It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.

William of Ockham

Tick n flick – the practice of flicking through students’ exercise books and ticking to indicate that they have been read (or at least seen) is widely used as a pejorative term for the laziest type of marking undertaken only by the most feckless, morally bankrupt of teachers – generally gets a bad press. Perhaps this is unsurprising; in the worst cases it suggests a hurried post-hoc skim through pages of work in order to give the unconvincing appearance that books are being marked. No one wants that. But it’s worth considering the reason why teachers are tempted to mark like this: it’s quick.

In this post I suggested that less marking might mean more feedback. There might be others, but these are the reasons why I think teachers mark books:

  1. To grade and summatively assess students’ performance
  2. To correct students’ mistakes
  3. To help students to improve their current level of performance
  4. For teachers to receive feedback from students
  5. To motivate students to work harder
  6. Because parents like it and students have come to expect it
  7. To prevent students from having to struggle or think
  8. For accountability purposes (as a proxy for convincing managers that you are a good teacher)

It’s worth thinking about which of these reasons might be worthwhile as opposed to those reasons which might explain why you actually mark.

I would argue that reasons 7 & 8 are poor reasons for marking. Reason 6 is understandable and, because detailed marking has become an expectation in the minds of many parents and students, simply not doing it without any explanation may well have a negative impact.

Reasons 2 & 3 are well-intentioned, but often counter-productive. Sometimes, of course, we just need to let students know they have blundered, but much written feedback endlessly repeats information which they already know. If a student is already aware of an error, pointing it out is unlikely to result in them learning anything new. Moreover, we may be inadvertently teaching students that spotting mistakes is unimportant because someone else will do that thinking for you. Similarly, marking in order to improve students’ current performance – by insisting on a response from the student or some kind of follow-up activity -will no doubt lead to students’ producing better work, but what really is the point? Just because a student can improve their work in response toy a teacher’s feedback is no indication that they will still be able to perform at that level without the prompts at another time and in another place.

Tick n flick is clearly unsuitable for reason 1 which obviously demands a grade of some sort.As I’ve explained before, this is a process best undertaken by aggregated comparative judgement.

This leaves us with reasons 4 & 5. The only really valuable reasons for marking students’ work are, firstly, to motivate them to aim high and work hard and, secondly to find out how they are currently performing and to check their understanding of the subject content being taught. Neither reason requires that written feedback be given. Broadly speaking, students will produce a high quality of work if they believe someone is holding to account for the work they produce.  We all know what happens to the quality of work in books which go routinely unmarked. Sometimes, all that’s required to achieve this end is a judiciously placed tick or cross to indicate whether work has been completed to your satisfaction (Apparently in many French schools teachers simply write vu on work they have looked at.)

The word ‘flick’ is a potentially confusing misnomer as it implies superficial skimming, but to satisfy reason 4, you actually have to read the work students have produced. In this post, Greg Ashman summarises why it might be more important for teachers to receive feedback than hand it out. This marks a powerful change of perspective. John Hattie says in Visible Learning, “It was only when I discovered that feedback was most powerful when it is from the students to the teachers that I started to understand it better.” When we read students’ work we take feedback from them. We find out something about what they’re thinking. We shouldn’t be deceived into thinking that this is evidence of learning, but we should see it as useful information which gives us some indication about whether our teaching is having the effects we intend. Having taken feedback from our students, we are then in a better position to fine-tune our instruction, give whole class feedback on common errors and misconceptions, and talk to individuals about their work at quiet points in a lesson.

This strikes me as a highly efficient approach and, arguably, efficiency is nothing more than intelligent laziness. Apart from anything else, this approach is likely to be less time consuming and thus reduce workload.

All this can be achieved by reading through students’ books and making brief annotations. Although the phrase doesn’t fully capture the nuance of the practice, I can’t think of a catchier little moniker for it than ‘tick n flick’.