Using marking criteria with secondary learners

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November and December are busy months in schools with all the preparation for the Christmas assemblies and the ensuing holidays as well as the major assessments, the report cards and the PTAs. While assessments are rarely thought of as fun, they are an important part of the learning and teaching process. However, in my experience, by the time students get their assessments back, they only care about the grade and not so much about how to improve. I guess this is understandable – by this stage everyone is exhausted! But I’ve been thinking a lot about how to ensure that my students get the most out of the feedback on their assessments.

Photo by Ron Lach on Pexels

One thing that has worked well for me is using marking criteria for all of my secondary classes. I’ve found that with the introduction of the criteria the learners are much more engaged in the entire process of assessment – the preparation, taking the assessment, and even the feedback. I think this is so for a number of reasons:

  1. The marking criteria is shared before the assessment and therefore, it informs the preparation and revision. If learners know exactly what they will be assessed on, they are more motivated to revise. The marking criteria serves as a guide is what was covered during the term and makes the revision seem less overwhelming.
  2. Whenever possible, I try to involve the learners in making the assessment criteria. This enhances their engagement because they have a vested interest in the assessment. The actual assessment is still out of their hands, of course, but getting involved in making the criteria gives them a sense of control. Not to mention that if they make it, they are more likely to understand and remember it, too.
  3. Referring to the same marking criteria when marking and giving them feedback helps them stay engaged when they get their results. Since it won’t be the first time they see the document, they will understand the feedback much more easily and hopefully, it’ll be that much more meaningful for them.

Working with assessment criteria in practice

Here is a run-down of how I involve my students in making and using the assessment criteria:

  1. First, we start with a brainstorming session of all the things covered during the term. Sometimes I ask the learners to do this in groups using an online tool such as Jamboard, or they can do it on paper too. What’s important, though, is that they flick through their notes and books and that they do this in groups.
  2. Next, we look at the main aspects of the marking criteria. This is determined by me and I either show them or elicit it from them. For instance, for the writing assessment it includes content/task achievement, organisation, lexis, grammar and spelling. For speaking, it’ll have sections on content, communicative achievement, pronunciation, lexis and grammar. If it’s the first time, I dedicate some time introducing my learners to these ideas by a simple matching game. They might not know the BIG words, but they are often able to guess what they mean when they see examples.
  3. Then we start filling up the criteria. I usually use a point system out of 5 and I give them the content for when somebody gets 3 points. E.g., “The text includes all necessary points. You made the ideas clear and coherent” or something similar. They then match the short texts with the criteria headings.
  4. Working in groups, they have to fill up the rest of the criteria. Sometimes I put the missing texts around the room and the learners have to find them and match them. If they are more fluent, I ask them to write their own versions. By the end we have a complete and comprehensive marking criteria to use.
  5. At this point, I take what we created and finalise it: spell check, formatting, etc. I then make it available to all students.
  6. In the next lesson, the learners get a revision task and use the marking criteria to give each other feedback. This allows them to get even more familiar with the expectations and gives them practice of how to read the criteria to find out how to improve. As a result, they will be able to do the same when I give them feedback.

A few caveats to bear in mind:

  • The language of the marking criteria needs to be simple enough for all learners to understand. If it’s too complex, it’s unlikely to be useful.
  • The pairs and groups need to be created with careful consideration. Ideally, each group should have more confident learners so that they can help the less confident ones. This point is also important for the sake of timing. The process of making the criteria is tedious and involves lots of language, so it needs to be factored into planning.
  • EAL learners who are new to the language might benefit from a glossary which they can then use at every assessment period and likely in several subjects.
  • Make the document as user friendly as possible and share it as early as you can to ensure maximum engagement. Refer to it regularly during the revision phase and make it a requirement that students use it in class and at home when they do their homework.

Top tip: Don’t reveal the grade until after your students have reviewed the feedback! Once they’ve seen the grade, that’s all they think about, and the rest of the feedback becomes less relevant. I usually ask them to write down 2 things they need to improve and 2 things they did well based on my feedback before I tell them their grade.

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