What is the focus of a task? Understanding assessment criteria and feedback.

Have you ever looked at the written feedback provided by a schoolteacher or tutor on one of your child’s pieces of work and felt like it was lacking? Perhaps the written piece had several spelling errors that the teacher ‘missed’ rather than correcting, while the final comment doesn’t describe these errors…


When this happens, it is important to take a look at the scope and assessment criteria of the task. If spelling and grammar were some of the areas being assessed, yet this seems to have been overlooked in the feedback provided, it may warrant a discussion with the marker about why this is the case. However, if the list of assessment criteria does not mention spelling and grammar at all, then it is actually preferable for the spelling mistakes to be left out of the feedback.


We know that can be surprising for parents. Surely it is important for every area of learning to be assessed by a teacher – after all, they are all important! This is true; however, this does not mean that every single task or assessment should include feedback on everything. In fact, teachers are trained to be selective in their feedback – and here is why.


If you were to receive a performance review at work which included a laundry list of every individual mistake and error you had made in the last 3 months, you would be unlikely to find this motivating or a helpful way to encourage improvement in your performance. Instead, you would be likely to feel disengaged from those tasks, or perhaps even start to re-think your worth within that position, even if you know you have also brought a lot of value to your workplace over the same 3-month period.


This is also true for children. If the feedback provided on an assessment is excessively negative and critical, the student is likely to lose confidence and motivation. Younger people also struggle to take on too many points of feedback at once, as their brains are still developing, and they are only able to focus on one or two areas at a time. In the research conducted by Lauren Murphy and Sunita Vyas they established 5 core principles for feedback.  It must:


  • Be timely
  • Enable progress
  • Occur at all levels (child-child, teacher-child, child-teacher)
  • Be well-informed (subject knowledge and pupil assessment)
  • Be proportionate (the input must match the output)

Current educational research emphasises the importance of feedback being clear and actionable and based on specific assessment criteria, instead of providing a lot of ‘areas for improvement’ all at once. Therefore, assessments must have a clear and focused learning outcome. Students need to understand exactly what a task is expecting them to do and what they need to know, and should demonstrate and what they are being assessed on. If a task is focusing on the structure of a persuasive writing piece, then the feedback should not be focusing on spelling mistakes, as that was not within the scope of the task.


The feedback should instead answer ‘How has the student demonstrated their knowledge of persuasive writing structure? What actions can they take to improve on this in future writing?’

‘Marking is a vital element of teaching, but when it is ineffective it can be demoralising and a waste of time for teachers and pupils alike. In particular, we are concerned that it has become common practice for teachers to provide extensive written comments on every piece of work when there is very little evidence that this improves pupil outcomes in the long term.’ 

NASUWT Review Group’s Report (Paragraph 5)


With younger students, understanding the learning outcome comes from the teacher – the scope of an activity should be clearly communicated through the lesson so that when it comes time for the students to complete the work, they know what the intention behind it is. However, as a parent if you feel there is a disconnect here, you can always ask to speak with the teacher to clarify or look over the assessment criteria on the projects that are brought home to see how it aligns with the work your child produced.


For older students, they should make sure they read the task sheet carefully and note the key words used (e.g. explain, evaluate, report on, discuss etc.) as well as the marking rubric for the task (which is often provided). If they are not sure, they can even look up the curriculum for the subject and year level on the SCSA website to see what is expected of them.


The NASUWT Review Group stresses that marking is best regarded as one element of a wider approach to feedback and assessment. Its report is clear that it is inappropriate to regard marking as more important or more effective than other forms of feedback or to consider it in isolation from other ways in which pupils’ work is assessed.


If you have any questions about how to identify the focus of a task, or how feedback should operate to support student learning, please do contact us at My Academy – we are always happy to join the conversation and offer our expertise to help parents navigate the educational system.