Opportunity makes a thief. – Francis Bacon

I wrote recently about the differences between marking and feedback. In brief, and contrary to popular wisdom, they are not the same thing; feedback is universally agreed to be a good bet in teachers’ efforts to improve student outcomes whereas as marking appears to be almost entirely unsupported by evidence and neglected by researchers.

Marking takes time
Although there are some who dislike the use of the term opportunity cost being applied to education, there’s no getting away from the fact that whilst we may be able to renew all sorts of resources, time is always finite. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. Time spent marking cannot also be spent doing something else. The cost of our decisions is measured not only in the effectiveness of what we have done, but in terms of the value of the alternative forgone.

Up until recently, it’s been assumed that the time teachers spend marking is time well spent. The assumption is that it will result in students being given feedback, which will, in turn, help them improve whatever it is they’ve been practising. (There are all sorts of flaws in this theory, many of which I describe here.) But, if marking does not necessarily lead to children receiving feedback, maybe it’s a poor investment. What other, more profitable, activity might teachers have been engaged in?
Here are a few of the reasons why we might decide to spend time marking:

  • To grade and summatively assess students’ performance
  • To correct students’ mistakes
  • To help students to improve their current level of performance
  • For teachers to receive feedback from students about how well they appear to be understanding the content being taught
  • To motivate students to work harder
  • Because parents like it and students have come to expect it
  • To prevent students from having to struggle or think
  • For accountability purposes (as a proxy for convincing managers that you are a good teacher)

Some of these are legitimate reasons for marking, some are not. I definitely thinking reading students work might be very important, but the process of making or giving marks may not be.
To that end, I had a fascinating conversation last week with Dr Chris Wheadon of No More Marking. As far as I can tell, it appears to be an exciting development and might end up saving teachers precious time to give students valuable feedback on their work. Although still in the pilot phases of development, the system asks teachers to upload essays which are compared and placed into a rank order. The system doesn’t rely on computer programmes or complex algorithms, instead teams of subject experts (PhD students working for the sheer love of it) read a couple of essays and decide which one they like best. Each essay is judged by a number of different experts and their subjective opinions are aggregated. There are no vague or over-complicated markschemes to interpret and teachers can select any scale – 1-20, 1-100 they wish; the system will record the aggregate of the experts’ marks accordingly. This then allows teachers and students to have meaningful discussions about why an essay has scored a particular mark to drive precise, generalisable feedback on how performance might be improved.

Imagine it: all a busy teacher would need to do is photograph and upload their students’ essays and wait for the marked results to drop into their inbox overnight ready for analysis and debate the following lesson. Sounds almost magical, doesn’t it? And the best news is, it’s completely free! 

Chris is currently keen to hear from schools and teachers who would like to participate in further trials.