ensure that teachers were spending their time thinking about what children did not understand yet and how to improve understanding. Sherrington (2020) wrote about modelling a new concept being like a baton exchange between teacher and pupil, where the handover is rarely smooth and often takes multiple attempts. We wanted our teachers to see feedback in the same way, and to do that, we knew that we needed a system that facilitated multiple attempts at exchange, because we knew that the more repetitions of this we could build in, the more likely it would be that students would grasp the problematic concept. The EEF report into feedback (2021) noted that oral feedback had a disproportionately positive impact in comparison to written feedback. Taking these findings into account, alongside the study from Hasbrouk and Tindal (2017), we decided to rebrand our marking policy as an assessment and feedback policy, built around oral feedback. This was also influenced by being in a primary setting and, as Hasbrouk and Tindal (2017) point out, the reading speed of children prior to the end of Year 3 is likely to preclude them from fluently processing written feedback. Quigley (2013) also wrote that ‘we must use formative assessment as positive leverage to improve our pedagogy and refine our use of assessment for learning strategies’. We wanted post-lesson assessment and feedback to be seen as crucially connected to teaching, rather than as a laborious add-on.

Our plan was based on a number of assumptions. Firstly, learning being invisible, along with the issues surrounding the assessment of learning vs performance, means that Didau (2015) made an important point when he wrote that ‘it is extremely difficult to assess learning when we can only see knowledge and not learning’. Moreover, Ofsted (2022, para. 246) stated that ‘If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned’, providing a definition of learning that emphasises the importance of longevity for it to be useful, and so what appears to be understood today and even next term may appear to have vanished in a year’s time. Therefore, we concluded that it is much more productive to assess misconceptions. After all, this is the information that teachers need in order to inform what happens next.

Secondly, looking for evidence of ‘learning’ in each lesson seemed to be a superficial use of time, given that it occurs over time. Therefore, we decided that our new system would guide teachers away from doing that.

Thirdly, we believe that the most valuable use of a teacher’s time, after identifying misconceptions, is what they do in response, and so we knew that we had to place a high value on doing this kind of reflective thinking.

In summary, we aimed to create a system that valued misconception identification and that gave teachers some understanding of where students are on the spectrum of understanding of big concepts at any given time. We also wanted to create a more continuous feedback loop. We hoped that, as a result, students would be more actively involved in the process of improving, due to the normalisation of rooting out misconceptions. We also wanted to shift people’s thinking so that their habits would alter sustainably, and so our new system had to act as a scaffold for the type of thinking that we wanted teachers to do.

A culture of misconception and action

The devised system was heavily influenced by Percival (2017). Each teacher is issued with an assessment booklet, with each page representing a lesson and the page being split into three parts. Part one is for the names of students who have produced excellent work. The second part is for the names of students who require complete reteaching or who have significant misconceptions that are preventing any understanding. The third part is for the names of students who have smaller misconceptions and details what these misconceptions are (this means that teachers can quickly see commonalities). The booklets are used in history, geography, science, writing and maths lessons. In subjects with models of mastery that are characterised by automaticity of a skill, such as PE and music, the booklets are not used and instead video analysis is used to assess competence. Unfortunately, there is no space here to explore this in detail. 

Teachers have their booklets with them during lessons to note down misconceptions they come across, but they must also look through the books at the end of the lesson to add to the booklet. This process takes around 10–15 minutes. Following this, teachers plan a short session first thing the next morning, to work with their reteaching group. At this point of the day, the rest of the class are independently engaging in spaced practice of previously taught content. These independent groups deliberately receive no support with this spaced practice. As Bjork and Bjork (2011, p. 56) point out, ‘any time that you, as a learner, look up an answer or have somebody tell or show you something that you could, drawing on current cues and your past knowledge, generate instead, you rob yourself of a powerful learning opportunity’. 

The next lesson begins with whole-class feedback, focusing on the smaller common misconceptions, before the teacher moves on to any new content. The bulk of teacher time goes into planning this part of the next lesson. At some point in the next lesson, teachers will also share the excellent work from the previous lesson because, as Hendrick and Kirschner (2011, p. 39) state, ‘Success leads to learning and not the other way around.’

There were also important peripheral actions taken that ensured that there was a cultural change to reinforce the systemic one. We ran professional development sessions and followed up with instructional coaching, using the six-stage model from Bambrick-Santoyo (2016) specifically around the use of formative assessment strategies, to ensure that we had a shared understanding of how best to use each one.

What has changed? 

The headline impact is the school’s excellent combined Key Stage 2 outcomes, which place it in the top one per cent of schools in the country. However, this is perhaps the least interesting element of the impact of the approach to post-lesson assessment and feedback. In all subjects, lower-prior-attaining students made more progress than their peers. In Key Stage 1, this appears to be because of the greater access to information about how to improve understanding that the daily verbal feedback has brought. Teachers are also now thinking about not just identifying misconceptions but also how to address them. This is a priority of feedback supported by Sherrington (2023), who notes that ‘formative assessment only helps if it leads to action’. There is also a buzz around the staffroom now, with teachers keen to talk about the latest misconception that they have uncovered and what they plan to do about it. Discussing challenges and evidence-informed solutions in this way is what Hargreaves and O’Connor (2018) refer to as ‘collaborative professionalism’, and leads to teachers encountering new ideas and moving their own learning and understanding on. Furthermore, teachers feel that they are using their time impactfully and this is breeding motivation.

There are, of course, improvements still to be made. I know that there is more work to be done around the subjects that require a greater focus on practising skills to a point of automaticity, rather than building understanding block upon block. However, our conclusions are clear: reframing post-lesson assessment and feedback has improved the student experience in the school, and we cannot lose sight of that central aim of every change that we make.

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