January 1, 2017 at 06:32PM

I tend to do two things when I mark work.  Round the edge of a piece of written work, I write comments that apply specifically to that piece of work.  At the end of the work, I set general targets, intended to provide guidance for when the student is doing their next piece of work.  To illustrate, let’s consider this History IGCSE essay question: ‘How far was the Treaty of Versailles fair?’.  Say that the student has written the following: ‘The Treaty of Versailles was unfair because Germany’s army was reduced to 100, 000 men, she was not allowed an airforce and she was only allowed 6 naval cruisers and no submarines.  She also wasn’t allowed to station troops in the Rhineland.  This was unfair because the Rhineland was still German territory and they should have been able to decide exactly where to put their own troops in their own country.’  Alongside the first sentence, I might write: ‘But in what ways was this unfair?  Remember, that armies had a defensive as well as an offensive role.  Also think about which other countries were (and were not) required to disarm.’  Alongside the second and third sentences, I might write: ‘Why exactly was the Rhineland so important?  Think about its geographical position.’  At the end of the essay, I might suggest that a student remember to explain all their points fully.  The specific feedback should help the student improve that particular essay or another one on a similar theme.  In addressing my comments, the student should develop their knowledge and understanding of that topic.  The idea of the generic feedback is that it should guide the student on what they need to work on when doing their next essay, whatever the subject matter.  Leaving aside the question of whether or not the student will actually remember to check what I wrote on their previous essay before starting the next one, I have doubts about the value of generic feedback.  For a start, generic feedback tends to assume that if a student has not used a particular skill, it is because they have a general weakness regarding that skill.  In providing the generic feedback above on explanation, I am, in effect, assuming that the student lacks the ability to explain.  Now, a student might not have realised that importance of explaining their ideas, perhaps thinking that the facts spoke for themselves.  They might have written the essay in a hurry and not found the time to explain.  In both of these cases, the generic feedback might come in handy.  But usually when a student doesn’t explain a point it isn’t because they don’t realise that they need to explain or because they don’t know what explanation is, it is because they lack the specific knowledge needed to explain that particular point.  Equally, it is rare to find a student who doesn’t know that they should include a variety of points in their essays.  When they haven’t it is usually because they lack the knowledge to provide that variety.  If a student hasn’t written a conclusion, that is more likely to be because they weren’t sure what to conclude than because they don’t understand the requirement for a conclusion.  What is my evidence for these claims?

  • It would be silly to deny that some students are able to provide more articulate explanations than others, but I have yet to meet a student who completely lacks the ability to explain or to analyse or to draw conclusions. Get any student on a subject on which they feel confident and they are comfortable explaining, analysing and reaching conclusions.
  • If I give my students ‘exemplar’ work to correct even weaker students are usually quick to pick up on general errors.  ‘They’ve only given one reason here!’  ‘This person hasn’t written a conclusion!’  But when asked what other reasons should have been given or how the essay should have been concluded, students are less confident because rectifying these areas requires not just a general idea of what an essay should include but also specific subject knowledge.
  • Sometimes students leave notes for me on their essays.  for example, ‘I don’t know what else to say here.’ or ‘I’m not sure what my third point should be.’ or ‘I’m confused about how to conclude.’  This is further evidence that the problem is not knowing what to do, it is knowing how to do it.

In any case, I would hope that the need for specific subject knowledge is self evident.  To revisit our earlier example, unless you know both that the Rhineland is on the border between France and Germany and that the French were allowed to station as many troops as they wanted along their side of the border, it is hard to explain why the demilitarisation of the Rhineland seemed unfair to the Germans.  Of course, students also need to see the significance of this knowledge and know how to apply it, and both of those will require practice, but the knowledge itself is key.

So, probably the most useful piece of generic feedback we can give students is to make sure that their knowledge is as complete and detailed as possible because without that, they won’t be able to follow any of the other advice we give.


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