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Marking, grading or feedback?

Wednesday’s #mufuchat got me thinking about assessment. Again.  In particular it got me thinking about how muddled our vocabulary can become on the topic.  Not only does the ‘teach-speak’ jargon often fall victim to interpretation (ask ten teachers what ‘formative assessment’ means and I’m confident that you’ll get ten different answers) but even the simplest of words seem to have become synonymous with each other.

In this blog post, I want to look at three words that I feel need to be seen as distinct when used by teachers.  Specifically, they are:

  • marking
  • grading
  • feedback

“I’ve got so much marking to do”

Teachers always have marking to do but do they always mean marking?  At the time of writing, many of you are probably deeply involved in the process of ‘marking’ GCSE and A-Level coursework.  With very few exceptions, I’d gamble that you’re not actually marking but, instead, grading the work. As a result of this grade, you may well be going to back to the pupils and providing some feedback to get an urgent resubmission so that they hit their target grade.  Oh, the joys of impending coursework deadlines…

What I mean by ‘marking’

When I use the work ‘marking’, I’m referring to the process of annotating a pupil’s work.  This could involve ticks, crosses, question marks or any of the myriad systems that teachers have developed.  If you’re marking a composition in Sibelius, maybe you’re colour coding areas that you feel need further attention.
There’s no grade, level, percentage or ‘mark out of’ anywhere to be seen if all you’ve done is mark the work.  Its main function is to feed your understanding of the quality of work but it is also a means of highlighting things to the pupil.

What I mean by ‘grading’

Grading can seem like a very American term.  I must admit, whenever I think of it, I see Ross from Friends saying “I’ve got to grade some papers”.  That’s probably just me…
Grading is the thing that you usually do after you’ve marked a piece of work.  Now that you’ve marked/annotated the work, you have fed your understanding of its quality.  Consequently, you now have sufficient knowledge to award the piece of work a grade, level, percentage or ‘mark out of’.  As you write down (or type) that grade, you are grading the piece of work.
To my mind, the primary purpose of grading is to feed the system.  It’s there to enable teachers, middle leaders and senior leaders to identify trends within the school.  It may be a useful in conversation with the pupil but it’s not the thing that makes a real difference to learning.  It’s an idea reminiscent of what John Hattie was saying about assessment in yesterday’s blog.

What I mean by ‘feedback’

This is the one that makes the real difference to pupils.  You tell them about the work that they’ve completed and then you tell them how to improve their work.  For us as music teachers, ‘tell’ is probably the wrong word.  More likely, you will replicate the musical sound that they made and then model the sound that you want them to make instead.  You exaggerate and highlight the difference before, again, making the exact sound that you want from them.
In reality, this might involve you singing, playing an instrument or using technology.  It might involve you digging out an old (or commercially available) recording.  The vital thing is letting them hear what you want them to achieve.  More on this in a future blog post.
The primary purpose of feedback is to feed the learner.  Marking helps you understand the work completed so far.  Grading helps the system understand trends within the school.  Feedback helps the pupil to become a better musician.

Does it matter?

I can see why people would think I’m being pedantic to worry over these differences but I genueinly do see a benefit in being very clear about what we say.  By doing so, we help ourselves to understand the goal of what we’re working on at any given time.  As with so many things, it makes me ask myself Martin Fautley’s catchphrase:

“Who is this assessment for?”

Giving pupils feedback makes them better musicians; it’s really important.  Marking and grading?  They’re important too but, to my mind, they should play second fiddle to feedback.

As usual, I’d love to see what other teachers think.  Send me a tweet ( @johnskelleher) if you think these distinctions are:
  • pedantic
  • wrong
  • irrelevant
I’d also love to hear whether people agree with me or not on the idea that feedback is the most important of these three ideas.