Thursday, 31 December 2015

Two Stars and a Wish... For Better Feedback: Part 3

In this post, I want to take some time to consider the importance of peer feedback for exam classes.  I think that it's important that, when planning peer/self assessment activities, we (as teachers) consider what we want students to gain from the activity. When it boils down to it, there are a few possible options: if they mark their own work then you can spend more time planning; you need a plenary task and this should be fairly simple; you want them to see models of work produced by other students; or you want them to have a greater understanding of how they're being assessed. For me, it's always the latter.

For exam classes, I often liken the exam to an elaborate tap dance: you have a short amount of time to demonstrate a variety of steps and the smallest mistake can cost you your grade.  Just like with the tap dance, practice is key, as is understanding precisely what the examiners wish to see.  It's true that you can also use other analogies for this but the essence of it is simple: the more students understand what's being assessed, the easier they will find it to produce this in exam conditions.

I've tried a number of ways of getting students to get to grips with mark schemes; often this means creating an 'understandable English' version that cuts through all of the vague examiner terminology that litters mark schemes in my subject.  I find that this is best done with students, rather than giving them a diluted version straight off.  After this, I then use various tools to ensure self/peer assessment is productive.

First and foremost is the checklist.  This works well when assessing writing skills, as students need to apply certain skills to 'check off' the examiner's list.  However, it's clear that these need to be differentiated.  As I teach mixed ability at KS4, I will often use this as a chance to stretch key students by giving them the checklist for the next band up, or giving them a choice between that of their target grade and the next one up.  This then gives students a clear set of criteria to check their work for.

Another tool that works well, especially for reading skills, is the 'humble highlighter' that I looks at in a previous post (  This means that students can identify where they've used certain skills, using steps as in the slide below.

It is also useful to model assessment to students, as effective training will help them develop a successful approach to assessing their own work.  As part of this, I often given them a selection of strengths/targets that they might look to apply for different grades, which they can use if they are struggling with the mark scheme criteria.

Another place that students can look for suitable strengths and targets is in my own marking: they can use this to identify if the piece of work has met past targets, or if it needs to develop further.  I've found the use of 'writing sprints' beneficial for this (an idea that was recently suggested by a colleague). In this students write in five minute chunks.  At the start of each 'sprint' they set themselves a single target for that five minutes.  At the end, they annotate where they've met the target and set themselves another target for the next paragraph.  This constant approach to reflect also encourages them to proof read as they go along in the exam, rather than leaving until the end when they could risk running out of time.

The final tool that I used to help develop student-led assessment is me.  By reading their feedback as I mark their books, I can check their understanding of the mark scheme.  One example is the use of 'ambitious' vocabulary: I recently marked a book where a student had said that they'd met their target of using it through their use of words such as 'however' or 'definitely'. Whilst the student had improve the range of vocabulary used, it was clear that these choices would not be ambitious enough for the exams.  Checking their self assessment then allowed me to leave some questions for them about what ambitious vocabulary is, making links to some of the bonus spellings I'd given in a recent spelling test as examples.

Overall, I feel that this understanding of how to assess helps students in two ways.  Primarily, it means that they understand what examiners are looking for and, as a consequence, helps them to display these skills under exam conditions.  However, it also works to develop their independent revision skills, meaning that they now have a way of reflecting on their progress when doing their own revision outside of the classroom.

Image credits:

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Two Stars and a Wish... for Better Feedback: Part 2

In my last post, I reflected on how I had used highlighters as a tool for self and peer assessment. These are a great tool for getting students to highlight where specific skills have been applied but with that application of peer assessment, there is still a crucial barrier to effective peer assessment: untrained students.  This can be a particular problem if your students are always swapping work with the same person as, if their peer assessor is giving poor targets, then they will consistently get a bad deal in comparison to others students; this can be especially problematic in lower sets or mixed ability classes.

In order to give every student more 'bang for their buck', I've taken to using gallery feedback when students peer assess extended pieces of writing.  However, I've adapted the method that I've shamelessly stolen from others on Twitter to support students in covering a wider range of skills for feedback, whilst keeping the great opportunities that it offers to students (in terms of reading other students' work as models and also in the engagement with mark schemes that it provides).

I also want to stress how I feel about allowing students to talk during this process; some teachers I know of have encouraged students to complete gallery feedback in silence, though I feel that (if feedback is to be effective) students should have the opportunity to discuss the targets they're giving.  Additionally, I also believe that making the task an unstructured 'wander around the room' could be problematic- as it leaves students open to gather for a chat with friends as well as stopping each child from getting the same feedback coverage.

My approach, then, has always been fairly systematic: students start the feedback with several postits (one for each stage of the feedback) that they write their names on.  The naming gives a degree of accountability as well as enabling students to follow up on any targets that they want further clarification on.  After this, students then move one seat over and assess the first piece of work for a specific skill (range of vocabulary, for example), highlighting and annotating where the writing demonstrates these skills and using the postit to write a strength and a target that is left with the piece of work.

Of course, this could get very tedious and it would also be ineffective to keep the same assessment criteria when students move on to the next piece of work, as there is little value to the task if the student ends up with several postits with the same feedback.  It is for this reason that I change the criteria each time that students move to the next seat- thus allowing them to assess a range of skills as well as ensuring that each student gets different areas to work on.

Often this will take a full lesson to do thoroughly, as I often ask students to share the strengths and targets that they are giving along the way to model this process for others.  It also means that, in the second part of the lesson, I can give students a chance to choose which target(s) they wish to work on by redrafting a section of their work and then self assessing their progress at the end of the lesson.

I've found that this is particularly good when preparing students for assessments/exams (through both KS3 and KS4), as it clearly demonstrates how they are eventually assessed on a number of skills through one task.  On top of this, it allows them to see other examples as models (something that I encourage by getting them to reflect on what they have learnt from reading the other examples before they generate their redraft).

If you have tried anything similar, please let me know your thoughts by commenting or tweeting me (@borismcdonald). I'm also going to be tweeting some examples of this feedback in the following week.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Two Stars and a Wish... For Better Feedback: Part 1

When training, I used peer assessment frequently as a plenary. It was great: all students diligently reading their partner's work and acting as fairy godparents, using their red wands to spell out their feedback. Or, as some people told me, marking the work so I didn't have to.

Of course, it all looked well and good until I started looking at how how effective some of this feedback was. When it came to marking the books myself, I found a range of spelling 'corrections' (my favourite being the student who 'corrected' a spelling that was already accurate) and very few targets that would actually help the student develop.  Thinking back, I'm not sure why I was surprised; it seems ridiculous to question why the feedback was ineffective when the students had not been taught how to give feedback effectively.

I started NQT year by using little peer/self assessment (and remarking those that had been done myself). This was not sustainable. I quickly realised that, if I wanted to make it worthwhile, then I would need to train my students- using a range of strategies shamelessly stolen from colleagues in my school and through twitter. And now, in the spirit of sharing that makes teachers amazing, I thought I could start to share them with you, starting with my most prized tool: highlighters.

There are many things that I have to be grateful for at my current school. One of these has to be the resource pack our subject leaders prepare for us each year.  Each September is like Christmas morning as we unwrap our fix of postits, polypockets and highlighters.  Each room gets a class set, with a range of colours; I can safely say that these are my most important tool in peer/self assessment.

The different colours are key.  In English, students often need to combine several skills in one paragraph of an essay/piece of creative writing and getting them to highlight these can often demonstrate when a key skill is not applied.  This also gives assessors an area to focus on, as they can then explain how a highlighted section links to the differentiated success criteria.  For Year 7, it can be as simple as highlighting quotations in one colour and the inferences made of a character in another.  At A Level, I get students to use five colours to show where they have met the different assessment objectives- something that's particularly important when students have difficulty applying so many skills in one piece of writing.

Lastly: it makes my marking more productive.  I don't have to read through an entire piece to recognise a lack of quotations or a lack of language analysis.  Instead, I can focus my written feedback on whether students understand what analysis is (especially if they have not highlighted an example, or have highlighted something that isn't actually demonstrating that skill).

Overall, I can safely say that if, next September, Santa does not bring me highlighters, I will be ordering my own.

Image credits:

Friday, 4 September 2015

Student-Paced Learning with Nearpod

This blog has been on the back burner for a while, so apologies for not posting sooner. It comes as a result of me trying to make the best use of a set of 15 iPads that I've been asked to trial in my classroom (as part of our school looking at how technology can enhance the classroom environment).  I was initially drawn to Nearpod because it would allow students to access content on the iPad that I would usually project onto the board. Whilst I try not to include an overload of text for students to read through/copy from the board, the advantage of Nearpod would be that, when it came to copying down objectives/criteria, those students who finished before others could move onto the next task; similarly, those who needed more time to get down information could do so without feeling rushed.

That being said, I did have some initial reservations. I was a little worried about the app not working, though I overcame this by having backup plans in place (for example, slides that I could project if it wasn't going through and mini-whiteboards should the app's feedback function fail me).  I was also apprehensive about the possibility of students going off task- especially when they'd be using an iPad the whole lesson, though this was easily overcome by explicitly stating my expectations and linking them to the school's sanctions policy. That being said, most students were engaged by the iPads at first and (several lessons on) still focused on the tasks given.

The ability to import PowerPoint/PDF files into the Nearpod project was very helpful, as I could utilise resources I had prepared for previous cohorts. This allowed me to create the slides I could control (displaying images or key questions for students to respond to) or importing slideshow sections that students could work through themselves; the latter was particularly effective when giving students a choice of tasks to work through.  Because I was using the iPads as a display for students, this also freed up my whiteboard for other uses (either to display success criteria/SOLO level criteria throughout the lesson, or for space for students to track their progress).

When starting the lesson, I replaced my usual feedback tool of mini-whiteboards with a text response (that students worked on in pairs). The advantage of this was that I could easily flick through student responses on my device, before displaying chosen responses on the student displays.  This then gave me a springboard for class discussion, allowing me to ask students to develop/challenge the responses of other students. I was also able to differentiate the initial question by giving a challenge element, and by letting students research an answer if they chose- highlighting the different ways the technology could aid and support independent learning. 

As I mentioned before, the abilIty to import a document/slideshow for students to navigate at their own pace was also an advantage.  This worked particularly well when I used SOLO taxonomy within my lesson- students used the SOLO criteria (displayed on the main board) to assess prior understanding and then, based on this, chose an activity related to their level from the slideshow on Nearpod (see attached picture).  The main whiteboard was also used for them to track progress against SOLO levels (moving named postits along the different symbols).  It was in this way that students could work at their own pace, while I supported individuals/small groups (largely led by the postit SOLO tracker on the board). However, I have also introduced Nearpod to colleagues who have used it to provide an alternative lesson for individual students that needed a different path from the rest of the class. This allowed them to teach their lesson to the rest of the class whilst the student(s) on Nearpod worked through prepared tasks (with the teacher intervening to stretch and support them).

Overall, I was really impressed with Nearpod and, though I would not use it in every lesson, it proved a useful tool that enabled students to learn at their own pace whilst I acted as facilitator.  Unfortunately there are a number of other functions that I've been unable to use fully, such as the ability for students to draw/annotate a picture rather than typing feedback (which doesn't seem to work on our network) and the function that allows you set student-led Nearpod presentations for homework (a feature of the paid version).

For more information on Nearpod, or to sign up, visit .
I've focused on the free version of the app, which also includes a free training presentation to lead yourself through.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Creating eBooks To Collate Group Work

Creating Books with Book Creator
Book Creator is an app that many have been picking out in their top choices for educational apps recently, and it's for this reason that I decided I needed to trial it in the classroom.

Unfortunately, the main app itself isn't completely free. However, you can trial it (and create one free e-book) by using the free version of the app itself on the App Store. I decided to elect for the latter, mainly because I wanted to check that I truly believed in the app before I started lobbying the head of school to spend money on an iPad app that will go underused.

The Idea
I decided to trial the app with one of two (mixed ability) Year 8 groups.  Both groups are currently studying dystopian fiction: I've spent a half term going over examples of dystopian writing and what the genre entails before they start their own creations in the lead up to Easter.  We'd done this by looking at how writers created dystopian settings and characters, and how they used language, in extracts from works such as '1984' by George Orwell. For the final few lessons before the break, I was keen to get students to work on a range of extracts, before collaborating on resources that would sum up their findings as a class.

The first step was to set the students into ability groups.  Each group had a different extract to focus on (from 'The Hunger Games' to 'A Clockwork Orange') and each student within the group had a different focus area: setting, character or the use of language.  Through a set of prompt questions, students read the extract and made notes on their expert area; we used a similar approach (as a class) when reading '1984', so this was familiar territory.

In the next lesson, students got placed into mixed ability groups, each looking at the same expert area but with a different extract from the initial stage.  The idea was they would then collate their ideas (ready to share their learning with the rest of the class) and produce answers to the following questions:
How have dystopian writers created character/setting or used language in these examples?
How will we create dystopian characters/settings or use language when writing our own dystopian fiction?

Sugar Paper and Marker Pens
At this point, I changed my approach between the two classes. One class used sugar paper to create a series of notes to answer their core questions and collate their findings.  At the end of the lesson, envoys went around to other groups and take notes on their findings, before sharing their notes with the rest of the group.

This 'low-tech' and frequently used method was definitely successful.  The movement around the classroom, as well as the strict time slots to share ideas in, engaged students and I found that students were transferring notes from the sugar paper into their exercise books (so what was recycled was not lost).  The work on sugar paper also made it easier for me to observe each group's findings; I could then use questioning to push them further as I circulated and get them to put together some clear instructions for using their learning in their own writing.

iPads and Book Creator
With the other class, then, I used the same process to create mixed ability groups of three or four students.  Again, each group was made up of students who had focused on the same expert area, but has applied it to a different text.  However, they would be collating their learning (as a group) to produce an eBook.

Students were initially very excited about the prospect of the trial and the guide on using the app (which comes as an eBook that you can edit and experiment with) did a much better job of explaining the features than I could have, as well as proving a handy reference.  In addition to this, I used Apple TV to project a group's work onto the board whenever they were trying something new; this included taking pictures of their own notes/illustrations to including in their book and copying images across from Google images to illustrate the pages.

Yet there were some teething problems that became quickly evident.  Having one iPad for each group became problematic, and as the class set of fifteen had somehow dwindled to ten there was no way for me to rectify this.  This meant that the atmosphere became a little fractious in some of the groups when a student was accused of taking more than their turn.  However, I was able to stop other students becoming disengaged in the meantime, as they focused on drafting what they would write or writing it out on paper before taking a picture to put into the eBook.

Time was also a problem, as it was obvious that one lesson would not be enough for students to learn how to use the app as well as creating their eBook. It was for this reason that I gave them an extra lesson, which also gave us time to ensure that all projects were uploaded to a cloud location and saved securely.  This being said, my students felt that this would not be as much of an issue next time, as they felt much more confident in using the app now they had tried it.

Despite these issues, this approach did have some notable advantages.  The biggest is that students have produced resources that they can all refer back to.  I'm going to include QR links to the eBooks in the classroom.  I was also able to quickly collate the projects into three main eBooks (one for each of the expert areas).  This will make it easier for students to access them, for reference purposes, when creating their own dystopian fiction.  The use of the Apple TV also gave a great platform where students could share their learning throughout the process.  Furthermore, because students were using the internet to find images for their work, they were also able to make visual links to the settings/characters that they had been working on.  

Student Feedback
As I mentioned, the extra lesson gave me a little extra time to play with: this allowed me to get some student feedback on the app using a quick Socrative quiz.

Students said that they enjoyed the fact that the activity allowed them the chance to work independently (by allocating each other pages to work on) as well as giving the chance to work in groups.  They also stated that the access to the internet was beneficial and that creating the eBook was a 'cool new way of collecting notes.'

The main disadvantage students identified was the fact that groups of three or four had to share one iPad: something that I had already recognised during the process.  Next time, I'd get students to work in pairs to create their pages before collating the class' pages into one big eBook.

The other areas for change students identified were more concerned with features they hadn't discovered this time (for example, the ability to crop an image they'd taken from Google images).  I would create an 'FAQ wall' next time, that would allow students to ask each other questions about how to use the app and then the answers could be posted around the help station in my classroom. 

My Verdict
I accept that some teachers will probably prefer the low-tech method, and I will certainly continue to use activities like this to share learning as it's an effective and engaging way to do so.

However, when I want students to create something permanent that they can refer back to, I'd definitely be inclined to use Book Creator to do this. The fact that they are working to publish a resource for the whole class to use creates a sense of responsibility, and the app gives their work a professional finish that aids this.  On top of this, it's fairly easy for students to use (I gave very little guidance in how to use the app itself), which meant that I could focus on questioning student learning (as I did with the sugar paper group).  

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Using Socrative and iPads to Differentiate

Back in November, I blogged about how I used socrative to assess a Year 9 class' ability to use different types of punctuation (at the start of a unit on creative writing).  I wanted to take this opportunity to now go into a bit more detail on how I used this data effectively.

When I did the punctuation quiz with my Year 9 class, it was apparent that I had a real challenge on my hands.  I'm used to differentiating for a range of abilities anyway, as I teach mixed ability classes at KS3 and KS4, but this brief assessment highlighted the special need for this when covering punctuation with my Year 9s. Clearly, a lesson on apostrophes was not going to be needed; a lesson on the use of semi-colons would also not be beneficial for those who needed to first focus on speech marks.

Instead, I used the results of the quiz (along with a pre-booked set of ipads) to create a series of lessons where students would be able to address their individual needs.  In these lessons, they were grouped according to their test results in two main phases.

The the first lesson (phase one) I had two groups of students working independently on iPads.  Their task was firstly to access guides on a specific type of punctuation (links to which were given on QR codes). After taking notes on the rules for that piece of punctuation, they then had to create a lesson, complete with resources, to teach to another student.  Another group worked with me: I worked with them to revise the use of speech marks, using mini whiteboard to assess their knowledge before they then wrote a piece and labelled the various rules for punctuating speech that were at work.  Lastly, I had one student who had managed to get 100% on punctuation use, though I was aware that his range of vocabulary needed work. Again, he was given an iPad and QR codes to access; his task was to find out how GCSE students needed to vary vocabulary in their work and create a lesson to teach other students.

Phase two (the second lesson) involved me taking more of a back seat.  Students who had worked with me the previous lesson were grouped with those who had planned lessons in the first phase- they were taught by their peers whilst I went around and tested their teaching, by checking the understanding of their 'students' through verbal questioning.  This lesson then ended with all students writing a description of a scene, using the knowledge they had gained over these lessons.

Overall, I found the experience really exciting, since I noticed the students really taking ownership over their own learning and the learning of others.  The QR codes have also proved useful after the session as my KS4 students have stuck them into planners and use them as a revision aid for writing exams/assessments.  The peer teaching was also beneficial, as I noted how some students had chosen to tackle the problem in ways that I had not thought of myself. One of these was the image of an apostrophe verbally apologising for the absence of a missing letter (thus reminding students of where to put an apostrophe used for omission).  

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

PE+ Part Two: Initial Evaluation

It's been a term since I resolved to do what I could to stop students' writing becoming formulaic, using the PE+ paragraphs I developed with @ACCooke5 as the main tool to do this. You can read the initial blog I wrote in October here: . This shows you some of the resources we created to aid students with the new approach, as well as outlining my plans for actioning it in my classroom.

In this blog, however, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on my teaching of PE+; I want to investigate whether it has achieved what I was after and look at how I could develop my teaching of it in the future.  That being said, it is already noticeable (in assessments at KS3 and KS4) how the PE+ model gave more able students a more flexible model to develop their ideas through as well as giving less able students a structure that encouraged them to add more detail into their analysis of literature.

Teaching Students How to Use It
When doing this, modelling was vital.  Where I trialled the method without first modelling what to do, students really struggled to get to grips with what to write.  Even now, when going back to PE+ after a couple of lessons away from it, I still quickly model how to write the key components of the paragraph.  This includes giving a choice of sentence starters for less able students (I teach mixed ability) to give them a start for their response.

Likewise, it was helpful to students to have a differentiated version of the PE+ mat (which you can view in my previous blog). I projected this onto the board and restricted the amount of questions for each section as well as providing an optional order to write them into (thanks, @TeachMNU, for that suggestion).

As you can see, here I used the hexagon model (you can see more examples on my Twitter account) to get students to plan their work before writing it up. This encouraged many students to go into more detail than usual, as they were motives by filling in the boxes.  After writing into a paragraph, they then highlighted and annotate the various sections to demonstrate which areas has detailed explanations.

Using these hexagons to plan was also beneficial when getting students to consider an overall essay structure: we did group work where they would link each other's hexagons together to create a group essay plan and then did their own as a plan for their assessments. This example is from a year 8 student:

Areas to Develop
As this was a new concept, I expected some teething issues and the main one concerned students' desire to fill in every box. For some students, this meant that they added in random contextual factors without really relating them to the point: in future I'm planning to go over the important of linking everything to the point and only filling in the relevant sections as part of the modelling process. 

It is also true that, for less able students, the need for an order (what order to write sections in) led to some evidence of formulaic responses. However, I feel that this is something that they might grasp with practise and it is important to note that these students were still producing a more detailed explanation/analysis than they did with PEEAL.

Lastly, there were some issues applying the method with my Year 11 class, who has difficulty grasping the method.  For them, I reverted to PEEAL (mainly due to the time constraints when it comes to preparing them for the exams).  However, I'm going to trial using the group essay planning activity when revision texts for the Literature GCSE, replacing the section names with the relevant assessment objectives (for example, AO4 instead of context).

Next Steps
I now want to focus the development of PE+ to apply it to the new GCSE specification, so that it will be beneficial for essays written in exams (where detailed planning is not an option).  As we are currently doing GCSE style assessments with our year 9 students, this is an ideal time to start.

Moreover, I'm going to create a series of flipped learning videos for different sections of PE+. These could be used both to teach students the overall method as well as serving as an independent study guide for students who need extra help (to be accessed at home or through mobile devices in the classroom).