This series of #backtoschool blogs summarises much of my thinking as it’s developed over the past few years and is aimed at new or recently qualified teachers. Each area has been distilled to 5 ‘top tips’ which I hope prove useful to anyone embarking on a career in teaching. That said, I’ll be delighted if they serve as handy reminders for colleagues somewhat longer in the tooth.

Marking is a chore. Whether or not it has a measurable impact of pupils’ outcomes is arguable; that’s not the reason we do it. The reason we spend so much time marking is a combination of we’re told to, and because we think it’s the right thing to do

Of these I think the first reason takes up a disproportionate amount of our precious time and in the case of the second, we might possibly be doing the right things for the wrong reasons. You see, marking is conflated with feedback, and feedback is, like, really important, yeah?

There’s two things to say here:

  1. Feedback has a huge impact, but necessarily a positive one.
  2. Marking is not just a bout feedback; it’s an act of love.

I’ve written before about getting feedback right – basically it boils down to understanding that it should be concerned with clarity, effort or aspiration. This is important stuff, but the thing we really need to be aware of is that feedback is utterly useless unless it has a positive effect on pupils. And this is where I think marking and feedback are different: feedback is a process of trying to ensure pupils make progress, whereas marking is about showing you give a shit. It’s true power comes from increasing pupils’ conscientiousness.

And so, in predictable fashion, here are my top 5 marking tips:

1. Question, don’t describe

Ideally, the effort you put into marking should generate more work for pupils than it does for you. There’s really very little point in describing what pupils have or haven’t done; they are much more likely to learn if they are made to think, and simply reading a description is unlikely to provoke much thought. Much better to offer hints rather than complete solutions, and questions rather than descriptions:

  • Why have you done…?
  • How could you improve…?
  • Is ___ correct?

2. Keep it brief 

Imagine if you could mark every book every day. You’d go mad, right? But think of the benefits – think of the powerful routine that would be embedded as pupils came to expect that they would begin lessons by acting on feedback.

Naturally, the amount of time you’re going to spend marking depends in large part on what subject or what phase you teach. As an English teacher, I aimed to do an hour’s marking a day and pretty nearly always failed. For me, the most powerful reason for marking is that pupils know you’ve seen their books; what you write in them is far less important. So, why write anything at all? Instead, predict the mistakes you think pupils are likely to make and assign them each a number before you start marking. The most important thing you are doing is reading their work and getting to know how they think. Simply annotate the work with the number that correspond to the feedback you identified before starting marking. Then simply display each of the different numbered pieces of feedback at the start of the next less and get them to copy the feedback into their  books. As they then start work on making improvements, you can circulate and talk to them about the work you have read. Read Joe Kirby’s post for more details.

In this way I was able to get marking a set of around 30 books to under 15 minutes. I kid you not.

3. Focus

One of the many tricky choices you’ll be faced with when marking a set of books is what to mark. Everything? Or just a few  of the more glaring problems? This is Hobson’s Choice: if we mark everything pupils will be overloaded and end up learning nothing, but if we only mark selected extracts then we run the risk that they will embed bad practice. This is an insurmountable problem but one which can be minimised by asking students to highlight where they would like feedback. You can ask them to highlight where they have struggled, where they have taken a risk, what they are most proud of or anything else that occurs to you. Then, when we respond to this highlighting we will be giving feedback at the point at which pupils have identified they are ready to learn. And any feedback offered at this point is vastly more likely to be acted on.

4. Marking is…

I’m my drive for ever greater efficiency I’m all for lining up as many wild fowl as possible to take out with a single shotgun blast. And so with marking. Good marking is also planning. By marking pupils books we can see clearly what they are struggling to grasp and what they need more to practice further. I would aim to get proportionately more work back than I put in, so if I’d spent a minute marking a Year 7 book, I’d expect 10 minutes spend acting on feedback. And if I’d spent 10 minutes marking an A level essay, that should result in an hour’s lesson time redrafting and improving said essay.

Marking also has the additional benefit of being the purest form of differentiation. Each individual can be given specific improvement tasks tailored exactly for their peculiar needs. As long as lesson time is dedicated to ensuring pupils act on the fruits of your marking you can quite reasonably claim to have planned and differentiated your lessons.

5. Self assessment – don’t get me started?

When we ask children to self assess their work what we get back is, for the most part, bland to the point of meaningless. “I tried my best.” “I found the work really hard.” “I thought it was fun.” Who cares? What impact is such drivel ever going to have on learning? There’s acres of research to show that as a species we are dreadful at self assessment – consider for instance the Dunning-Kruger effect.

And further, I am wholly and utterly uninterested in the current fetish for pupil/teacher dialogue enacted in books. It is a quite spectacular waste of time to attempt to initiate dialogue through writing – why not just have a chat? The only merit for such nonsense is to provide an artificial means of accountability. And as such I abhor it.

Instead, why not make the ‘dialogue’ work like this:

  1. Pupils proofread for accuracy using a sensible and simple proofreading code, suggest possible improvements, and highlight where they would like feedback.
  2. Teachers ask questions and set questions to be answered in lesson time.
  3. Pupils answer questions and complete tasks in order to further improve their work.

How much more sensible does that sound?

And with that, I wish you happy marking and the very best of luck for the year to come.

The other posts in my back to school series are here:

Part 1 – Routines
Part 2 – Relationships
Part 3 – Literacy
Part 4 – Planning