At Putney High School, we are always focused on finding the most compelling way to learn. As part of this commitment, we recently began research into whether using “comment only” marking, in place of giving grades on regular pieces of work, could have a positive effect on a pupil’s learning.
Rather than just focusing on achieving a particular homework grade, can teachers and pupils put the emphasis back on the ‘learning journey’? Could we achieve greater progress, a broader understanding and a more fulfilling learning experience if we removed the numbered grades on individual pieces of work and instead gave more detailed, constructive feedback?
“Snowflakes” I hear you cry… “aren’t today’s children robust enough to cope with getting a bad grade any more?” Of course they are, and they are more than able to bask in the glow of a good one too. But how well do alphanumerical marks on a piece of homework actually offer practical help on how to progress, where to improve, or indeed highlight areas in which a particular piece of work has succeeded? How well does grading prepare children for the realities of receiving criticism in the adult, working world? This is not about easy options; it can actually be harder to accept and take on board constructive feedback than to rack up a series of good grades. Key Stage 3, before the onset of GCSEs, is a perfect opportunity to focus on the pursuit of scholarship, rather than just encouraging pupils to focus on the grade at the top of their homework book.
Putney has always been an exciting place to learn, but also to teach. Our teachers are actively involved in their own learning and a dedicated Learning and Research group is at the forefront of important research in education. With Ofsted raising concerns about KS4 encroaching on KS3, and more worrying statistics about Britain’s school children’s mental health, we decided to undertake our own research and look into this less grade-centric approach to marking, something which had reportedly been a positive development in education.
Our project involved a five month controlled trial at Key Stage 3 and looked at different approaches to providing pupil feedback on homework and smaller pieces of class work. The first thing we noticed was that pupils stopped fixating on their grade and ignoring the feedback provided. Under the previous grading system, attainment was measured with a numerical grade, where 1 was the best, but we found that students were typically more worried about the number than what it meant. Comment-only marking meant they became less obsessed with grades and instead actually read and digested the feedback given to them, incorporating it in their next piece of work.
There is nothing radical here and there is no intention to abolish grades altogether; pupils at Key Stage 3 are still receiving grades at the end of every half term and will continue to do so on all major pieces of work. Let’s not forget that grades are simply a fact of life from GCSE onwards and getting good ones will be crucial in our children’s futures, but surely, anything we can do to postpone for as long as possible the obsession with test outcomes, can only be a good thing.
Putney is as ambitious as ever, with students and staff enjoying a more holistic and progress-orientated approach to study. They’re inspired, excited and I’m delighted to say, have their minds open to the pursuit of knowledge as never before.