I’m a big fan of marking students’ work. I love it so much I let a big pile of it build up to do over the holidays. As an English teacher I’m faced with a lot of marking and most of it needs to be read carefully rather than given a cursory tick ‘n’ flick.

I know that marking students’ books helps to ensure that they care about the work they produce. I also know that providing formative feedback is the most important intervention that I, as a teacher, can have on my students; there is nothing I can do that will have more impact on their success than good old fashioned comment based marking.

“But sir, red ink is damaging to my self-esteem!”

But, to my shame, when I’m tired or stressed, marking is one of the first things to slide. If I’m not disciplined I can go weeks without having looked a student’s book let alone having provided useful feedback. You see, you can get away with it in a way that not having planned any lessons is hard to hide.

One strategy that has gained in popularity over the time I’ve been teaching is to involve students in the marking process. This takes a deal of training but with perseverance students can become excellent peer assessors. As long as they’re marking against clear and meaningful success criteria and have an understanding about how to improve, the comments they make will be useful. There are all sorts of excellent educational reasons why we should be doing this; not only does it involve students in using and understanding rubrics in a way that will help them move their own work forward, it also provides a useful window into how other students are interpreting the success criteria and makes sure that students are sharing their work without lengthy and tedious teacher led feedback sessions.

I’ve found it harder to engage students in self assessing their work but this is perhaps even more important. If I can lead students to the point where they can self assess an exam essay and say with confidence, ‘That’s a B that is, sir.” then my work will be done. Some of the problems include fighting against a form of dysmorphia which allows many students to look at their work and either screw it up in disgust, toss it in the bin and proclaim it to be rubbish, or, equally alarmingly, to be convinced that it is a shining, flawless slice of perfection. Obviously these positions are extremes but many students occupy precarious perches far from the hallowed middle ground of being able to take a long, hard look, reflect on what’s good and what needs to be improved and then set a meaningful target that will be acted on.

Why do they struggle to honestly assess their own work? Well, maybe it’s got something to do with society’s twin evils that on the one hand, no one likes a show off and on the other, if you don’t stick up for yourself no one else is going to. There’s a big pinch of the fixed mindset in both of these narratives and part of the solution lies in training kids lacking in the self confidence to either acknowledge that they’re wrong or to admit that their efforts have worth. Again, with perseverance and clear parameters, self assessment can be made to work well.

One of the ways I’ve found for getting the self assessment ball rolling is to insist that students proofread and edit their work before handing it in. If I find mistakes which they could, and should have spotted I give it back unmarked. Unmarked, but not unseen. I know what they’ve been up to and how much they’ve learnt. They simply proof read again, and again until it’s second nature. I think this sort of approach to basic literacy is going to become increasingly important within the new Ofsted framework and in light of the changes to GCSEs where 5% of marks will be based on spelling, punctuation and grammar.

I recently came across TIM (triple impact marking) which involves the students making a comment on their work, then me commenting on their work and their comments and then the student commenting on my comment. The point being that this engages them in a learning conversation that focusses on how they will act on feedback and make improvements. Like many of us, I’ve been doing variations of this sort of thing for years, but it’s always nice to have a handy label to slap on your marking tin. My wife, also an English teacher, takes this process one step further and sends students’ books home for parents to add their comments at the end of this feedback loop. When it works, she says this a very powerful way of engaging mum and dad as well as providing yet another reasons for youngsters to take pride in their output.

This is lovely, but still doesn’t get away from the fact that I need to mark their books. Clearly there’s an issue with quality control if I’m not aware of how students are assessing themselves, but more importantly how can I tailor lessons to backfill gaps in understanding if I’m not reading students’ work? How can I claim that I’m ‘assessing for learning’? How can I look myself in the eye and not shudder with revulsion if I’m failing to do the single most important thing that any teacher should be doing? I can’t. In order for formative assessment to work students need to be provided with opportunities to redo, or attempt similar tasks, in order for them to act of their targets and loop their learning. No marking? No targets. No targets? No improvement.

No amount of tick & flick, lolly sticks, traffic lights, peer & self assessment, or parental comment will excuse me from the fact that marking books should be my number one priority and that I should damn well stop making excuses, bloody well stop prevaricating and get on with it.

Is there another way? A system where I don’t create a back breaking backlog of marking but the kids still get useful and timely feedback? In Essential Motivation for the Classroom, Ian Gilbert talks about how computer games are really good at providing instant feedback with the result that players don’t get frustrated and switch off; instead they keep challenging themselves to complete progressively more difficult challenges. Sounds the the Holy Grail, doesn’t it? He then shares the following:

One teacher told me told me how in his school they had decided they were fed up with doing so much marking in their own time until late in the night and so had resolved not to do it anymore. With creative thinking hats on they now design lessons with a great deal more marking on the spot, self- and peer-marking, with opportunities for the teacher to go round the class during lessons looking at books from time to time.

Instant feedback, peer work, a sense of control and responsibility for the students, and an early night for the staff – what more can you want?

Unfortunately he doesn’t go on to detail exactly how this system was put in place or whether or not it was successful, but maybe that’s my job?

Is instant feedback the way forward? Is this how I should structure more of my lessons? Certainly the thought of a few early nights is tempting.

Any thoughts or suggestions will, as ever, be gratefully received and acted upon with due consideration. Thanks.