‘Secret Code Marking’ (aka – meaningful feedback without writing a word!)

Back in 2011 I was juggling first time motherhood and writing my first book, “The Perfect Assessment for Learning”. Suffice it to say, it was a challenging year! Just after I had submitted the final draft of the book I woke up at 3am with what I consider to be my most useful idea about efficient marking to date (oh the irony).

Since then I have shared this idea with thousands of teachers in my role as an education consultant and trainer and I continue to receive regular messages from teachers who claim that it is making their lives easier. Perhaps more importantly, they also frequently comment on how this approach is increasing pupils’ engagement in – and appetite for –  the feedback process.

If you believe that feedback should – and can – be:

  • More work for the recipients (pupils) than the donor (teacher)
  • More manageable for busy teachers
  • Involve no writing by the teachers (yes, really!)
  • Develop a culture of what John Hattie calls “assessment literate pupils”
  • Be genuinely fun for learners
  • Leading to meaningful demonstration of pupil progress

then this approach may be useful to you.

‘Secret Code Marking’ aka Meaningful feedback without writing!

  1. Begin by establishing a maximum of six success criteria with your class. Ensure that these are co-constructed with the learners through discussion and activities such as exploring and deconstructing models. This is vitally important as we need the learners to fully internalise and “own” these features.
  2. Ensure that these criteria are numbered. I would also recommend capturing these in a grid which should then sit alongside the work.
  3. Keep these success criteria at the very forefront of day to day learning. I recommend the use of strategies such as “Rally Robin” and “Red Herring” (spot the mistake/omission) to do this. I am also passionate about the power of activating success criteria through actions with my mantra being “See it, Say it, Act it, Use it!”. Learners themselves are very intuitive about what actions to use to remember certain criteria e.g. interlocking thumbs and forefingers to signify conjunctions or weighing with two hands to show evaluation. Crucially, if learners struggle here – or suggest vague actions – teachers can address any misconceptions.
  4. Whilst learners are completing the task, build in plenty of opportunities for them to self and peer assess against the success criteria which will increase their familiarity with the expectations. Research suggests that the ability to evaluate your own work in progress only develops with age and I would encourage you to introduce my CREAM of the crop approach to support more effective self-evaluation.
  5. When it comes to marking the completed work, select six different coloured pens (I recommend bingo dabbers but any coloured pens, highlighters or even coloured stickers would suffice). Each of these six colours will be used to represent the six success criteria but in a “secret code” fashion that pupils will work together to decode.
  6. When marking the first piece of work, use your first coloured pen to make a dot. This dot represents the first success criteria that the learner has failed to achieve. Keep a key!
  7. Use the remaining five colours to represent the remaining success criteria. Use a different coloured dot for each criteria that learners have missed. You may prefer to reverse this e.g. using the colours to denote which criteria have been achieved rather than missed – either approach is fine if explained to the learners.
  8. More than three dots for any one learner would indicate serious misconceptions. Make a note of the learner’s name so that you can provide targeted intervention during the feedback lesson.
  9. Build a sense of intrigue and excitement about the feedback lesson! Learners will be quick to note that their work is not “marked” in the usual way and will ask what the coloured dots mean. Tell them that it is a secret code that they must crack!
  10. Ensure that a version of the original six success criteria is clearly visible then invite learners to mingle with each other and discuss which success criteria could be represented by which colour. E.g. “We’ve both got orange dots – how is my work like yours? What have we both missed?” and “You have red but not me – what’s the difference?”) My Tap The Talent approach works particularly well for this activity.
  11. Next, gather the class together and use a visualiser (or similar) to look at examples of work and to discuss their guesses regarding the colours (e.g. “So these two pieces of work have orange dots. What’s similar about them? Can you suggest which criteria orange might link too?”)
  12. Ensure that learners are totally clear about what the colours mean and to record this for themselves. If you have introduced the system of numbered criteria, very little needs to be recorded (e.g. Orange dot = 1) clearly linking back to the success criteria grid. All of this serves to make pupil progress very transparent.
  13. Finally, provide ample DIRT (dedicated improvement and reflection time – see Jackie Beere’s work for more on this) for learners to tackle their targets perhaps by colour coding the classroom. “If you have a purple dot, you will find your feedback task on the purple table”. Alternatively, with the older leaners you may prefer a more free-form ‘skill swap’ (“I will show you how to improve the purple one if you can help me with green”)
  14. As the teacher, devote your energy to working in a guided group with the learners who appear to need it the most based on this particular marking cycle, perhaps those who have struggled the most and would benefit from a reteach. Alternatively, you may find yourselves working to extend and develop the pupils who have excelled (no coloured dots!) and who traditionally experience ‘more of the same’ kind of activities during DIRT time.

Please be assured that this approach will not confuse or alienate the learners if they have sufficient familiarity with – and access to – the success criteria. Please do give it a try and let me know what impact it has on learners’ engagement and ability to access the feedback we work so hard to provide.

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