Are low teacher expectations of students increasing workload? A solution

Posted on Posted in teachingideas

To Damian Benny’s tweet this morning for the prompt to finish this post. The question of what to mark is an important one and I would agree with the observation that teachers often spend a lot of time marking work that isn’t worthy of marking. This post isn’t an exploration of feedback and marking, nor will it delve into task design. Instead, a suggestion based upon what we are doing at my school to try to tackle this issue. The two-pronged attack is resulting in lower teacher workload and better work.

My foundations in outdoor learning have a lot to answer for. There, when sending young people out under remote supervision (where they may be without direct supervision from adults for hours at a time), it’s vital that they can get it right. First time, every time. For example, food. On a four-day expedition totalling 50-70 miles over mountainous terrain, there’s no margin of error to get food wrong. To introduce students to being able to self-regulate, each group followed the following rough plan (after being assessed as safe o handle the camping stoves):

  • Planning in groups a three-course expedition meal for £3. This had to contain at least 1500 calories, a hot drink and be able to be cooked on a single ring stove and feed two people.
  • Based on the old TV show Ready, Stead, Cook, each pair had to cook the food at school.
  • We all tasted the food (me with my tasting spoon) and provided feedback (‘did you read the cooking instructions? Is taking raw chicken a great idea?). Most food is inedible and unrealistic. What could you do differently next time to stop the boil in the bag rice from burning? That’s a tasty menu, but look at the washing up? Yes, but can it only be eaten with a spoon?
  • The menu is improved and students must practice their cooking skills.
  • Practice expedition – we arrive at the campsite in the dark, after school and a long drive. Tents must be erected and food made. Feedback is received.
  • During the three-day (one of which is under remote supervision) practice expedition each team cooks independently. After each breakfast and dinner, feedback is given from peers and staff around the food. Was it worth the weight? Was the shortcut of packet mash worth it? How is it eating beans for 5 straight meals? Feedback is given soon after the food as well as during. Participants don’t write anything down and neither do staff, but there is a lot to remember and think about.
  • The menu is redesigned and further practice ensues.
  • During the final expedition, the students are fully independent and an assessment of food choice and cooking ability is included in the final verdict.

The point is that students go through many iterations of their menu before they settle on the final verdict. During each phase feedback1 is sought and given from peers, staff and each individual. Although nothing is written, the students get it right when it matters.

Often in the classroom, teachers feel that they have to mark, rather than give feedback2, to every written piece of work. I’ve wondered how the outdoor learning model could be used to encourage self-regulation2, better feedback, better work from students and lower workload for teachers. I’ve come to the model below:

The diagram shows the enquiry process. Please don’t confuse this with either discovery learning or independent, facilitated learning as explicit instruction is required not only for the content but also the procedures at each stage. It’s a model moving young people toward independence.

The key is the yellow box. At the reflection stage, student receive feedback about their work, but only submit their work when it is finished, has received feedback and been improved. The feedback at this stage is self, from peers and staff but, crucially, not written. Before this stage students may have had an outcome modelled to them and Allison and Tharby list a number of fantastic ways in which to provide further examples, such as:

  • Anthology of excellent work;
  • Excellent work displayed on the walls;
  • Excellent models from peers, teachers and experts and deconstruct them;
  • Visits to our own wall of excellence;
  • Deconstruct exam mark schemes.

In addition, teachers can employ coaching questions and other interventions to nudge students to create better work, before they commit their work to assessment. Teachers must resist the urge to grade or provide detailed written feedback. Examples employed include:

  • A dot in the main where there are errors to correct;
  • Targeting key pieces of the text, such as the concluding paragraph of a 33 mark A’Level Geography essay or the workings of a calculation;
  • Asking students to decode the question again to ensure that they have addressed each point;
  • Referring to exercise book notes to ensure all the key chronology has been referred to.
  • One maths teacher gives a worked example at the start of the lesson (to model the process), and has filmed it (by creating a video from PowerPoint) so it can be referred to during the lesson by those that need it. She then spends the lesson, as the class practice the operations, speaking to each student in turn. During the conversation, each child will be asked questions on work from a few weeks ago (retrieval practice and interleaving); be asked why they hadn’t completed the work with a higher level of challenge that they should have done (increasing challenge) and check the current work. I wonder what would happen if all teachers spoke to students in this way?

It’s important that students commit work to assessment that they have put their very best effort in to. If teachers spend too much time marking, we forget the advice from Dylan Wiliam: that students need to work harder than teachers with feedback. If we spend too much time on poor quality work, we validate those who have not strived for excellence. This is not to be confused for not marking work that, compared to a student’s starting points, do represent excellence.

Spending lots of time marking poor quality work gives too much scaffolding to students. This doesn’t prepare them for the rigour of later qualifications. For example, very little guidance can be given to students during the A’Level Geography Non-Examined Assessment. They therefore need to be able to self-regulate much earlier in their school careers. Indeed, if we are serious about excellence we need to accept only excellent work from entry, in our case Year 3.

In addition, we don’t expect teachers to remark the redraft and then remark again. Instead, the points raised though marking need to be fed-forward into the next piece of work. This means that the teacher can design a learning assignment that allows opportunities for this to happen. (I don’t care how staff mark, and they can use a pencil, pen of any colour or indeed 7 different colours if they like, as long as it is effective and leads to improved achievement).

This approach has been combined with a number of simple rules that have been introduced across the school and, vitally, communicated to parents.

  • Teachers will only mark your final work if it is an example of your very best work.
  • Teachers will only mark excellent work. If it isn’t excellent the score will be zero and a poor attitude to learning score will be recorded. We expect excellence and accept only the very best work. An A’Level history question ay take an hour to mark, that time needs to be effective. (don’t confuse this with not providing feedback, nor allowing an opportunity for the student to be successful)
  • Teachers will give feedback on any redraft after the final mark, but won’t remark it.
  • Students are expected to feedforward written feedback and apply it to the next assignment.

If we accept poor work, we will always be wasting our time marking poor work. This will never raise the challenge bar. In addition, teachers need more time to plan great sequences of lessons, rather than spend time marking and re-marking.4


  1. On reflection, coming across this by Hattie, the process seemed to provide the opportunity for feedback to work all on a four levels described by Hattie and Timperley

2. For clarity, here I mean:

  • Marking – the act of teachers providing individual, written feedback on individual work.
  • Feedback – the wide variety of mechanisms that teachers can employ to give just-in time, useful comments. Includes self and peer assessment.
  1. Self-regulation, whilst not enjoying the effect size of other methods, is still above the hinge point of d=0.40 and therefore worth exploring in order to improve achievement. Self-regulation weighs in at d=0.52, compared to other effect sizes:

Hattie 2011

250+ influences on achievement is an interesting summary document.


  1. Of course, effective schemes of work should also identify what will be marked and how. When marking and feedback is poorly plan, workload increases.



I’m indebted to the following sources of information when thinking about his strategy:

Making Every Lesson Count – Allison and Tharby

The role of research in recruitment and retention issues.

Why don’t children like school. Willingham

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