The efficacy of feedback-led formative assessment in primary learning (or Why we have to mark books)

The efficacy of feedback-led formative assessment in primary learning
Why we have to mark books

When I decided that I wanted to be a teacher at the tender age of seven (yes, I’m one of those annoying people), I was very excited about the idea of imparting knowledge; engaging in discussion; and helping children as much as some of my favourite teachers had already helped me.  What I did not eagerly anticipate was marking books. Alas, it is a necessary evil of the education world and as much as we like to think that we hold the monopoly on restrictive and cumbersome marking policies here in England, it turns out that we are not alone.

Over the next few posts, I am going to look deeply into the eyes of the marking beast and explore the benefits, pitfalls, shortcuts and bugbears of this administrative albatross that all teachers must bear.  If you have any stories you would like to share, any tips to bless us all with, please let me know either by leaving a comment, sending an email or tweeting me.  All my contact details are below.

One final thing before we start: in the course of writing this post, I have found that I use ‘formative assessment’ and ‘marking books’ interchangeably because, in this context, they are the same thing.  Apologies if it gets confusing!

When did we start marking so many books?

First up, I wanted to have a look at the history of marking books in schools. Rubel Hossain at the University of Dhaka suggests that formative feedback dates all the way back to Socrates (Hossain, n.d.)… but I don’t think we need to go that far back.  Paul Black and Dylan William conducted a report on standards of education in schools in 1998 (Black & Wiliam, 2005) and, I think, this is where the seeds of initiatives like ‘triple marking’, ‘feedback marking’, ‘WWW (What went well) and EBI (Even better if…)’ and even peer assessment began to emerge.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that the report in any way suggested these as good ideas; in fact, the report was more about the importance of including students in the teaching and learning process, and introduced the world to the assessment for learning idea.  It was a good report.  But there is nothing so good that bureaucracy can’t make bad.  Anyway, somewhere between Socrates and the late ‘90s, marking turned from an occasional duty of teachers to the juggernaut it has become today.  In England, I suspect it had something to do with the implementation of the National Curriculum but that requires more research than I have time for at the moment, so that’s another idea for a later post!  Long story slightly-less-long, everybody now has to mark their books in the way that a school’s policy dictates.

But Why?

It’s perhaps not surprising.  The whole point of formative assessment is to identify weaknesses and strengths and to adjust future teaching accordingly. It has to be done frequently.  Many of us do it several times an hour on a child-by-child basis.  The thing is, it is a very personalised activity (Harrison, 2013).  The way I interpret and apply my own formative assessment data will be very different to you.  Some people have a fantastic memory and can recall what advice was given verbally to a child weeks previously; others of us forget the second it has been given.  The problem with this is accountability.  

Say you have recommended a set of goals and actions to a child but that child, for whatever reason, fails to make the expected progress, how do you as a teacher prove that you have done your due diligence?  How do you show that this child has received the care and attention they deserve and has not simply fallen through the cracks (McEwan, 2002; Merga, 2020; Pinkus, 2008; Walsh & De Campo, 2010)? So many school managers prefer (read: insist on) some sort of visual record.  Perhaps a stamp or a ‘VF’ (Verbal Feedback [given]) written in a margin.  Some schools’ marking policies will insist on a ‘mini’ transcript of what was said, with space for the child to reply (it’s never ‘mini’ and, in my experience, while the child may indeed reply, this does not guarantee understanding of the advice or instruction).  All of this gives the various strata of management a concrete signal that yes, lessons have been taught, and yes, the results of the day’s learning were taken into account by the teacher.  

This is not management-beating either.  While there are certainly some school leaders who use book scrutinies to assess or even bully members of staff, most are simply mindful of what they themselves will have to provide evidence of come inspection time.  Everyone in a school is accountable for the education of the children and that’s why…

Everybody marks books

The first and foremost purpose of assessment in education is to support learning (Black & Wiliam, n.d.), which is why we are expected to mark books at the end of the day.  It’s that or receive a potentially nasty shock in a test later on.  

In Singapore, which has a similar exam structure to England, there was a movement to promote formative assessment over summative in Primary education (much like in Hong Kong (Yan & Cheng, 2015)).  They proposed a more qualitative approach (qualitative is sort of the opposite of quantitative - more words, fewer numbers; more heart than mind; more poetry than science) and lots of mini-assessments over one large terminal one.  

The much-maligned big brother of formative assessment is summative assessment - terminal exams.  These can be end-of-term, -year or -stage of education and they are often the last word on a child’s educational progress.  Not many people like summative assessment (although I think it is a misunderstood beast and could be tamed if we could just learn to love it - and I’m not the only one see: (Black & Wiliam, 1998)); it has overtones of meritocracy and academic bias (Ratnam-Lim & Tan, 2015).  Formative assessment has the benefit of faster data acquisition, resulting in more timely intervention and, theoretically, better learning.

However, this was met with resistance from teachers, parents and children arguing that removing the emphasis on summative assessment denies children the preparation for formal exams that they will have to sit later on (Singapore. Primary Education Review and Implementation Committee et al., 2009). Furthermore, in schools where this approach was piloted, the mini-assessments became so abundant that teachers couldn’t keep up with the workload and the parents failed to grasp the difference between formative mini-assessments and summative end-of-week assessments, so ended up insisting their child spend more time revising, thus skewing the results and rendering the results of the formative assessments invalid anyway (Ratnam-Lim & Tan, 2015).

Researchers S├╝leyman  Demirel  University,  Turkey, called marking books an “inseparable part of teaching and learning” (Buyukkarci̇, 2013) and many academics agree that marking books makes a real impact on children’s learning.  John Hattie (Hattie, 2008), Dylan William (Wiliam D et al., 2004), Paul Black (Black & Wiliam, 1998) are all big names in the world of assessment research and every one of them has completed peer-reviewed research and found marking to be “surprisingly effective” (Yan & Cheng, 2015) in boosting classroom results for both the individual and the group.

The data doesn’t lie.  Regular marking of books makes a difference.

Does it need to be every day?:

There are arguments for and against marking books at the end of the day (or ‘regular formally recorded formative assessment feedback’, if you are so inclined).  Studies in Turkey showed that, while all teachers recognised the benefits to both teaching and learning, and were willing to mark books regularly and thoroughly, they simply didn’t have the time to record the outcome for every student in every lesson, every day (Buyukkarci̇, 2013).  The same study suggested that a teacher’s already heavily loaded day did not lend itself to additional daily report writing (which is what written feedback is) on top of teaching, planning, reviewing, evaluating and preparing for the next day.  It was just too much and something had to go.  In the study, it was marking. 

In my experience, what was found true in Turkey is also true in schools in England.  Most teachers will be able to tell you how each child in their class is performing regardless of how much marking is present in the books at the end of the day. But it might be dangerous to just roll over and accept that formal daily formative assessment is simply too much to do.  

So what now?

At the risk of repeating myself: everybody marks books. They may do it in different ways but they all do it (Swedish, French and New Zealand teachers even use different vocabulary - ‘formative’ assessment is called ‘diagnostic’, apparently (Harlen, 2007) make of that what you will.  My wife thinks it’s a better term because it implies more strongly a sense of finding and fixing problems areas - it’s an active noun.  Formative, she argues suggests beard stroking and naval gazing; lots of people sitting around saying ‘I see, yes…’ but not actually doing anything.  But then, my wife is a scientist and giggles every time I mention qualitative data.). And we all do it for the same reasons:

  • To help learning
  • To monitor and evaluate (teaching as well as learning)
  • To hold ourselves accountable

So it’s safe to say that it is not going to disappear anytime soon.  Companies like have tried for a long time to eradicate marking in schools in England but it hasn’t happened.  The way people has to mark has changed and many policies are a lot less onerous than they used to be but that could all change in the wake of the pandemic.  With a greater emphasis on schools and learning than ever before, evidence of progress will be key.  So we’re probably going to be marking those books for a while…

But it’s not all doom and gloom!  In my next few posts, I will be looking at ways to quicken up your marking; be more selective in the work you choose to use as future evidence; reduce the amount you personally have to mark each day and even tips on how to learn to love the process.

Thanks for sticking with this this far, if you like what you've read, feel free to subscribe to the blog.  If you feel so inclined, leave a comment below, drop me an email or sent me a tweet.  Stay healthy, stay sane and until next time, keep teaching!


Email me!            Tweet me!            Visit my website!

References from this post:

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. In Assessment and Learning (pp. 11–32).

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning. In Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice (Vol. 5, Issue 1, pp. 7–74).

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2005). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. Granada Learning.

Buyukkarci̇, K. (2013). Assessment beliefs and practices of language teachers in primary education. International Journal of Instructional Media, 7(1), -.

Harlen, W. (2007). The Quality of Learning: assessment alternatives for primary education.

Harrison, C. (2013). Collaborative action research as a tool for generating formative feedback on teachers’ classroom assessment practice: the KREST project. In Teachers and Teaching (Vol. 19, Issue 2, pp. 202–213).

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge.

McEwan, E. K. (2002). Teach Them ALL To Read: Catching the Kids Who Fall through the Cracks. Corwin Press, Inc., 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks, CA 91320 ($32.95). Tel: 805-499-9774; Web site:; e-mail:

Merga, M. K. (2020). “Fallen through the cracks”: Teachers’ perceptions of barriers faced by struggling literacy learners in secondary school. In English in Education (Vol. 54, Issue 4, pp. 371–395).

Pinkus, L. (2008). Using early-warning data to improve graduation rates: Closing cracks in the education system. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Ratnam-Lim, C. T. L., & Tan, K. H. K. (2015). Large-scale implementation of formative assessment practices in an examination-oriented culture. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 22(1), 61–78.

Singapore. Primary Education Review and Implementation Committee, Fu, G., & Singapore. Ministry of Education. (2009). Report of the Primary Education Review and Implementation Committee.

Walsh, L., & De Campo, J. (2010). Falling through the cracks. Professional Educator, 9(1), 30–32.

Wiliam, D., Lee, C., Harrison, C., & Black, P. (2004). Teachers developing assessment for learning: impact on student achievement. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 11(1), 49–65.

Yan, Z., & Cheng, E. C. K. (2015). Primary teachers’ attitudes, intentions and practices regarding formative assessment. In Teaching and Teacher Education (Vol. 45, pp. 128–136).