Making Feedback Count: “Close the Gap”

Recently I have been looking again at the issue of marking. It 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.  I’ve discussed this in a much-read earlier post: Marking in Perspective: Selective, Formative, Effective, Reflective. At a whole school level at KEGS and in my own department, a key objective for the year is to devise approaches to marking that deliver maximum impact for all to see – that ‘progress over time’ issue.  What does marking look like when it is clearly securing improvement and progress in learning?

Marking time again. But will they close the gap?

To help with our search I was fortunate to be able to arrange a visit to the wonderful Saffron Walden County High School a thriving, dynamic school in NW Essex that recently received an astonishing OfSTED report: Outstanding in every detail.  It is a school where teaching and learning and professional dialogue take centre stage and there is a palpable spirit of collaborative working.  I’d heard they had an excellent ‘whole school approach’ to assessment and marking so I was delighted to be invited by the Headteacher, John Hartley, to attend a twilight CPD session preceded by an hour spent dropping in on a few lessons.  He described the whole school approach to marking and feedback very simply: It is called ‘closing the gap’.  All that is common is the concept; the theme; the mantra – that students need to close the gap between the work they have done originally and a higher level of work suggested by the feedback they receive.  In other words, ‘closing the gap’ means ‘acting on feedback’.  The mechanism for doing this is open to interpretation. Sounds simple enough but it was hugely impressive to see in action.

The cycle of learning and feedback – with a gap!

On our walkabout I dropped in on a Y9 Art lesson where the GCSE course was starting; a couple of Y8 English lessons, a Y7 German lesson and a Y9 History lesson among others. The phrase ‘close the gap’ was being used liberally. In Art, students were closing the gap acting on the feedback written on post-its, both peer-marked and teacher marked; in English, students were re-drafting sections of their work, closing the gap by trying to build in the grammatical and stylistic content from their feedback.  As a short-hand for the whole process of acting on feedback,  closing the gap seemed well understood by the students.

The twilight CPD session revealed that this initiative was still being developed.  The structure of the session was itself a model of exemplary staff CPD: one of several sessions running across the year that staff opt into from a menu of choices; food and drink provided beforehand, staff-led, small groups, interactive, mixing quality input with sharing and discussion – brilliant really.   The core of the session was that five tables showcased the marking approaches used in a particular department; we then rotated around to talk to each subject specialist.  Here the ‘whole school approach’ came clear.  Far from being some kind of straight-jacket diktat, there was complete freedom to develop the ‘closing the gap’ concept and the methods were all very different.  What they had in common was they focused on recording student responses to feedback;  the gap-closing was as important as the marking.

Closing the gap in Art as a project progresses

In English, the teacher showed us an old exercise book – from a couple of years ago. Her marking was thorough – page after page of comment, later developing a www/ebi approach;  comprehensive teacher feedback.  But…. no student response.  None – except the ephemeral hit and hope kind. In her current students’ books the teacher comments were shorter and the students were obliged to respond straight away.  This had crystallized mini dialogues in the books and there were re-drafted paragraphs emerging where the students had attempted to address the issues raised in their feedback straight away.  Gaps were being closed.  Comparing the two approaches, without any doubt, this new strong emphasis and insistence that comments must be acted upon was powerful. 

Closing the gap in Geography

Around the room, further examples followed.  A grid system for Art recording teacher feedback and student action, A4 feedback sheets stuck in books in Science with a large box where students had to record their gap-closing work, Maths books where students were making attempts to identify and correct errors in response to teacher feedback, Humanities books where 6/8 mark answers had to be re-drafted taking account of teacher feedback on previous attempts; DT projects where feedback and self assessment were recorded and dated logging progress as the project proceeded through stages.  In every case closing the gap appeared to be making an impact and the teachers all seemed to feel that it had helped them re-focus their marking so that comments were actionable and the overall volume realistic. 

For sure, this approach makes the learning more visible to an external observer and we will be trying to emulate this approach in my own department at KEGS.  Our book reviews have shown us that, without doubt, the most impressive marking is marking that has been acted upon.  John and I agree that we’d rather see a few small steps of clear progress built on simple marking rather than screes of comments that students don’t appear to have read!

Thanks to Polly Lankester, AHT at SWCHS, for organising the CPD and to John, Headteacher , for your hospitality.  It was a wonderful afternoon.

UPDATE:  Here is another great resource via SWCHS giving ideas for transferring responsibility to students as part of the closing the gap process.  This comes via Nathan Cole – Deputy Head at the fabulous Wilson’s School – and the Teaching and Learning team at Wilson’s. Nathan was formerly a History teacher at Saffron Walden.  I think this is genius.

A great set of ideas from SWCHS
A great set of ideas from SWCHS


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