How does marking aid student learning?

Anna Mack is interested in the way Assessment for Learning strategies can help students to develop greater autonomy.

'I started to look at how students reflect on comments we make on their work and how they respond to feedback more generally.  I wanted to take into account recent research and methodology that argues that a piece of work with a mark and comments on means that students make the same amount of progress as if they had a mark without comments.  This might suggest that the time spent marking with detailed comments on is wasted if a mark is added;  however, even with just comments some students did not make rapid progress either.   

Therefore, I began to think about the language that we use in the comments that are written, and whether or not students properly understand them, in order to ascertain whether or not this is an influential factor.  

In many subjects we might write that more ‘evidence’ or ‘analysis’ is needed. But how do students know exactly what this means in the context of each lesson?  Some members of my Upper Sixth, for example, still struggle with the concept of ‘explanation’ and ‘evaluation’ and how this is actually applied in an essay.   

I therefore tried the following task using a ‘review, reflect, and revise method’. Students were given paragraphs that had three different versions of evaluative statement. Students read the paragraphs and highlighted which bit they thought contained ‘evaluation’.  It was interesting how distracted they got by the grammar/syntax/tone even if they did manage to identify where evaluation was present.  Using what they had learnt they then wrote a paragraph under timed conditions. When they had finished the paragraph I got them to review their own work by underlining where they thought they had used evidence and evaluation in different colours, with additional comments on how developed they thought their evaluation was. I took in the paragraphs, gave them feedback and asked them to add a comment in response. 

This ‘dialogue’ showed clearly that each student had a different understanding of what the term ‘evaluation’ actually meant and we were able to clarify in group and one to one discussion.  After asking them to write a renewed definition of the term, students have started to write paragraphs which are clearer, as well as more cognisant of the need for genuinely evaluative comment. A really clear personal definition seems to have helped.  They have maintained their confidence and there has been progress, despite the removal of marks at the end of work.

Obviously this is just the start of looking at AFL and a small part but the key point for me about being reflective is students have to have their own innate understanding of the definitions used in a marking comment. Research suggests that sometimes variations in understanding can reflect  cultural paradigms in which teachers and students work, which carries obvious significance to us as a school with a many non-native English speakers, and I intend to pursue this further'.