Canvassing pupils’ views can inform their learning as well as our teaching – as Paul Ainsworth discovered when he asked one of his classes to comment on his marking

Many pupils want to be involved as active participants in the consideration of what makes good teaching and learning so that their role changes from being an ‘object’ of research attention, to one of active participation (Flutter and Ruddock, 2004).

Double loop learning

Double loop learning, a mechanism used to reflect on successful teaching, could as easily be applied to pupils considering their own learning, and would be a valid skill for pupils to possess for the future (Schon, 1983). The first loop is the action the learner is engaged in; it could be a teacher teaching or a student learning. Many people do not go on to the second loop, which is to consider how effective the action is (whether it is teaching or learning). Double loop learning is when we reflect on the process to become a reflective practitioner or learner.

Case study

I became interested in looking at the quality of assessment and the impact it had upon the pupils, motivated by my principal, who often said that pupils, especially gifted ones, just wanted to know the grade they were working at, and the lack of attention that pupils gave to marking. The school was an 800 pupil 11-16 rural comprehensive school, with on average 60% of the pupils achieving five GCSE A*-C. The able group I worked with was a Year 9, set one of six. In Key Stage 3 SATs, over half the group achieved Level 7 and above. In addition I had taught most of the group for three years and I considered I had a very good relationship with the pupils. I shared my objectives with pupils, and asked them to consider what impact different assessment comments had on their own learning. I selected a KS4 coursework assignment in which they had all  attained Level 7 or 8 and divided the exercise books randomly into three piles. Each group would receive an NC level, but with differing kinds of comment:

  • Group 1 work would be ticked and a single word comment given: ‘Good’, ‘Very good’ or ‘Excellent’.
  • Group 2 would receive a positive sentence about the piece of work, complimenting them on their high standards, their improvement and/or their presentation.
  • Group 3 would have a formative comment explaining what to do to reach the next level. 

Without discussing with their neighbour, they were to read the comment and respond by:

  • circling two words to describe how the comment made them react (pleased; successful; confident; motivated; worried; confused; a failure; disappointed).
  • indicating their response to the lesson (very negative; negative; positive; very positive). 
  • explaining what type of comments they would like to receive.


There was little difference in how the pupils felt about the lesson. For all three styles of assessment, the responses were broadly positive. However, when I analysed how the comment made them react there was a noticeable difference, even though all the pupils had achieved a Level 7 or 8.

  • Single word comment: 100% of the pupils circled positive words.
  • Encouraging sentence: 80% of the words circled were positive.
  • Formative comment: less than 60% of the words circled were positive.

This appeared to be at odds with guidance on assessment for learning at the time. When I analysed the pupils’ free responses they were grouped into three sections. Almost 50% of the pupils wanted to receive purely praise and encouragement. Almost 40% of the pupils wished to receive formative comments on how they could improve, but they wished this to include praise too. Only 15% of the pupils were prepared to accept formative comments that did not include praise. I think that teachers sometimes forget that the first thing most pupils are looking for is reassurance that they are doing the right thing, and/or that we respect their efforts. Without that initial support, the formative comment can seem negative to the pupil. They can perceive being told what to do to reach the next level as criticism rather than support. ‘I thought I’d done really well and you’ve just written three things here which I need to do next time… I don’t understand.’


The major benefit of this piece of research for me was not the actual findings, but the attentive manner in which the pupils engaged with the process. I had found that even G&T pupils often gave assessments only a cursory glance in their eagerness to begin the next task or project. During that lesson and subsequently, however, pupils readily discussed their reactions to the marking of that particular piece of work and other assessments they had received. On that day, teacher and pupils reflected together on our learning.

Paul Ainsworth is the deputy head at Belvoir High School


Flutter and Ruddock (2004) How to Improve your School: Giving Pupils Voice, Continuum

Schon, D (New ed 1991) The Reflective Practitioner, Arena