Every teacher – particularly English teachers – has huge existential guilt about marking. When I worked full time as a teacher marking was the first thing to go when the stress inevitably piled up. And if we excoriate ourselves sufficiently to make sure mock exams and termly assessments receive sufficient attention, who’s got time to keep up with all those Key Stage 3 books?, There are only so many hours in the day and the only way to survive the brutal realities of teaching is to make correspondingly brutal choices. Pretty everything teachers do has value, but it’s unavoidably true that not all our actions are equally valuable.

This always seemed like a completely reasonable but still fairly unsatisfactory justification. I could never shake the guilt of seeing piles of unmarked books looming on the shelves at the back of the classroom. And the reason I felt so guilty is that marking kids’ work always felt like what a good teacher would find time to do.

The thing which always put me off marking my books was the sheer amount of time it took to plough through a class set. Students would tend to make the same errors and, although I could see very quickly what they needed to do improve, turning this feedback into something they’d be able to understand and implement took ages to craft and phrase. By the time I’d get to the last 10 books or so, this had become an exercise in Sisyphean drudgery.

Then came a bright new dawn. School leaders became increasingly concerned about teachers’ well-being and laudably concerned about eliminating unnecessary, burdensome workload. This has resulted in many more schools making whole class feedback a cornerstone of their marking policies. For any readers who aren’t yet familiar with this approach, it depends on teachers reading through students’ work, noting down common errors and misconceptions, and then designing a feedback lesson to address these mistakes and give students an opportunity to improve their work. For the avoidance of doubt, I see this as a very effective and efficient way to help students make progress.

And here’s the best thing: if you cut out the chore of writing feedback, reading students’ work is – by and large – fun.

However, all too often this seems to result in students books becoming rather unloved and error strewn. We all know what happens when students don’t feel their books are being regularly looked at: standards slip and mistakes become embedded. In practice, much of the writing students do in school actually makes them worse at writing. If students are allowed to practise writing in a way that allows them to embed errors, they end up getting better at writing badly. This is in no one’s interest.

So, although whole class feedback may score well on the efficiency stakes, is it demotivating for students? Do they end up thinking we just don’t care enough to respond to their hard work? The hard reality is that there’s some truth in this. There are few things more forlorn than a pile of books with little or no teacher presence.

Teacher presence is the answer. Students’ books should look like they’re been read. Ideally, they should be covered with ticks, underlinings, question marks and other responses to the work students have produced. If students are repeatedly making the same mistakes, teachers should know.

So, as you’re compiling your notes on what feedback you’re going to give to the class, it takes very little additional time to tick and flick as you go. Now, there’s no question that kids love teacher comments. The longer the better. But, as I’ve discussed before, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the length of a comment and the likelihood that a student will read it. And, they love ticks (especially double ticks) and stickers almost as much as they like comments!

In addition, the process of reading students’ work should hold them to account for their mistakes. If students routinely make careless mistakes they well automate the process of making mistakes. I call this ‘The Capital Letter Problem‘. The solution is to make proofreading your minimum expectation for any written work students complete. If it’s not proofread, it’s not finished. If it’s not finished then there ought to be some sort of consequence. Building a culture of proofreading is simple but it can take hard work. I recommend giving students a straightforward code like this:

Screen Shot 2016-08-31 at 11.28.21Then, all students should visibly annotate their work to demonstrate that it has met minimum expectations. One of the many benefits to this system is that if students identify where they have made mistakes they are making specific requests for feedback. It makes sense that when feedback has been solicited, students are far more likely to absorb and act on it.

So there we have it. If by ‘marking’ we mean reading students’ work, ticking and underling as we plan whole class feedback, what used to take 2-3 hours can be done in 30 minutes or so. Suddenly, marking a set of books every day doesn’t feel quite so daunting. The deal ought to be that if we feel it’s sufficiently important to ask students to spend time writing stuff, the least we can do is spare the time to read it. But reading – plus a little light annotation – is also the most we should do.