For some time now, teachers have been wondering whether there are better, less labour-intensive, ways of giving feedback to their students. Surely marking stacks of books every night cannot be the only way? We now have some evidence that verbal feedback is at least as effective as the written variety. And it might just help give teachers their lives back too.
Every workload survey of teachers in England reveals that they believe they are spending far too many hours on tasks they feel have little value for their students. In July 2019, Ofsted said that their own findings ‘show that teachers spend less than a half of their time on teaching, while lesson planning, marking and administrative tasks take up a large part of their non-teaching time’. Teachers told the DfE’s Workload Challenge survey that the amount of marking they had to do, and the ways they had to do it, was the key factor in driving up their workload.
The Education Endowment Foundation’s 2016 report, A Marked Improvement?, found few robust studies into the effectiveness of written marking, even though it takes up so much of a teacher’s time. Consequently, in their myth-busting document, Ofsted have reiterated that they do ‘not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its assessment policy.’
In short, in our study we found that verbal feedback, when applied well, has a positive impact on the engagement of all students – perhaps especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It may also lead to gains in progress and achievement and – at the least – appears to have no detrimental effects. When teachers learn to apply verbal feedback strategies consistently and with confidence, it has a marked positive effect on their overall practice and on the time they have available for other teaching tasks such as planning.
How did we arrive at these conclusions? Ross McGill (creator of the Teacher Toolkit blog) and I (working for the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at the IOE) were tasked by the UCL Widening Access and Participation team to work for one academic year with a group of 13 secondary teachers from across England. Our agreed research question was ‘To what extent does verbal feedback implemented over two terms improve engagement for disadvantaged students in Years 7 and 8?’
Engagement, they decided, was the written, verbal and non-verbal responses that demonstrate students’ active involvement in their learning. The teachers underwent a professional development programme with Ross, learning ways of structuring their verbal feedback and weaning themselves off the instinct to always put marks in students’ books. I helped the group to design their enquiry, sharing with them some of the R&D tools we use for collecting in-school evidence and understanding their findings.
Each teacher chose the verbal feedback strategies they felt would work best for them. We did not impose any particular approach, nor did we insist on only one way of gathering data. They kept reflective journals throughout and these turned out to be crucial sources of evidence for our report.
Despite an enthusiastic start, many in the group suffered crises of confidence by the mid-point stage. Did they have the classroom management skills to feed back verbally? What could they say to colleagues who thought they were shirking their responsibilities? By the end, however, all were much more confident in themselves and in the approach. From their own data, all could claim that their students’ engagement had improved, and nearly all thought there were achievement gains too.
Ten of the 13 said their workload had reduced, and eight of them said they had reinvested their gained time into better planning. None of them thought it was easy. They became convinced that verbal feedback was at least as useful as marking, and took much less time, but they recognised too that there was a skill to it that needed to be learned: good professional development needs to be in place before schools ditch their current practices.
All teachers already feed back verbally to their students – it is almost impossible to do otherwise. But most teachers also write long, detailed comments, often adorned with corrections, praise and next-step tips. Some feel that they are saving time by flicking and ticking or stamping the work. If the evidence for the impact of these practices is weak, we feel it is time to get serious about doing ‘live’ verbal feedback well. You can read our full report here.