Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Some general findings from my pilot project

Below is a very rough draft of a mock-up paper that I wrote as part of my performance management for the last academic year. It is based on the pilot-interviews that I conducted in preparation for my Thesis. I'm sure there are a TON of errors in it, but I thought it might be of interest for some people to read. Please don't take anything that I've written here as information that can be generalised; it can't be. I merely intended for the data collection, analysis and subsequent paper to be a learning process for me. Take from it what you will! Criticism and comments are welcome, as always!


Over the past few years, increasing importance has been placed on teachers being able provide feedback that ‘moves learners forward’ and which is worded as ‘guidance on what to do next, rather than telling [them] about what was deficient’ (William, 2009). Clarke (2005) similarly says that ‘feedback needs to be on improvement, not correction’. Feedback on learning which is ‘geared towards improving learning rather than measuring it’, which ‘puts emphasis on each pupils progress’ without comparison to others and which is ‘part of an ongoing dialogue rather than judgment’ is more likely to make a positive contribution to learning than a negative one (Swaffield, 2008). Studies have shown that for any type of feedback to be useful it should include a high level of student involvement and allow both teachers and students to ‘arrive at a shared vision of learning objectives’ (CERI, 2005). It should also be ‘timely and specific, and include suggestions for ways to improve’ while also being ‘tied to explicit criteria regarding expectations’ (CERI, 2005).

However, few studies have been conducted to explore how the students themselves perceive feedback, especially at the secondary school level. Flutter and Rudduck (2004) state that too much research has focused on ‘looking in from the outside’, and that we should instead try to investigate pupils’ perceptions and attitudes by going directly to the source; the students themselves. More recently, Hargreaves (2013) has echoed this sentiment by stating that we ‘lack many details about how feedback helps children’s classroom learning’ because we fail to see things from the learners perspective. Gamlem and Smith (2013) state that there is a need for further research to ‘study the development of reception and use of feedback among students and what role the teacher plays in creating knowledge, skills and climates where feedback is not simply like messages thrown out in bottles’ but is instead ‘where teachers can be relatively certain that the feedback message reaches and can be used by the intended recipient’. In their work from across the UK, Flutter and Rudduck (2004) found that ‘pupils of all ages can show a remarkable capacity to discuss their learning in a considered and insightful way’.

It is with Flutter and Ruddock’s (2004) ideas in mind that I sought to consult secondary school students about their perception of feedback within the classroom. This paper is the result of a series of pilot interviews conducted for my Masters of Education thesis.  Acting as a researcher, alongside a pair of student-researchers, I conducted group or individual interviews with a total of eleven students aged 11 to 15 in a UK secondary school.

Research design and ethical considerations

The research described in this paper began in June 2014 and was completed in July 2014. As such, it is a very brief sample of student responses. The aim of the research was to understand student’s perception of feedback within English lessons, and how this feedback contributed to their learning and subsequent progress. I was particularly interested in seeing how students felt about a new school-wide marking policy (two star and a wish), which was implemented a year earlier.

Initially, I conducted the study on my own; however, as I continued to do research for another paper, I decided to try to include student-researchers for the final interview. I randomly selected three students from a Year 7, 8, 9 and 10 form to take part in group or individual interviews. In consultation with form tutors, students with a range of levels and abilities were chosen so that a wider variety and depth could be given to the responses, with three attaining higher levels, three attaining middle levels and two attaining lower levels. I chose to focus on feedback in English because the results were to be used as part of my yearly performance management, which needed to be linked to my main teaching subject of English. Therefore, while no generalisations can be made from the data, the study can provide interesting insight into how students in one secondary school setting view feedback, and can act as a starting point for further research into student perception of feedback in general.

The principal method of data collection was group or individual interviews. Initially, I interviewed students from Year 8, 9 and 10 in groups of two or three. For the final interview, I had one student-researcher interview one Year 7 student.

The British Educational Research Association (BERA) state that anyone who wishes to include children in the research process must comply with Articles 3 and 12 of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of Children; all actions must be in the best interest of the child and all children who are ‘capable of forming their own views should be granted the right to express their views freely in all matters affecting them’ (BERA, 2011). BERA also state that the permission of those who act as guardians (parents) or ‘responsible others’ (social workers) should be sought (BERA, 2011). As such, the parents of both the student-researchers and the interview subjects were sent a letter outlining the aims of and planned processes of the project, asking parents to opt out if they were not comfortable with their child taking part. All but three of the students returned their forms, so they were not included in the study. In total, there was one boy from Year 7, two girls from Year 8, two boys and one girl from Year 9, and two girls and one boy from Year 10.

The interviews were conducted and video-recorded during a twenty-minute registration period at the start of the day so that students did not miss any lessons. All interviews were conducted in an empty classroom, with the door closed for privacy. The interviews were video recorded for transcription purposes. This allowed me to record and note facial expressions and gestures during the interviews, which was especially helpful for the interview conducted by the student-researcher, which I was not present for.  

All students were given the opportunity to refuse participation in the research, prior to the interview starting, as well as having the option of not being recorded. Students were assured that the video would be deleted upon completion of the project, and viewed only by myself, for transcription purposes. No students refused to take part in the interview, nor did they object to being video-recorded. The length of the interviews varied from approximately nine minutes to just over twelve minutes, resulting in a total of 20:54 minutes of video-recorded interviews.

A series of ten open-ended questions were used to ask students about their experiences with feedback in English. These questions were adapted from those used by Gamlem and Smith (2013) (see Appendix 1). Open-ended question were used because they allow the researcher to collect information about people’s preferences and opinions, and to explore their experiences, motivations and reasoning in more detail (Drever, 1995).

Data analysis was informed by the grounded theory. This means that any conclusions I make here arise from the data itself (Taber, 2013). The interviews were transcribed, verbatim, by myself within 48 hours of the interview taking place. A research diary was kept as well, in which I recorded any emergent thoughts or ideas immediately after each interview took place and prior to transcription. These helped me to return to my initial thoughts, comparing them to the themes which emerged later during analysis of the transcripts. Extracts of the transcripts were checked and validated by the student-researchers to ensure accuracy throughout the process. I then read through each transcript, identifying themes as and when I felt they emerged; I did not look for any pre-existing themes as identified in the literature. Instead, I tried to spot patterns in the data using my own judgment and professional knowledge (Taber, 2013). Finally, I compared themes between each transcript, identifying common themes throughout the interviews. These themes will be explored in the sections which follow.

Student’s comments on teacher feedback in English

Overall, the students felt that the ‘two star and a wish’ marking policy was helpful, although some expressed concerns that they weren’t always being given the time to use their targets, nor was it always clear what these targets meant. The common themes that emerged from analysis of the data include the following:

·      The students felt that instructive, or constructive, feedback was the most helpful
·      Some students were not being given sufficient time to work with, or even reflect upon, their targets
·      Students value verbal clarification of targets alongside written feedback
·      Students felt that clear boundaries and expectations are needed before and after doing an important piece of work
·      Students felt they would benefit from better training, including how to peer and self assess

Each of these points will be addressed in some detail in the sections that follow.

The students felt that instructive, or constructive, feedback was the most helpful

Most of the students interviewed described the benefits of receiving two stars and a wish in their English lessons. For example, Joe, a Year 7 student, stated that that he found two stars and a wish ‘very useful because you can put it into your next piece of work so you can improve’. Similarly, Debbie, a Year 8 student, felt that the feedback was helpful because it told her ‘what to improve on’ and helped her to ‘check that [she] can improve on [the target]’ and to ‘stretch [herself] further’. The three Year 10 students interviewed also agreed that the two stars and a wish policy was helpful because it allowed them to ‘play to [their] strengths but also…you can see what is written and [teachers have] explained how you can improve as well’.

Overall, the majority of the students interviewed felt that the two star and wish marking policy was a positive thing. However, the students did identify a few areas for improvement. For example, when asked what they appreciated least about feedback the two Year 8 students replied with the following:

Debbie: probably when like it’s really bad like you know how badly you’ve done something

Alice: yah
Debbie: yah

KC: so like when it…sometimes when it’s negative…it’s not great

Debbie and Alice: yah

Alice: yah and also like sometimes when they [the teacher] write like the wishes and things…um sometimes they’re quite basic and y-you think like…or they’ve done it the same on another piece of work so like they’ve done that already so you think like could they have found a different wish for that…

KC: okay…yah…that makes sense…

Debbie: yah or like when everybody has like the same target…

This extract suggests that students find targets less helpful when they are overly negative or basic, or when they don’t suggest that the teacher has taken the time to give a personalised target. Ben, a Year 9 student, echoed this sentiment by saying that sometimes the targets ‘[don’t] really tell me what to do [they] just [say] what I did wrong’. When asked what he would find more helpful, he stated that ‘more constructive’ feedback was needed.

The literature on ‘effective feedback’ supports this viewpoint. According to Clarke (2005) ineffective feedback is anything that is too general (such as ‘some good words here’) or provides broad targets (such as ‘remember to include more detail’). Feedback that focuses on ego involvement (for example, saying things like ‘Well done!’ which make the receiver feel good about themselves on a basic level) over task involvement (for example, praise for completion of a specific skill) is another example of ineffective feedback (Tanner & Jones, 2006). Black and Wiliam (1998) state that feedback which ‘gave learners direct advice on how to improve, was far more effective than marking which simply identified ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ responses’ (cited in Weedon et al., 2002, 110).

The data here suggests that students can tell when the teacher has put time and effort into giving each student a specific, constructive and individualized target. These types of feedback are very beneficial because they allow students to make better progress and to push themselves more.

Some students were not being given sufficient time to work with, or even reflect upon, their targets

The data suggests that students in Year 7 and Year 10 have had better experiences when working with their feedback. This could be because the Year 7s would not have experienced anything different, while the Year 10s would have had more focus put on improvement by the teacher, due to external pressures such as league tables, exam results and FFTD targets.

For example, Joe (Y7) said that he works with his feedback in ‘most probably every lesson’ and that when given feedback his class will ‘go through it all and…pick out certain things we did’ and then ‘try and put it in pieces of work’.

Similarly, all three Year 10 students suggested that they received regular feedback and that they actively ‘tried to improve on it’. That being said, the Year 10 students suggested that they sometimes feel rushed, and that more time to do practical work would be helpful.  Gail, a high achieving Year 10 student, said that they ‘normally move quite quickly’ in lessons and that they are ‘literally just doing assessment after assessment to finish [the] coursework’. This suggests that some students have very little time to work with specific targets. Consequently, all three Year 10 students expressed the desire to have more time to work with their targets; Ethan, a lower achieving student, summed their argument up by saying that he’d like to have ‘practicals and like [more information on] how to achieve that target and how to keep using it’.

Similarly, some students in Years 8 and 9 expressed criticism of the way they used their feedback.  Debbie(Y8) said that she ‘sometimes’ incorporates her targets into her work after receiving feedback, but agreed that more time was needed to work with targets. That being said, both Year 8 students suggested that they made use of their targets without direction from the teacher, which suggests that independent learning is encouraged by using the target tracking system. For example, consider Debbie and Alice’s statements here:

Debbie: we normally like write it…we’ve got at like in the back of our books we’ve got like a target…like target tracker where we write it down and when we do it three times we check it off and the teacher marks it

Alice: yah we’ve got that as well but like we don’t check it so it just stays there and we only refer to it like a couple of times but sometimes when I get a wish I think like oh what was my wish…when I’m doing assessments when I go back and like is that something I could put into this work and sometimes it is so that’s good…

This exchange suggests that the students would benefit from more teacher directed time and monitoring over the use of targets, especially those recorded in the target tracker. Another example can be seen in the following extract from the interview with Year 9 students:

KC: …what do you usually do when you get feedback from the teacher

Claire: um we have a target like sheet in the back of our book where we write it down our targets and when we’ve achieved it we tick um a box to say that we’ve achieved it

KC: okay what about you guys

Peter: I’m trying to achieve it the second I get it

KC: okay so you try to work with your targets straight away

Peter nods

Ben: I don’t do anything

KC: nothing

Ben: well we get told to read it and then we like do other things

KC: okay…would you like to do something with it do you reckon

Ben: yah cuz [the teacher] just writes it down and just tells us to read it and like we don’t do anything to change it

KC: okay so you would like to have…would it be more helpful to have time to change it to work with it

Ben: yah

While this suggests that the majority of students do get to work with their targets, it implies that some teachers are not encouraging students to work with, and reflect upon, their targets enough. Interestingly, this appears to be something that the students themselves would like to do, and is reflected in the literature as being a key element of effective feedback. For example, Black and William (1998) state that students need to have time to ‘work with evidence of their difficulties’ (Black & William, 1998). Similarly, Quinton and Smallbone (2013) state that teachers should allow ‘dedicated classroom time…for reflection on written feedback’. Stiggins and Chappuis (2012) also suggest that ‘it is important to allow students time to reflect’ and offer a number of questions and prompts for teachers to encourage this type of reflection. Class time should be devoted to ‘rewriting selected pieces of work, so that emphasis can be put on feedback for improvement within a supportive environment’ (Black et al., 2002).

Students value verbal clarification of targets alongside written feedback

Verbal feedback is useful to students because ‘it allows them to clarify points they don’t understand and get really personal attention from their teacher’ (Weedon et al., 2002). However, this type of feedback isn’t always practical in the classroom, as being able to provide 30 students with individual, oral feedback can often be impossible. As Weedon et al. (2002) state, ‘[t]he trouble is there is only one teacher and lots of pupils’. Tanner and Jones (2003) similarly admit that ‘oral feedback to encourage articulation of thoughts and ideas throughout a lesson’ is important, but acknowledge that ‘one-to-one oral feedback is not always easy’.

Throughout the interviews, the students seemed to also acknowledge this fact. Peter (Y9) suggested that his feedback was sometimes followed up by the teacher ‘explain[ing] it to me’, especially if the target was unclear. Ben similarly suggested that it was sometimes helpful to have the teacher ‘explain it [the feedback] more’. Ethan (Y10) described how his teacher would regularly ‘explain to [him] how [he] can achieve [his] feedback goals’.  In fact, Gail and Ethan (Y10) both suggested that they would value verbal feedback alongside written feedback. Consider the following suggestion:

Gail: …some time with the teacher as well [would be useful] so [they] can help out with different students…I know it’s hard in like lessons to help like individual students but if there’s a group of students that aren’t doing the same – that are doing the same thing – like they need improvement [they] could work with that group of students to help them

Ethan, towards the end of the interview, later echoed this idea again:

Ethan: if you had some students…like what Gail said…if you had some students that had the same target maybe you can like put them in a group and then talk through how to get there and how to achieve that target

However, the students also suggested that verbal feedback does not have to come directly from the teacher; Debbie (Y8) suggested that sometimes ‘talk[ing] to each other and tell[ing] each other what we need to improve on’ can be just as helpful.

The Year 10 students especially valued peer assessment; Gail described how she found it useful to ‘read other people’s work and like use their ideas’ while Ethan similarly stated that he found it beneficial to have someone else ‘checking your work and then you can get their feedback and not just the teachers’. That being said, in order for peer assessment and group work to be useful, students need to be properly trained in how to be assessors themselves; this topic will come up again later in the paper.

Students felt that clear boundaries and expectations are needed before and after doing an important piece of work

Earl and Katz (2008) describe effective feedback as information which ‘challenges ideas, introduces additional information, offers alternative interpretations and creates conditions for self-reflection and a review of ideas’. They also suggest that feedback is a ‘loop’, which allows students to compare their own progress against learning goals’ (Earl & Katz, 2008). This idea is mentioned again in a study conducted by Peterson and Irving (2008), where they said students were able to identify ‘an assessment-feedback learning loop’ in which feedback ‘led to more learning that was subsequently assessed, keeping the cycle going’. Feedback should therefore be ongoing; it should become a process by which students become comfortable adapting and revising their work, making adjustment and improvements as necessary, based on feedback that is linked to specific learning outcomes.

These ideas came up often in the data as well. It was clear from the interviews which students had worked with specific targets and assessment foci within lessons and those who may have used these targets less often; this was reflected in the way the students spoke and responded to some of the questions. For example, when asked by the student-researcher what he thought of the feedback coversheets, Joe responded by saying that he found them helpful because ‘you’re allowed them in assessment so you can just look at what you’re doing’. He also suggested that his teacher would ‘go through [the different assessment foci] as a class and go do AF2 AF3 AF4 AF5…’, allowing them to become comfortable with the various skills and criteria needed to succeed.  Interestingly, Joe showed more knowledge of the assessment foci than the Year 10 student who was interviewing him, as evidence in the extract below:

Student-researcher shows Joe a sample coversheet

SR: do you understand those

Joe: confidently yah I do

SR: shocked really

Joe: yah don’t you understand that
SR: well no…

Joe: it’s like AF2 and stuff

SR: do you know what they mean

Joe: yah it’s like zooming in on words and stuff

Joe was also only one of two students who was able to answer the question ‘Do you know what your teacher looks for when marking your work’ without giving spelling, punctuation or grammar as the main focus. His response was, again, ‘like the hidden meaning of words and stuff’. The only other student to give a similar response was Gail, a high achieving Year 10 student (her response can be seen later in the paper).

Ben, in Year 9, suggested that sometimes he was not given the coversheet prior to sitting an assessment, which he felt put him at a disadvantage. When asked to clarify what he meant, he stated that coversheets are useful ‘so like I know how to get my level which I need’ but all three Year 9 students felt that they weren’t given enough clarification on how to improve their targets from one level to the next. Claire suggested that an assessment grid or checklist ‘so you know how to achieve the levels’ would be helpful.

The Year 10 students also suggested that having better access to clear boundaries and expectations would be helpful. For example, Hannah describes how ‘sometimes’ she would be given a ‘B or C grade text and an A grade text’ to compare, stating that looking at specific levels was the most helpful way to make improvements. Gail went a bit further, explaining how she’d make better progress if her teacher could ‘write down points um from the mark scheme so for like an A explain how from our work that could be improved’.

The fact that all of the students, minus Joe and Gail, responded to the question ‘Do you know what your teacher looks for when marking your work’ with spelling, punctuation or grammar related foci suggests that not all students are comfortable or confident working with the assessment foci, perhaps because they are not given sufficient opportunities to do so. This suggests that more work is required in this area; this links in well with the final point, which I will explore below.

Students felt they would benefit from better training, including how to peer and self assess

Two of the interview questions specifically required students to describe how they peer and self-assess work. Most students had mixed feelings about these types of assessment, but much of their discomfort comes down to insufficient training. The incident above with Joe shows how students who work often with their targets and the assessment foci become much more confident when working with targets and assessment foci. However, even Joe suggested that sometimes peer assessment can be misused, especially when ‘the friend just goes oh sorry I didn’t mean to do that and you just get it wrong’ suggesting that sometimes students don’t take peer assessment as seriously as they should. He also suggests that sometimes students will mark each other generously ‘just to be kind’.

Debbie and Alice similarly suggest that peer assessment can provide a good starting point to discuss improvements, and that annotations from other students such as ‘this is quite good but you could maybe put in this’ is helpful. However, both girls admit that self-assessment is much trickier. Consider their responses below:

Debbie: cuz you’ve done that work it’s quite hard to assess your own work and what you’ve done and how good it is

Alice: yah and also like we don't do it very often um and like I’m not sure how to explain it really but if you don’t do it very often you think like…so…and if you don’t understand what your target really means then like you get really confused and you’re like…so do I say what I did right and give myself a target not to do with the other assessment and…you have to incorporate everything and it gets a bit like blah makes a funny face

KC: okay so would you like to do more self-assessment

Alice: well yah but I’d like to have like a lesson on how to maybe…well not a lesson…and like explain how you could maybe write something…

Similarly, Ben and Claire (Y9) both felt self-assessment wasn’t useful, while Paul (Y9) felt that ‘absolutely’ it was. When asked to explain how he self-assessed his work, he went on to say that ‘if I do the punctuation wrong I can just mark it again’ in order to fix it. This suggests that he has been given more opportunities to self assess his work, and therefore feels more comfortable doing it. However, it also links into the student-held-belief that spelling, punctuation and grammar are the only things that students can self-assess their work for.

The Year 10 students were also much less comfortable doing self-assessment. While Ethan, the lowest achiever in the group, found it useful (stating that it helps him to ‘find the stuff that [he’s] missed’) those students, like Gail and Hannah, who are mid-to-high achievers find it hard because they aren’t sure how to be critical of themselves. For example, consider the following extract:

Gail: I think we have [self-assessed] once but I don’t find it that useful because you might be too harsh on yourself or too like gestures as if unsure of what to say not harsh on yourself so you might give yourself lower on a good grade and then it’s not that great so it’s not that useful

Hannah nods in agreement

KC: don’t like self-assessment Hannah?

Hannah: no

KC: why not

Hannah: I always mark myself too low

This may be because students who are working at higher levels will doubt their ability to do the ‘tougher’ high level skills, such as probing for sub-text and meaning, whereas lower level students will be able to pick out simpler skills to improve upon, such as spelling, punctuation and grammar; When asked what the teacher looks for when marking work, Ethan’s response was, much like the students in Year 8 and 9, ‘high quality punctuation and spelling because that’s the most important thing’, whereas Gail felt that teachers look for work that is ‘short and to the point’ and includes ‘point, evidence and explanation’. This suggests that better training (of the students) is needed to allow students to become more confortable looking at different levels of work, so that they can more easily recognise good work when they see it, even when assessing their own work.


As you can see, this research has highlighted some interesting areas for further development within the school in which the research took place, as well as in further academic study. The findings suggest a few areas where feedback is being used well within the English faculty, but also suggests areas where improvement is needed. Essentially, students are finding the two stars and a wish policy to be very helpful, especially when they are given sufficient time to work with and improve upon their targets. Giving students constructive criticism alongside a recognition of their strengths is beneficial because, according to Gail (Y10), it allows students to ‘see if [they’re] consistently using those strengths’. Nearly all of the students involved in the study felt that two stars and a wish was an improvement on previous methods of feedback because it allows students to ‘pinpoint [their] weaknesses and…strengths…[so that their] weaknesses can be developed’ (Ethan, Y10). Students also show greater confidence in their own ability and understanding when they work with specific targets and assessment foci on a daily basis. However, more training is needed to allow students to become comfortable with using and understanding their targets, especially when used in conjunction with peer and self-assessment.

 Appendix 1

Interview questions used in pilot-interviews

1. When was the last time you got feedback in English? What was the feedback? Can you give examples? How useful was it?
2. What do you find useful when getting feedback from your teacher? (Why?)
3. What don’t you like when getting feedback from your teacher? (Why?)
4. What do you usually do with the teacher feedback? How often do you get the opportunity to work with your targets?
5. What usually happens when you get feedback in English? How is feedback followed up?
6. How do you do peer assessment?
7. Do you self-assess your own work in English? How do you do this?
8. Are there times when you don’t get feedback, but you’d like to?
9. How are you told about moving from one level to the next?
1    10. Do you know what your teacher looks for when assessing your work?


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