A heap of epithets is poor praise: the praise lies in the facts, and in the way of telling them.

Jean de La Bruyère

We are held hostage by our superstitious belief in the mystical power of marking to cure all educational ills. It won’t. A teacher inscribing marks in students’ exercise books is every bit as mundane as it sounds; in my 15 years in the classroom it rarely resulted in much. But that’s not really why we mark. We mark because it’s the right thing to do. Because not marking is worse than marking. This is the marking fetish.

Recently I’ve been working with a school to help them rethink their marking policy. As part of that process, I spent a day scrutinising some books. Current school policy is that teachers point out two things students have done well and an action they should undertake for further improvement. My working hypothesis was that this is a waste of time.

Here’s an example from an obviously hard working and committed teacher:

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 09.06.14Take a look at the stars: “Excellent effort to copy descriptions” and “Correctly identified”. What point can there be in expecting a teacher to point these things out? Might students be unaware that they’ve met these basic expectations? No, of course not. And it’s unlikely many students are so needy as to feel motivated by having their teachers praise them for achieving a minimum standard. If you imagine that the teacher in question will have marked a set of 25-30 books in this way, the requirement to point out the blindingly obvious is a huge cost in terms of time. What’s more, there’s some good evidence that this kind of meaningless praise actually gets in the way of students acting on feedback.

The Action, though, seems useful: “Why are these symbols important?” Because this is phrased as a question it’s designed to provoke thought. Even better, the teacher has clearly allowed time for the student to respond and show their understanding. It would be almost impossible – especially in the short term – that answering this question provides any evidence that this pupil has learned more, but it’s unlikely to have done any harm.

The same problems are in evidence with other marking policies which expect teachers to respond to students’ work with a set formula. Here’s an example of www (what went well) ebi (even better if) marking:

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 11.57.16Again, what went well is clear for all to see. The teacher pointing it out is a waste of everyone’s time. The observation that the work would have been even better if “you could calculate in standard form” is interesting. Had the student been asked to calculate in standard form but not bothered? If so, maybe some sort of sanction might be appropriate? And if they hadn’t been asked to calculate in standard form it seems arbitrary to now say that this would have been preferable. And the pupil response is shorthand for, “Yeah, yeah whatever.” It suggests that standard form has been previously covered but not lodged in the student’s mind. I’m no maths teacher, but this would seem a fairly predictable problem that a well-designed curriculum ought to anticipate. And as for the principle of following praise with a suggested improvement, Henry Ward Beecher pointed out that, “The meanest, most contemptible kind of praise is that which first speaks well of a man, and then qualifies it with a ‘But’.”

I’m in way impugning either of the teachers involved in creating these examples; they wonderfully exemplify the lengths we’ll go to enact meaningless policies. But in both cases, most of what they’re doing is unlikely to be meaningful feedback which enhances or improves students’ understanding of a topic. And in both cases the opportunity cost is exorbitant. I’m not saying that it’s always pointless to point out what students’ have done well, Obviously if a student has done something above or beyond your expectations then of course let them know you’re chuffed. But requiring teachers to praise results in combing desperately through books looking for something, anything to praise. It often takes teachers 2-3 hours to mark a set of books in this way – any activity which sucks up so much time surely must result in a more meaningful, measurable impact. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Sadly, the point is that most marking  of this type is for the purpose of accountability. It is shorthand for showing we are good teachers, that we care. But – and I’m speculating here – the vast majority of what teachers write in students’ books is a missed opportunity.

I’ve written before about the need to get feedback right, and have suggested that there are really only three reasons to give feedback: to provide clarification, to increase students’ effort, or to improve students’ aspirations. Here are a series of flow chart designed to make these processes clearer:

Instead of asking teachers to slavishly follow ill-thought out marking policies. A vital question for all school leadership teams is, Are you wasting teachers’ time? Maybe we could satisfy the twin requirements of trust and accountability by asking them to consider these two simple questions:

  • How will I know if this marking will have an impact on students’ long-term retention and ability to transfer between contexts?
  • How could I have achieved this aim more efficiently?