Upgrade Marking with David Gray


Groundhog guilt

I don’t know anyone that looks at a pile of books and thinks way-hey! … but when teachers don’t mark frequently, books become full of dross. Students think: ‘Why bother if no one is looking?’

Do you have that sinking ‘groundhog day’ feeling every couple of weeks when you realise that you seem to be falling behind in your marking? Are you counting down the days until the next half term, not because you need to recharge your batteries, but because this is always an opportunity to get caught up on your books? Upgrading could help to re-energise the way in which teachers and students engage in the marking and feedback dialogue.

Using Upgrading to Close the Gap

Marking is a hugely important source of feedback- provided that we keep the volume of marking in proportion to the level of impact it can have in improving learning outcomes.

Following the recent English review, Amy McVay shared some advice and guidance received from the reviewer about marking and how it should always be focused on ‘upgrading’ a student’s subject knowledge, conceptual understanding, or literacy (and numeracy) skills.

Instead of ‘here’s a spelling mistake, write it out three times’, direct students to ‘upgrade’ their vocabulary by correcting the spelling and creating a definition of the word. Alternatively, ask them to use the correct spelling when writing a written reflection of their work.

The main principle of upgrading is that students need to close the gap between the work they have done originally and a higher level of work suggested by the feedback that they receive. Even if a student has completed work correctly, the upgrade feedback could take the form of a further question or challenge. In Maths this could take the form of a using a particular skill and applying this to a different mathematical concept (e.g. listing multiples to adding fractions).

In the best cases the teacher should use their expert knowledge to set a challenge pitched above the current grade/level of the individual. Upgraded marking need not always be this sophisticated. Where a student has answered a question, or completed their yellow box, with a short response, the teacher can challenge them to upgrade their answer by justifying, convincing and explaining their reasoning. An example could be, ‘How would you explain this to a year 6 student?’, ‘Plan to teach this lesson to someone at home’.

Errors and misconceptions should not only be identified, but unpacked, explored and celebrated. Invite students to upgrade their errors by annotating them; e.g. identify your grammatical error, correct and explain. Often if a student has a particular misconception, they may find it difficult to unpack this on their own. As the classroom teacher you may have identified them for some in class intervention, or referenced another student to coach them (e.g. see Sophie to go over this and summarise her advice), or directed them to an online resource (e.g. look at section …. on the grammar guide in the literacy toolkit). You can also ask students to upgrade their work to gold standard by asking them to self assess against the criteria, identify what is missing and then making the necessary improvements.

Trendy Terminology

Since the start of term, my marking has featured an array of ‘skills checks’, ‘probing questions’ and ‘next steps’. In my marking solitude I have often looked to these buzz words with comfort, to remind myself that I am doing what ‘good teachers do’. This however wasn’t met with the same affection from my students. In a recent year 11 class we discussed the meaning of the word ‘upgrade’ and I shared how I would be marking their work in the future. Like the latest iphone 6s (or whatever it is), the upgrade feedback is more developed, more efficient, well developed and the next level. Students are now asking to be set an ‘upgrade challenge’. As the classroom teacher I find myself having to carefully consider the kind of ‘upgrade’ feedback I am going to give  and the affect the student response will have on their learning (rather than simply going through the motions of using the marking policy).

Narrowing your ‘in-class’ gap

What about the students that are falling behind in your class? The students who need the most help and the most feedback are those who are least able to engage with written comments in order to secure improvement. The students who need the least help are those best able to engage with written comments. Feedback must be actionable, so that pupils can immediately put into practice the advice and guidance they are given on how to improve and so that the feedback is not ignored.

Consider those students that struggle to respond and plan to ‘drop in’ on them at some point during DIRT time (dedicated improvement reflection). As you proactively circulate your classroom, try to identify these ‘academic hotspots’ and work with the student to upgrade their work.


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