Reflecting on … why I like the purple pen!

The closely related ideas of triple impact and dialogic marking have been heavily criticised recently for a variety of reasons.  Some of these are criticisms that raise important questions and highlight issues of evaluating impact within teaching.  One key question has been that too much focus was placed on impact without enough of the ‘hidden cost’ of generating that impact, particularly in terms of teacher workload and stress levels.  Seeking to evidence quality dialogue was also a challenge and systems of different coloured pens quickly evolved.   For many the “purple pen” marking system has become a symbol of much that is wrong with teaching.  The use of different coloured pens in marking symbolises lack of autonomy, a focus on appearance and evidence rather than meaningful impact and bureaucratic assessment policies run amok.  Criticisism has even come from the top with School Standards Minister Nick Gibb bemoaning teachers “wasting time” marking in coloured pens (October 2016).  Nicky Morgan also expressed concern (March 2016) and Ofsted, worried they may have started the whole thing, distanced themselves from the phenomenon and withdrew their guide to marking in 2015.

Some of the criticisms are entirely legitimate.  A huge amount of investment goes into training teachers to develop their professional judgement.  This is necessary because teaching is infinitely complex and varied, which is one of the things that makes it such an amazing job, as well as an awesome responsibility.  Policies which prevent teachers using their judgement as professionals fundamentally undermine the profession and the work they do.  A specific pen colour isn’t going to turn someone who doesn’t understand quality assessment into someone who does (teacher, parent or student) although it may just mask some of the conceptual weaknesses that need to be addressed with supportive CPD.  Using a purple pen to correct their work isn’t going to “fix” students’ problems with learning if they lie outside of a very narrow range of issues; it is unlikely to increase motivation, address conceptual misunderstandings or make up for a rushed job.

Our school has recently revised its formative assessment policy quite radically, removing most of the directives that had crept in over the last few years including those about pen colour, regularity of marking and specific symbols and codes to address specific work issues.  The drive behind this was to restore teacher autonomy and allow teachers to use their professional judgement when giving feedback.  Different subjects, students and pieces of work might call for different systems and the best person to make this judgement is the teacher on the ground.

However, with greater freedom comes greater responsibility and it is sometimes hard to know what to do for the best, with all the noise and fiercely held opinions.  Elliott et al’s “A Marked Improvement” is an incredibly useful document for teachers looking to understand what the research really says.  The review is thorough, well-organised and raises as many questions as answers, which is a fair reflection of where we are.  Some things we know work, some things we know don’t work and most things are … well, complicated.  For anyone looking for a quick-cheat guide to tell you how to mark this isn’t it.  However if you think judgement and experience count for something this strikes a good balance between research and open questions.

When it comes to purple pen, there are three key conclusions in Elliott’s report that have driven my thinking:

  1. “A key consideration is clearly the act of distinguishing between errors and mistakes.”
  2. “Unless some time is set aside for pupils to consider written comments it is unlikely that teachers will be maximising the impact of the marking.”
  3. “No high-quality studies appear to have evaluated the impact of triple impact marking … [although] there does appear to be some promise underpinning the idea of creating a dialogue, further evaluation is necessary.”

These ideas individually and collectively have shaped my thinking about marking in many ways over recent years.  Specifically I have learned that it is important that I do the following:

  1. Address fundamental misconceptions through re-teaching and ensure that students have time to work with and assimilate this new information. This may be through redrafting, correcting or a new piece of work but it involves not just ‘new’ learning but unpicking old learning and rethinking – this has to be done carefully.
  2. Make pupils correct their own mistakes.  Not only does it save me time, but it might help them remember to slow down and check their work next time.
  3. Build workload-friendly systems and habits especially where pupils are responding to input. I want to easily see what they have done, check that they now understand and move forwards appropriately.

And that is where the purple pen comes in and does a beautiful job for me.  When my classes are used to using it, they know what it means and time is saved by having it as part of an established routine.

  • Students can use it to correct mistakes and those corrections stand out clearly in the work.
  • For short pieces or responses to questions I’ve raised purple is easy to find in their files or books; I can instantly zoom in on their responses and redrafted work.  This in itself saves time and allows me to focus on what is needed; checking this is now in line with my expectations.
  • If the corrections stand out for me purple also stands out for the students.   Perhaps quite some time in the future.  Perhaps when they need to revisit the work and I’m very keen for them to revise the corrected material, not the original errors or mistakes.  Or when I want them to think about how they improved that type of answer the last time and apply that thinking without me having to repeat the feedback.

I’m not saying purple pen should be used for every piece of work.  An entire redrafted essay in purple is just painful to read.  I’m not saying that it should be used every day, in every subject – that is exactly what has been wrong with too many policies.

But I am saying that it is not the evil devil-child of bureaucratic teaching.  In fact, what came out of our old policy was that I was forced to try a new thing and it helped.  What came out of spending time reviewing the research is a better understanding of why it worked and how to use it.  Not all the time, in every scenario, with every child.  But enough that even given more freedom I intend to continue to mark primarily in red and have pupils redraft in purple.  Not to mention that I have a stock cupboard full of purple pens and someone has to use them!

Questions to help me reflect on my assessment and feedback:

  • How confident am I that I have correctly worked out which are mistakes and which are fundamental misconceptions? Is further dialogue needed to pin this down?
  • How will I know that this is having impact and that the student is now moving forward?
  • Is the method I am using the most time-efficient way to achieve the desired impact?

The research

‘A Marked improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking’ can be accessed here:

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