Comment-only marking is vital in helping students to reflect on their own learning, but implementing it can be a challenge. Jason Edwards, vice principal at Priory Community School, Somerset, describes how his school has overcome the initial problems

The case for comment marking is compelling but it is perhaps the most challenging aspect of assessment to get to grips with. During 10 years of teaching I have spent hundreds of hours marking exercise books. I strongly suspect that this marking has had serious limitations in terms of its impact on learning. However, marking is such an embedded part of the profession that teachers tend to just get on with it. Recent research into written feedback by teachers strongly suggests that there is a lot wrong with traditional approaches; indeed, they can be detrimental. Where learners are given both comments and marks they tend to focus on the marks, while comments can only focus on surface features such as presentation or perceived effort. Writing the comments is time consuming but, arguably, has little impact. Now the likes of Paul Black, Dylan Wiliam and Shirley Clarke have identified a constructive way forward. They suggest good assessment is all about getting students to reflect on their current performance. The way forward is to give students qualitative feedback or comment-only marking. However, the challenge for any school is how to make this comment-only marking work in practice. Many aspects of assessment for learning (AfL) grow out of the efforts of individual teachers who successfully pioneer new approaches, but comment-only marking presents more of a challenge. To give feedback against learning objectives about what has been achieved and the next steps for improvement is time consuming and therefore systems need to be put in place to support teachers. In my school, the first step was for the school’s assessment policy to be rewritten based on AfL. This not only set out the requirement for comment-only marking but moved away from the expectation that every piece of students’ work should be teacher marked. The latter had been a widely accepted expectation, but under the new policy these books now became note books which the teacher would occasionally flick through rather than a formal assessment tool. This was the crucial step forwarded needed to create the time and ethos where effort could go into developing effective marking. The next challenge was winning learners over to something that was completely different to what they expected. It was important that they understood what comment-only marking was and its rationale. This meant a collaborative approach was needed. As head of humanities I worked with my team on this over a couple of years. We decided to focus on the three annual Key Stage 3 levelled assessments. These are weighty tasks which reflect learning over a term. We developed a six-step approach to effective comment marking (see box below).

Steps to achieve effective comment marking

  • Step one: Share success criteria: The success criteria are negotiated through a discussion with the class, thus helping to give them ownership. The success criteria are exemplified through shared examples of good work (from the previous year perhaps).
  • Step two: Students produce a rough draft: Students produce a rough draft of the assessment in their exercise books. This can be done at home or in class and is then handed in to the teacher.
  • Step three: Identify what has been achieved: Three things students have achieved are highlighted and a note is made of the success criteria which have been met. At the bottom of the work a smiley face is drawn and the three things they have done well summarized.
  • Step four: Identify a target for improvement: Next a star is placed alongside one section of the work where a success criterion has not been met fully. A star is also put at the bottom of the work alongside suggested ways of improving this section.
  • Step five: Student reflection and response to marking: Students’ work is returned so that a final copy of their assessment can be produced. This must include the suggested improvement.
  • Step six: Levelling work and returning to students: The final drafts are levelled. No comments are written on these. This does mean that they may compare levels with peers. However, as this happens only three times a year it limits potential negative impact on low achievers.

We have recently looked at how we can refine our comment-only marking and produced the following guidelines:

  • Comments should be individual and differentiated.
  • Comments should identify where success has been achieved and one area for improvement.
  • Students should do something with the comment.
  • Final pieces of work do not need comments.
  • Mark examples of meeting success criteria in highlighter pen.
  • Literacy (eg key words) should often have a high profile in success criteria.
  • You should explain to the class how work has been marked and what highlighting and notation means.
  • When redrafting students should put improvements into a different font so they stand out.
  • Teachers should actively encourage students to make the improvement.
  • Feedback should be given as three points (successes) and a star (improvement).
  • All feedback should be against success criteria.
  • Comment marking should be supplemented by oral feedback against success criteria.

In summary, comment-only marking is an area of AfL which we feel is vital to pursue. However, we feel that while its introduction presents greater challenges than other aspects of AfL a team approach and clear guidelines can support this implementation.