Work scrutiny – What's the point of marking books?

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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.

2013-01-26T23:04:56+00:00January 26th, 2013|assessment, leadership|


  1. Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) January 27, 2013 at 12:07 am - Reply

    This is interesting and rings true with my observations. Work scrutiny is really good strategy when done in a collaborative manner; not as an SLT inspection. We’ve done is recently in my Physics department and we’ve all learned alot. I do think there are differences across subjects. In English, DT and Art, for example, it is common for the same skills to be developing over time and the redrafting and refining require a continual flow of feedback of a particular kind. In Maths and Science there is more compartmentalised content as well as some generic skills. I always get great results from students.. but I don’t feel the marking is the key; it is direct in-class feedback. I actually think 80 % of Maths feedback (guessing the exact number!) can be peer of self generated – because you can check the answers. The teacher only has to look for overall patterns over time. In English is isn’t the same; the nuance is more subtle. The same is true for any subject with extended writing. But in Science, you are dealing with chunks of conceptual understanding; if they are wrong, you can’t properly give feedback in marking….you need to talk to the student or the class directly and explain it all again, better. So… I sympathise with your scientists…. Re-drafting Science isn’t the main issue; understanding it is.

  2. learningspy January 27, 2013 at 9:00 am - Reply

    Thanks Tom
    I’m not unsympathetic to the plight of scientists. Of course understanding concepts is key (it is in English too) but that is precisely why marking is so vital. If you haven’t marked the thier books how do you know whether they’ve understood the lesson? And that’s why marking is planning. Obviously this doesn’t have to mean that you blindly make students repeat the same mistakes – as a professional you need to judge exactly how your marking will inform your planning.
    There is no defence for not marking though.

    • Jon Wasey May 6, 2017 at 7:25 pm - Reply

      Thought-provoking article. Thank you.
      I would love to hear more about this comment you made in response to @headguruteacher: “If you haven’t marked the thier books how do you know whether they’ve understood the lesson?”
      In my view, there are many alternative and better ways. For example, good questioning along with mini-whiteboards or a student response system like Socrative. These are real-time and enable me to see exactly which students do not understand a concept and give feedback and individualised support accordingly. This leads to rapid progress and enables me to tailor my next lesson and then keep repeating this process. Why would spending 3 hours of my time ploughing through a set of exercise books in a 45-50 hour week for just one of my 7 classes be a more efficient way to deliver feedback? Defies all common sense as far as I can see. Even if I did do all 21 hours each week, it would only represent a fraction of the quality feedback I give in lessons. I just don’t understand the enormously dated obsession with seeing red pen in the books.
      You later make this comment in reply to another reader: “However, if you’re going to ask your students to produce written work which then goes unmarked there is a problem.” This is fine with me as long as the marking can also be done by students (mixture of self and peer marking) which in my subject, chemistry, is nearly all cases is a perfectly reliable and time-efficient process; it also in itself benefits the students.
      I think everything I’ve said is reasonable! I would love to hear if you disagree.

      • David Didau May 6, 2017 at 9:43 pm - Reply

        No, I agree with you. I’ve changed my mind on the importance of marking. Here’s my latest thinking:

        • Jon Wasey May 8, 2017 at 7:37 am - Reply

          Thanks for you reply David. I think your more recent piece is spot on. As a scientist, I like your reference to EEF’s work. Evidence is the be all and end all. As you say, without this, we just don’t know.
          Thanks for reminding me to think about these points:
          – Internationalism. Despite being an international teacher (previously Shanghai for 5 years, now Budapest) I hadn’t thought about whether there is an emphasis or indeed any onerous marking in other systems. I want to find out more about this.
          – Subject-based considerations. I have mainly considered the marking question in relation to my own subject, science. When evaluating whole school marking policies, I need to think more about whether my approach to marking would work in other subjects.

  3. Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) January 27, 2013 at 9:13 am - Reply

    I agree; marking is vital but I don’t think it is the best way for me to know if a lesson has been understood. For me, in Science, 2-way feedback in lessons, and then progress-check tests that you go over in detail are more efficient and effective than taking books in and writing comments. Between subjects, it isn’t whether to mark or not, it is more a question of scale and frequency and then how you give the feedback. I find written feedback to explain concepts very inefficient…almost always requires me to go over again verbally. I tend to cut to the verbal…
    I love the fact that you promote marking as planning. It’s a powerful concept.

  4. Ellie Russell January 27, 2013 at 9:26 am - Reply

    The idea of marking has often filled me with dread, though every time I look at the work in books it’s so obvious how useful it is! I am trying to give students specific feedback on an aspect of their work every four to five lessons. It’s true, the content in our subject is rather generous shall we say. However, I am able to write a couple of tasks or questions for each student to answer that relates directly to the work they have been doing and give them the opportunity to improve their understanding. Last week some of my Yr 8 students were asked to give explanations to support their descriptions. For others in the class it was a chance for them to give me more detail in their evaluation of some practical work. A perfect starter to the following lesson. I confess I am not managing to be this thorough with all my classes, but I am spending more time thinking about how to find out what they are getting to grips with during the lessons. Inspirational talks from Dylan Wiliam have focussed me on thinking REALLY hard about what questions I ask and the ABCD voting cards make sure I get feedback from all my students.

  5. learningspy January 27, 2013 at 9:27 am - Reply

    I agree Tom – which is why I’m advocating asking questions rather than trying to explain concepts via written feedback. This wouldn’t work in English either: if a students doesn’t know how to evaluate a writer’s intentions I need to show them not just write it down and hope they read it. This is the whole point. I’m just saying we need to mark books, I’m say we need to use marking more efficiently to ask questions and set tasks. One of these tasks could be read page 14 of Physics text book and explain concept X? This is about killing multiple birds with a single stone.
    Of course verbal feedback has a powerful impact and any teacher worth their salt will be using it constantly. We need to use both together.

  6. lgolton11 January 27, 2013 at 5:46 pm - Reply

    While science does have compartmentalised knowledge I do a lot of peer and self assessment marking – this provides the pupils with the critique and feedback their require for short answer questions. When it comes to the extended answer questions I will explain my lesson this week. My yr 11 clearly had not understood the key properties of groups of chemical substances as evidenced by their inability to answer extended questions on their mid assessment test. This meant that I went back and used HOT maps to allow them to structure their knowledge and then a Compare and Contrast HOT map to support their literacy to produce an extended answer. This follow up lesson is as a direct result of my marking of their tests. t
    The follow up lesson is specifically designed to allow you to fill in those gaps or to set pupils their own individual targets to improve and is a school wide part of the assessment policy.
    Also this week I used another pupils test where he had achieved full marks on the extended answer question as a model for other pupils to understand how and why he got the marks.
    It all comes from marking – we cannot escape it but pupils are capable of marking many aspects of their work in science and as a teacher I am capable of finding where they do not understand and supporting those gaps. In class feedback is important but it is that personalised feedback provided by marking with questions, ideas and next steps that provide my pupils with the ways to move forward.

  7. Learning Spy | Pearltrees January 28, 2013 at 9:36 pm - Reply

    […] Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books? Apparently silent reading hasn’t been around as long as you might think. The 4th Century church leader Saint Ambrose’s reading habits were unusual enough for Saint Augustine to note in Book 6, chapter 3 of his Confessions that: When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud. Why is this important? Well, ever since I learned to internalise my reading I’ve been devouring books and developing my interior world. […]

  8. […] information you glean from marking books and tests.  I love David Didau’s insistence that marking is planning, for this very reason.  We also need to be open to feedback from parents.  Very often students […]

  9. […] believe we need to consider as we devise our own History Department ‘Menu of Feedback’. What’s the point of marking books? Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  10. […] Work scruting: what’s the point in marking books? […]

  11. […] by the information you glean from marking books and tests.  I love David Didau’s insistence that marking is planning, for this very reason.  We also need to be open to feedback from parents.  Very often students […]

  12. […] boiled it down to the following essentials: • Time is precious (the 2 minute lesson plan) • Marking is planning • Lessons should focus on learning not activities I’ve written before about my medium and […]

  13. […] I always used to prioritise lesson planning over marking.  Now, I prioritise both by ensuring the students act on the feedback.  They either complete an activity or redraft-or both.  The rest of the lesson is built around any other misconceptions evident in students work. The next few lessons are sorted too because you know what to teach based on the work produced by the whole class.  You are saving time because the next lesson is planned and you are making your lessons more efficient because they are truly tailored to what students need to learn.  David Didau writes about his ‘marking is planning’ mantra here. […]

  14. […] the medium-term plan to work out the next steps. I am completely with @learningspy when he says marking is planning. The progress map on @learningspy’s blog works well as does the 5 Minute Plan, the 7 […]

  15. simon clarkson May 24, 2013 at 11:56 pm - Reply

    Sorry but I really don’t agree with this.

    • learningspy May 25, 2013 at 1:03 pm - Reply

      I’m not sure why you bothered sharing that Simon. Would you like to contribute constructively to the debate?

  16. […]   […]

  17. […] Marking IS planning. I’m constantly marking – it’s (perhaps) the most important thing I do. Here on my thoughts on marking: […]

  18. […] marking – it’s (perhaps) the most important thing we do. Here are some of my thoughts on why marking is […]

  19. marvinsuggs May 28, 2013 at 1:06 pm - Reply

    Read through this with interest. We’ve instigated a WWW/EBI format across the whole school using specific blue forms so SLT can pin point that kind of marking. In Science this has ‘devolved’ into feedback from end of unit tests which come around all too quickly. I appreciate the comment about beautiful bookwork but is there value in a subject like science for note taking to be a little less rigorous and the focus of our marking to be this communication of ideas and concepts? I think back to numerous training sessions where my notes weren’t worth marking but they helped me formulate ideas or at least process what was important.

  20. […] part 3 – designing lessons for learning Go with the flow – the 2 minute lesson plan Work scrutiny – what’s the point of marking books? Anatomy of an Outstanding […]

  21. shafattack June 19, 2013 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    Sorry but I disagree. I teach ict computing business. All on pc. Nothings printed out. Wastes to.e, costs money,needs space. I go round whole class every lesson, assess and give feedback immediately. Suggest how to improve grades. Check again after while to check.
    Since school did not understand this, had to print out loads of work before inspection, wasting paper, tome, money and remark.just to tick that box. Kids had current grades effort atl on whiteboard most lesson. If they improved they got immediate gratification.
    i have illegible writing too. So pointless exercise. but no one would listen.
    hope I explained myself well enough.

  22. David Didau June 19, 2013 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    I’m not sure what you’re disagreeing with here. I’m not in favour of pointless exercises in general or printing out work purely for the purpose of scrutiny specifically. I’ll happily acknowledge that a number of subjects (drama, PE and, possibly, ICT) should not be part of this kind of whole school scrutiny. However, if you’re going to ask your students to produce written work which then goes unmarked there is a problem. As long as you have a system in place to ensure this happens, all will be well.

  23. Jo June 27, 2013 at 2:46 am - Reply

    This is all very interesting, so much so that I am writing a comment, which I have never done before on any blog! I agree with what you say, but thought I’d share my own experience.
    I teach science and have been searching for the ultimate marking strategy for some time. I think I am almost there and is certainly along the lines of what you are advocating.
    I think it comes down to this: In my subject, there is a lot of content. In my mind, the key to understanding is having as much opportunity as possible to explore, problem solve and discuss ideas. Talking is much more time-efficient than writing; as a result, my lessons regularly involve no book work at all. Mini-whiteboard writing, yes. Small group discussion, yes. But formal writing or worksheets – no. The result is that we cover content faster, more thoroughly, but without the unnecessary notes in books that I often have little time to mark anyway (what used to happen? books would inevitably be marked badly because I was time-pressured, so any written work containing misconceptions could go uncorrected or be corrected at too late a stage and the students didn’t take anything from it). Now, I get to move around my class, have great conversations with my class and pick up misconceptions at an early stage, before they are committed to formal answers on paper.
    But, of course, they still need to be able to give good written answers. It is a skill that needs to develop. So, rather than giving pointless homework, I give formative homework tasks every two or three weeks. This is done on google docs (although when I first trialled it, it was done in textbooks). I set a question and give clear assessment criteria, all of which are fairly open in style, but still show the student what is expected of them. This is a mastery assessment technique, so the marking takes place in the form of comments and questions and the homework continues until I am happy that the student has reached the necessary standard. So the piece of work may go back and forth several times for one student, as they refine their answer / technique or address any misunderstandings. Another student may be spot on first time, so they go no further (unless I choose to push them more). The beauty of this is that students HAVE to read my comments and make improvements until they are at the desired level. It doesn’t eat into lesson time, it’s valuable homework and, most importantly, the kids really value it. It’s important that they understand that they have to keep on addressing my questions and comments until they reach the necessary standard of work – after a few tasks I saw a real improvement in their first draft, because they didn’t want to have to keep re-doing it; they gained more pride in their work. And I saw a real improvement in end of topic test scores – we were moving into an area of deep understanding that just hadn’t been there for many of them before.
    So I advocate students to talk more, write less and teachers to set less but smarter homework – mark smart!

  24. Christian July 5, 2013 at 10:25 pm - Reply

    I love the above comment. I too am a science teacher and I also have this problem with marking. Our school are stepping up marking scrutiny so I’ve been having to think about my strategies but I really don’t want to change my discussion filled lessons. I also use mini whiteboards and use them to hold miniscience conferences and I encourage debate across the room. Their books seem to, more and more, only contain notes. So, I am so inspired by your idea that I am going to undertake it myself. I’m going to leave my less-used email address just in case you see this and would like to share your ideas and how you implement them a bit more in depth. If not, you’ve already helped enough 🙂 Thanks

  25. Jill Berry July 24, 2013 at 7:43 pm - Reply

    Thanks for this, David – though I’m coming to it a little late, in several senses!
    I taught English between 1980 and 2010 – I was a teaching head for the last ten years. Blogs such as this one make me think back to my practice and what I, the pupils and also the staff I worked with gained from/learnt from marking (and how it could have been better!). I was also an exam marker between 1983 and 1993 – different from marking as a channel of feedback to students but still interesting in terms of accuracy of assessment.
    One thing that particularly struck me was your comment: “Middle leaders should be scrutinising their teams’ books regularly and sharing the findings in a non-judgmental but in a way which very clear about their high expectations. This is just too important to leave to chance”. I became Head of English in 1989 and stayed in the role until 1993. It seems to me now that that was a very different world – National Curriculum/key stage testing/league tables/Ofsted just coming in. I think as HoD at that time I spent much more of my time and energies as an administrator than middle leaders (a term we didn’t even use then) currently do – one of the (many) ways in which education has moved forward positively since my first years of teaching.
    I realise how much more effective I would have been as a HoD if I HAD used work scrutiny to initiate dialogue with the members of my department and as part of the balance of support/challenge in my leadership of the team. We DID discuss work/assessing work together when we moderated GCSE (we did an English/English Lit dual certification qualification which was 100% coursework – the most satisfying and rewarding exam course I ever taught! I was a marker too, so spent a week at the NEAB, as it was, each summer, moderating samples from all centres and checking accuracy/reliability of marking).
    Since finishing as a head I do various things including consultancy work and I am involved in ML training so I will be able to use blogs such as yours in the training of aspiring and new HoDs – thanks.
    One last thing – I read here (and in David Fawcett’s blog on Critique which I’m also going to RT) the Berger ‘If it isn’t perfect it isn’t finished’ quotation and that makes me very uneasy. I absolutely agree about not accepting sloppy work, but there’s a world of difference between sloppy and perfect. Three of the six schools I taught in were selective girls’ schools and bright girls can have a particular problem with not handing in anything they deem not to be ‘perfect’ and you have to stop them sometimes doing a ridiculous number of drafts (drafting is good but you need to know when something is good enough and then move on to something else) because they felt anything less than perfection wasn’t acceptable. I’d say aim high and have aspirations, but also be realistic and reasonable in your expectations of yourself and don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t hitting ‘perfect’ every time!
    Interested to know what you think. Sorry this reply is a bit long….(verbose English teacher…)

    • David Didau July 24, 2013 at 9:15 pm - Reply

      Hi Jill
      Initially I shared your reservations about that Berger quote and told my classes ‘if it isn’t proofread it isn’t finished’ instead.
      On reflection though, there’s actually something really encouraging about realising that ‘perfection’ is just about time & effort rather than talent. It can be motivational to say ‘this isn’t perfect but that’s because there’s still things you need to do.’ If high expectations aren’t that high then they won’t be transformational.
      Cheers, David

  26. […] – David Didau writes here about why written feedback is crucial and some useful tips, like ‘triple impact marking’: […]

  27. […] – David Didau writes here about why written feedback is crucial and some useful tips, like ‘triple impact marking’: […]

  28. […] Work scrutiny- Whats the point of marking books? David Didau Making feedback stick David Didau Improving written feedback Alex Quigley Marginal […]

  29. Lesson plans | Pearltrees August 25, 2013 at 9:54 am - Reply

    […] Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books? […]

  30. […] Feedback: it’s better to receive than to give February 2012 Making feedback stick  July 2012 Work Scrutiny: what’s the point of marking books? January […]

  31. […] Advice on marking books, giving written feedback and conducting a work scrutiny  […]

  32. A New Year! | joining up the maths September 4, 2013 at 3:08 pm - Reply

    […] Didau has been talking about this for a while and I’m leading a research group at school based around it.  I’m determined to […]

  33. […] the ‘perfect’ lesson Work scrutiny: what’s the point in marking books? Are worksheets a waste of […]

  34. […] Work scrutiny: what’s the point in marking books? The joy of marking Making feedback stick […]

  35. […] of AfL – you can read more about marking as planning here from the following contributers: @LearningSpy – “Work Scrutiny – What’s the Point of Marking Books?” @headguruteacher […]

  36. […] 2. Work scrutiny: what’s the point of marking books? 26 January – 19,764 views […]

  37. […] Triple Impact Marking  (via David Didau here) […]

  38. […] Are they standards being met? How do you know? Formalised classroom observations and work scrutinies are mechanisms for ensuring these basics are in place with out the need for any clumsy grading, but […]

  39. Teaching and learning | Pearltrees February 23, 2014 at 4:40 pm - Reply

    […] Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books […]

  40. Rhys Baker March 8, 2014 at 11:17 pm - Reply

    I am a science teacher. I agree that science is very content heavy, and doesn’t readily lend itself to the sort of skills based marking and DIRT that other subjects do. We have a lot to get through.
    We also have very distinct modules. Marking in the manner suggested by you could easily be done at the completion of a module, before administering a end of unit test. Personalised revision, reflection and improvement as a revision lesson. Test next lesson. Review the tests the lesson after. That is up to four consecutive lessons checking and improving and embedding understanding.
    I’m saving these ideas for later. Many thanks!

  41. […] marking – it’s (perhaps) the most important thing we do. Here are some of my thoughts on why marking is […]

  42. […] Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books? 26th January 2013 – 11,199 […]

  43. […] Are they standards being met? How do you know? Formalised classroom observations and work scrutinies are mechanisms for ensuring these basics are in place with out the need for any clumsy grading, but […]

  44. […] We also looked at triple impact marking via David Didau here […]

  45. Assessment | PGCEPhysicalEducation November 10, 2014 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    […] Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books? – David Didau […]

  46. […] Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books? (January 2013) […]

  47. Abs January 28, 2015 at 5:54 am - Reply

    ‘it also confirms what I’ve long believed: the more often I mark their books, the more effort they will put into their work’
    I totally agree with this comment. It is fundamental to my job as an English teacher. I get so much out of my students when my books are marked thoroughly and we take time in the lesson to discuss the comments. Students get to answer some of the questions i have written for them; those questions are specifically targeted for them and i think students appreciate that and respond enthusiastically.
    I also encourage peer marking but there is always a criteria provided. I make sure that i check the peer marking too and write a comment in response which they have to share with their partner the next lesson. This works well most of the time.
    Marking can be tedious so i make sure i take in books more regularly so i have less to mark and the content is fresh in my mind.

  48. […] Teachers are selective in their marking and creative in their planning too. If they think its not beneficial to mark they might do the activity on whiteboards instead. They are purposeful and the students are given time to act on the feedback they have been given. Teacher’s  keep each other accountable and participate in whole school book scrutiny. […]

  49. […] Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books? […]

  50. […] Marking is planning. As Didau states here, effective marking should essentially form the planning for the next lesson, give time to reflect […]

  51. […] Once students have completed work, the most powerful thing you can do is give meaningful, personalised feedback, and give them time to improve in a future lesson (for an excellent discussion on this, see this post from David Didau ‘What’s the point of marking books?’). […]

  52. […] 5. Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books? (January 2013) […]

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