Marking: What’s the point?

I hate marking. It’s time-consuming, repetitive and no sooner than you attain the grim satisfaction of completing a set of books, another pile has reared up Hydra-like from five other classes in an endless cycle of late nights and guilt.

I’m not alone here. Marking is one of three key areas identified by teachers as contributing to an excessive workload and it is a favourite topic for staffroom moaning, school policy documents and, yes, teacher blogs.

I wouldn’t mind marking if I was convinced it was useful. My frustration here stems from the conflation of ‘marking’ and ‘feedback’ that has led to written feedback in student books being disproportionately valued by schools and pupils alike.

To improve, students need feedback. This can vary from positive reinforcement to a detailed critique of a piece of writing. It is essential that teachers know how their students are doing and that pupils know how to improve – no arguments here. ‘Feedback’ also comes out favourably in The Education Endowment Fund’s meta analysis of what works in education.

However, this explains only part of schools’, almost universally overinflated, emphasis on teacher-pen in books. Regardless of rhetoric, schools have a tendency to focus on ‘marking’ rather than ‘feedback’ and the former can have very little to do with the latter.

Book audits (or their unbearably cutesy, euphemistic cousin the ‘book look’) are an obvious example of marking as an accountability measure. ‘Verbal feedback given’ stamps, multiple coloured-pen marking policies, ticking and flicking and fortnightly marking policies are also dangerously detached from the core aim of providing feedback. If you want to check up on teachers, fine, but be upfront about it.

Perhaps even more worrying is students’ dependency on marking and teacher comments. The argument is that marking is an acknowledgement of a pupil’s work.

The danger here is that students only think that a piece of writing has value or purpose once it’s been marked. Students should instead be encouraged to see value in their work without a teacher’s written acknowledgement. Teachers should be equipping students with the skills, knowledge and independence to make these judgements themselves.

In a subject like English written feedback is likely always going to have a part to play. The below list should help to make marking less onerous and more effective. Guiding any piece of feedback should be the question: how is this going to help the student to improve?

  1. Cut your losses. Inevitably, teachers will fall behind with their marking. No one should be back-marking weeks or months. What a ridiculous waste of time. Instead we should be asking is my marking useful? Is the marking policy reasonable? Is it worth the time investment (and teachers’ wellbeing)? If you’re in a leadership position and want to check teachers are giving feedback, a book audit might only encourage last minute, morale-draining panic-marking, rather than useful feedback.
  2. Quality. Only give written feedback on selected pieces of work that reflect the aims of the teaching. Ignore tables / mindmaps / notes. Consider having two exercise books – rough working and extended writing.
  3. Clear objective. What was the point of the task? Keep this in mind so that feedback is relevant and comments can be focused and concise. Presentation and the quantity of work are more behaviour issues than feedback – deal with them but don’t lose sight of the point of your lessons. Some kids’ books are just full of ‘underline this’ and ‘not enough work here’ comments. How about two red stamps: ‘MISSING WORK’ and ‘POOR PRESENTATION’? A student gets 2 of these and they have to redo the work.
  4. ‘The first draft of anything is shit’. Hemingway was right. Your students should know this (…in spirit) and should expect to redraft work. We need to give them time and support to do this. Feedback should support future work. If you don’t know it, look at Ron Berger’s video on redrafting (and my handy resource using this).
  5. Get rid of it completely? Why not rethink marking entirely? Read through student books frequently, make brief notes on common problems / mistakes, share good examples / bad examples with the class, students rewrite or edit their work. This model is quicker and encourages students to engage actively with improvement.
  6. Is it working? If students are making the some mistakes over and over again, despite hours of marking, or if you or your staff are being driven into the ground by endless marking – it’s time for a rethink.
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