ASSESS Keep it Simple Plus – Minus – Equals

ASSESS Keep it Simple Plus – Minus – Equals

It is great to know that peer assessment can be a time saving, effective form of feed forward. However, we cannot expect our pupils to complete all of our marking… can we? Teachers hate marking books! I have never met a teacher that said: “I have a lovely big pile of books waiting to be marked on my desk; I can’t wait to get started!” Marking takes time that teachers just do not have.

Assessment of any type is completed to provide pupils with a way of moving forward with their learning. It should not be completed in one large batch just before a work trawl. The marking method that follows was developed as a result of me wanting to mark every piece of work that pupils complete but simply not having the time. I took an existing idea named plus, minus equals and developed my own method of delivery that helps me save time while still effectively assessing pupils’ work.

Plus Minus Equals


 This method of using the plus, minus, equals signs to mark work is simple and pupils quickly adapt to it. It minimises the amount of writing you have to do and also encourages pupils to engage with your response to their work. Similar to the metaphorical fish task, this is a great way to encourage pupils to improve upon past efforts.

If you are getting pupils used to the method, you might want to begin by planning a succession of tasks that are similar in nature but can still allow pupils to progress. For example, I might be getting pupils prepared for their Literature exam and so each lesson, after teaching the pupils more about Of Mice and Men, I would ask them to reflect in the form of a paragraph response to a set question. This activity usually takes no more than ten minutes to complete. They have pupil friendly criteria so they know what I am expecting from them in the paragraph. Below is a fictional, very simplified version of the criteria for a reading response paragraph.

The first time pupils complete this task you should provide them with detailed feedback about their response using kind, specific and helpful comments. Do not use grades or levels as they are a distraction away from your comments and can create unhealthy competition within the class. If pupils work out their levels using the criteria themselves, they are forced to engage with your comments to do so. A typical first time response may simply review the storyline:

“ I learned today that Lennie and George were travelling together towards the ranch that they were going to work on.”

If the above response was received, to help pupils improve the teacher would provide detailed feedback which asks them to attempt to include a range of ideas to review the text including language, context and themes to create a more multistructural response. The teacher has looked at the next level criteria and reworded that to provide specific and helpful feedback.

Imagine that during the next lesson pupils have learned more about the topic and are being asked to once again respond in the form of a paragraph. Pupils should first reflect upon the detailed feedback and respond to it in writing stating what they will do differently to improve in this attempt. Pupils may respond with:

“I will remember to include language features, context and themes to improve my work”.

Pupils need to engage with your feedback; giving them time to read it and then make a pledge about what they intend to achieve in this next piece of work assists you in achieving this goal.

When you review this second batch of work, respond only with a simple plus, minus or equals sign. Provide pupils with time to respond to their achievement by writing down why they think they got their particular sign. Pupils will need to refer back to the original teacher comment as well as to the mark scheme in order to reach a conclusion. If they have received a plus it means their work has improved and they should explain why it has improved. If the above pupil received a plus they might respond by saying:

“I got a plus because I included context, characters and themes.”

The pupil has recognised why they have achieved a positive result. They are aware of what has made them successful and can use this knowledge to ensure that they continue to create good quality paragraphs. If a pupil has an equals sign then they have stayed the same and they must readdress their previous feedback to move forward. If a pupil has received a minus, their work has become worse and they must look at the difference between their first and second responses to spot the difference between the two.

Reading responses and taking notes in your planner is far less time consuming than reading and writing out thirty individual responses; you must respond individually at times but this way, you can read all of the work and create “feed forward” without the hand ache for once. By now we have read pupils’ work and saved time on writing detailed responses. We must use our understanding of common errors and misconceptions to pitch the next lesson but we have now put pupils in the driving seat of assessment.

Using their plus, minus or equals signs as a guide, pupils now set themselves a target for improvement. If they received a plus, they must look to the next level of the criteria to set themselves a target. It would also be helpful to provide pupils with an example of the next level so that they can spot the difference between where they are and where they need to be.  If pupils have been taught to effectively critique using kind, specific and helpful comments, this method should also be applied to this self-assessment task. For example the above pupil, who received a plus, had clearly moved from a level 1 to a level 2. They now need to move to a level 3. They can respond by telling themselves to:

“Relate all that I have learned about characters, language, themes and context to the reader’s enjoyment.”

Pupils then have a third attempt at their paragraph response.  For each subsequent response, you can respond with a plus, minus or equals and have pupils assess themselves against previous work and mark schemes. You must continue to read their responses and ensure that they are making the right decisions about improvements.


Since developing this method of delivery, pupils have shown a willingness to improve their own work. They are enthusiastic when looking for the plus signs and when they stay the same or get a minus, they go hunting for the reason for this result themselves. Using plus, minus, equals increased pupil’s self motivation to improve and decreasing the time I spent marking. Yet the quality of feedback remained high as pupils were provided with enough information to work out the next steps for themselves.


  • Before beginning the process, make sure that you provide simplified and leveled success criteria so that pupils can clearly see the next steps to take.
  • During the process, make time to read their responses and ensure that you know that pupils are responding correctly to your symbols.
  • Make sure that you mark their first piece of work thoroughly, using the same marking criteria as they are using to word your response. Pupils will use your response to model their own and so should be able to clearly see how it has been created.

4 thoughts on “ASSESS Keep it Simple Plus – Minus – Equals

  1. Pingback: Who Gives a Crap Anyway? | The Learning Geek

  2. Pingback: ASSESS Keep it Simple Plus – Minus – Equals | Reflections of a Learning Geek

  3. Pingback: Marking is an act of love | David Didau: The Learning Spy

  4. Pingback: Marking and Feedback | Meols Cop High School

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