Contrary to popular belief, marking and feedback are not the same thing. Clearly they’re connected – and, ideally most marking has the intention of giving feedback – but the process of marking or giving marks does not, in and of itself, equate with feedback.

Those who see marking as an essential component of a teachers’ role should wonder why, in many parts of the world – particularly east Asian countries which seem to do very well in international comparisons – teachers do not routinely mark students’ work. If it were essential this would not be possible. Anglophone countries – and the UK especially – seem to have an unhealthy obsession with marking. In England the majority of teachers see their marking burden as both onerous and unhelpful and it’s not unusual for teachers to be expected to spend 3 hours plus every night wading through a pile of marking.

So, why do we do it? I think there are for main reasons why we mark:

  1. To grade and summatively assess students’ performance
  2. To help students to improve their current level of performance
  3. To motivate students to work harder
  4. For accountability purposes.

The first three are certainly well-intentioned (although possibly misguided) and can all achieve their aims without the need for written feedback. The last of these reasons is, however, entirely nugatory. If your purpose for marking is to sate the urges of parents, school leaders or school inspectors then it’s unlikely to have much in the way of a positive impact of children’s progress. That isn’t to argue that marking’s rubbish – in fact I’m sure it can, if done well, prove useful – it’s just that the benefits of marking in no way match the costs. Teachers’ time is strictly finite; once you’ve spent it you can never get it back. Time spent mark will, at best, result in a written comment viewed by one student once. I reckon there are very many way teachers’ time could be more profitably spent.

Obviously we shouldn’t leave such an important issue to the vagaries of what I reckon. Instead we ought to consult the research into marking practices. It turns out that while there’s a ton of research into the effects of feedback (which tells us that in the most robust studies feedback results in negative outcomes 38% of the time!) there is no reliable research into the effects marking. Nothing., Nada. Zilch. (Or, close to nothing. I wrote about the EEF’s summary of the dearth of useful evidence here.)

This means that those who loudly and enthusiastically sing the praise of marking have no support whatsoever for their opinion. It may turn out that green pens, two stars and a wish, what went well, triple impact and written dialogue will all turn out to be wonderful, but right now we just don’t know. We’re like doctors of yore recommending bloodletting:

Doctor: But bloodletting works!

Patient: How do you know?

Doctor: Just look at all the many thousands of patients who have survived due to having been bled of ill humours!

Patient: But what about the many thousand of patients who’ve experience bloodletting but died?

Doctor: Oh, well, you can’t have everything.

We could replay the same exchange in a 2016 classroom:

Zealous school leader: Marking is an effective way of ensuring children make progress.

Overworked teacher: How do you know?

Zealous school leader: Just look at all the many thousands of students who have met or exceeded their targets due to having the work marked!

Overworked teacher: But what about the many thousand of students who’ve had their work marked and yet not met their targets?

Zealous school leader: Oh, well, what can you expect of kids like those?

All we know for sure is that if people receive feedback in the right way they are more likely to make improvements. For feedback to be effective it has to either result in students wanting to aim higher or committing to working harder. There’s no right way to achieve these aims, but we can probably conclude that the relationship between the recipient and the donor is pretty important. Further we might decide that the best way to ensure that children act on the our feedback in the way we hope they will is to speak to them. It’s probably fair to say that writing down what we want students to do is leaving a lot to chance and we shouldn’t be too surprised if sometimes it backfires.

Unfortunately, all we have is our intuition on what will be most effective for our students, and that’s precarious guidance at best. We certainly don’t know enough to compel teachers to mark according to any fad or fashion.

Oh, and just in case you think Ofsted wants to see books marked in particular way, in his latest missive to inspectors, Sean Harford says:

I remain concerned that we continue to see some inspection reporting which gives the impression that more detailed or more elaborate marking is required, or indeed that it is effective in promoting pupils’ achievement. Inspectors must not give the impression that marking needs to be undertaken in any particular format and to any particular degree of sophistication or detail.

Finally, if you’d like to do something about reducing your marking workload, have a read of the ideas in this post.