In July I wrote about a number of interesting approaches to questions that I have seen while visiting classrooms around the south coast.

This time I’d like to highlight some of the great methods of assessment and marking that I’ve seen on these visits. I’m delighted to share these ideas with you, some of which I’ve adapted for use in my own lessons.

I need to thank all the schoolstrainees and teachers who have welcomed me into their lessons over the last eight years.

Themes of great assessment

Great assessment focuses on ‘approaches to learning’, not on achievement.

In practice, this means:

  • delivering feedback regularly in the run up to summative assessments, not after them
  • continually reviewing material covered through lots of low-stakes testing
  • focusing on how feedback is received, rather than how it is given
  • ensuring feedback generates more work for the recipient than the donor (1).

We shouldn’t be afraid to make professional judgements about what kind of feedback is required and when.  Feedback should offer a good ‘return on investment’ and leave the pupil doing more work than the teacher.

I’ve sometimes found, however, that feedback policies read as though the writer is more concerned with leaving evidence of feedback than with the effectiveness of the feedback itself.

This sort of assessment strategy is unlikely to work for a number of reasons.

Firstly, when students begin a new topic, they often need corrective feedback based on their content knowledge — eg this was correct, this wasn’t. Lengthy diagnostic feedback at the novice stage is likely to generate a huge amount of work for the teacher with very little benefit for the student.

Feedback that helps support self-regulation and conceptualisation comes in as students develop expertise in the subject. It may be that novice learners aren’t yet able to acquire that subject content knowledge, because of other barriers, such as their working and learning habits.  In which case, relentlessly pursuing content is likely to give a poorer return on investment than addressing behaviour. But while personalised learning and individual action plans are noble aims, students are more alike than they are different. Dedicating some lesson time after a task to provide general feedback — including opportunities for peer feedback — may be as effective or even more effective than individual written feedback.

A third, but significant point is that achievement has a much greater effect on academic self-concept than teacher praise. And research (2) suggests that increasing a student’s self-concept leads to better working habits and better outcomes:

“Students who perceive their academic skills positively tend to participate in more attainment-oriented behaviors such as engaging in class activities, finishing homework, and studying for exams.” (2)

Efficient assessment in practice

That’s lovely in theory, you might be thinking, but how do I do that with my classes?

So here are a few ideas I have seen or adapted, and am now sharing.

Focus on approaches to learning before achievement

This is an adaptation from Cook’s (3) work, which focuses on students’ approaches to learning rather than achievement. The idea is that you can’t teach students who aren’t ready to learn.

The teacher only records observations of the student that are applicable to the four main themes listed below:


I saw this being used to good effect with groups of Year 6s and 7s, as they transitioned to a new school and then into the main part of Year 7.

These were subjective judgements in some cases, but they allowed the teachers to show how the students were progressing beyond marks on a test. It also helped students to see their own progress in terms of improving their learning, not just acquisition of facts.

Only mark the targets

Generally speaking, only give feedback on the areas that a student is working on. So if a student is currently looking at forming clear numbers, the right way round, that is what you mark. If they are working on using a ruler for all lines, that is what you mark. Once they have shown they can do that,  set them a new target. They can be working on up to three targets at a time.

Try video marking

Take a piece of work to mark, turn on the video recording on your camera or phone and film yourself as you talk about what you see, for two minutes per pupil. Upload the clip for students to watch with their book in front of them and do the things you tell them to do in the clip.

Stop setting homework

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 13.09.48Homework takes up a huge amount of time (as the diagram on the left shows), and what does it actually tell you? Do you find out more about the students than you would if you were to give them a test? It might sound controversial, but try ditching homework and set them optional learning tasks instead.

The school that shared this approach with me had a list of brilliant things they pupils could do. Here are a few examples:

  • read The Tiger That Isn’t or something from the Ruby Redford series
  • watch The Imitation Game
  • build a kite or a record-breaking paper aeroplane
  • try a sudoku
  • sail a boat.


What is apparent from all of these examples, is that where teachers who know their pupils apply sensible assessment that gives feedback, pupils make good progress. It’s comforting to see the Ofsted ‘myth-busting’ document confirming this too.

I’ve seen many examples of great assessment, and the key to all of them is a focus on supporting the students’ learning, rather than feeding the evidence machine.

However, examples that support learning and also help reduce the marking load are less common. If you have an example please do share it via twitter @BetterMaths or on #mathschat or send me a link.

(1) Wiliam, D, 2011, Embedded Formative Assessment 1, Solution Tree Press.

(2) Valentine, JC, DuBois, DL, & Cooper, H (2004). The relation between self-beliefs and academic achievement: A meta-analytic review. Educational Psychologist, 39, 111–133.

(3) Cook, Martin, Velmans, Cathy, and Haughton, Chantelle (2012). The Queens Wood Forest School Report.