Quick and Effective Lesson Ideas #5 – “The Big Yellow Box” (Or, How to make your students work harder than you!)

Over September and October I will be publishing articles on effective teaching strategies for trainee teachers and NQTs, offering brief (and, I hope, useful and practical!) examples of lessons, ideas, and resources that saved my bacon on more than one occasion!

Other articles in this series:

I really am cheating a bit here… this article is really a shameless plug for the “Yellow Box Methodology”, innovated by the George Spencer Academy and made famous by the fantastic Ross Morrison McGill (@TeacherToolkit).

The Big Yellow Box completely changed my marking process, and made it better in every conceivable way. Not only did deployment of this strategy make it possible to zip through essays and homeworks in a fraction of the time, but it made my marking far more effective. The Big Yellow Box gives students greater agency in responding to feedback and improving their work, and enables teachers to monitor progress with accuracy. I actually have this technique to thank for my last “Outstanding” lesson observation…!

The Big Yellow Box is, in short, a life-saver – and that’s true whether you’re an NQT or a have a decade of experience under your belt.


The Yellow Box Methodology is best described by McGill himself in this article. In brief. though, it can be boiled down to three simple steps:

1. Read through a student’s piece of work. You might leave a summative comment at the end, but nothing too detailed!
2. Using a highlighter pen (this doesn’t need to be yellow, by the way!), draw a box around the section of work that you think would benefit from feedback. The box can be as encompassing or as focused as your needs require. Then (and this is the important bit) mark this section – and this section alone! – in detail, providing opportunities for students to respond to your feedback.
3. Return the work, and ask students to respond to the comments you have left them. This works brilliantly as a starter activity, or can be set as a quick and meaningful homework.


If it’s likely that a number of students in your class will require the same kind of feedback or advice (e.g. if this is the first time that they have completed a particular assessment or studied a specific module), you can save even more time while retaining the effectiveness of this strategy by marking your box using a simple numerical code rather than writing full comments.

It might be an idea to use your code in a way that reflects different assessment criteria – a strategy that will minimise the amount that you write while simultaneously differentiating for ability. Simply have the code legend up on the whiteboard when you return the marked work, and allow students to respond there and then. For an English essay, for example, I might leave the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 around my box, drawing arrows to the relevant sentences. On the whiteboard, my legend would translate thus:

1. Rephrase this sentence so that it makes a clear POINT that explains what you are arguing in this paragraph. (Assessment Objective 1)
2. Can you add a QUOTATION here that demonstrates your point? Try to embed it, if you can! (AO2)
3. ANALYSE your quotation in a bit of detail… how does the highlighted word/phrase support your argument? Can you link it to historical context? Can it be read in different ways? (AO4)
4. Add a few sentences that link your point to HISTORICAL CONTEXT. (AO3)

Opportunities for Differentiation

The beauty of Yellow Box marking is that the process involves differentiation by design. The focused nature of the strategy means that the teacher is able to provide bespoke challenge for every student, and assess understanding in summative fashion once students have responded to feedback. You will know your students better than anyone: use that knowledge to stretch and challenge as you see fit!

(TOP TIP – Get students to respond to tasks in a different-coloured pen. This will allow you – and any observers! – to see at a glance their progress and whether or not they have adequately responded to feedback!)

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this strategy, and how it works for you! I’d also really love to hear if you have any favourite marking tips or strategies. Leave a comment below and share your expertise!

6 responses to “Quick and Effective Lesson Ideas #5 – “The Big Yellow Box” (Or, How to make your students work harder than you!)”

  1. […] 6. Assess however you see fit! The narrow focus and brevity of the mini-essay challenge makes it ideal for peer assessment. If, on the other hand, you choose to mark these yourself, the nature of the task eliminates the need for extended feedback: instead, limit your assessment to a single, specific aspect of the work and a brief comment / question. Not only does this limit your workload, but it makes your feedback much more effective! For additional speed, you could offer feedback via a numerical code…! […]


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