Back to School Part 5: Marking

This series of #backtoschool blogs summarises much of my thinking as it’s developed over the past few years and is aimed at new or recently qualified teachers. Each area has been distilled to 5 ‘top tips’ which I hope prove useful to anyone embarking on a career in teaching. That said, I’ll be delighted if they serve as handy reminders for colleagues somewhat longer in the tooth.

Marking is a chore. Whether or not it has a measurable impact of pupils’ outcomes is arguable; that’s not the reason we do it. The reason we spend so much time marking is a combination of we’re told to, and because we think it’s the right thing to do

Of these I think the first reason takes up a disproportionate amount of our precious time and in the case of the second, we might possibly be doing the right things for the wrong reasons. You see, marking is conflated with feedback, and feedback is, like, really important, yeah?

There’s two things to say here:

  1. Feedback has a huge impact, but necessarily a positive one.
  2. Marking is not just a bout feedback; it’s an act of love.

I’ve written before about getting feedback right – basically it boils down to understanding that it should be concerned with clarity, effort or aspiration. This is important stuff, but the thing we really need to be aware of is that feedback is utterly useless unless it has a positive effect on pupils. And this is where I think marking and feedback are different: feedback is a process of trying to ensure pupils make progress, whereas marking is about showing you give a shit. It’s true power comes from increasing pupils’ conscientiousness.

And so, in predictable fashion, here are my top 5 marking tips:

1. Question, don’t describe

Ideally, the effort you put into marking should generate more work for pupils than it does for you. There’s really very little point in describing what pupils have or haven’t done; they are much more likely to learn if they are made to think, and simply reading a description is unlikely to provoke much thought. Much better to offer hints rather than complete solutions, and questions rather than descriptions:

  • Why have you done…?
  • How could you improve…?
  • Is ___ correct?

2. Keep it brief 

Imagine if you could mark every book every day. You’d go mad, right? But think of the benefits – think of the powerful routine that would be embedded as pupils came to expect that they would begin lessons by acting on feedback.

Naturally, the amount of time you’re going to spend marking depends in large part on what subject or what phase you teach. As an English teacher, I aimed to do an hour’s marking a day and pretty nearly always failed. For me, the most powerful reason for marking is that pupils know you’ve seen their books; what you write in them is far less important. So, why write anything at all? Instead, predict the mistakes you think pupils are likely to make and assign them each a number before you start marking. The most important thing you are doing is reading their work and getting to know how they think. Simply annotate the work with the number that correspond to the feedback you identified before starting marking. Then simply display each of the different numbered pieces of feedback at the start of the next less and get them to copy the feedback into their  books. As they then start work on making improvements, you can circulate and talk to them about the work you have read. Read Joe Kirby’s post for more details.

In this way I was able to get marking a set of around 30 books to under 15 minutes. I kid you not.

3. Focus

One of the many tricky choices you’ll be faced with when marking a set of books is what to mark. Everything? Or just a few  of the more glaring problems? This is Hobson’s Choice: if we mark everything pupils will be overloaded and end up learning nothing, but if we only mark selected extracts then we run the risk that they will embed bad practice. This is an insurmountable problem but one which can be minimised by asking students to highlight where they would like feedback. You can ask them to highlight where they have struggled, where they have taken a risk, what they are most proud of or anything else that occurs to you. Then, when we respond to this highlighting we will be giving feedback at the point at which pupils have identified they are ready to learn. And any feedback offered at this point is vastly more likely to be acted on.

4. Marking is…

I’m my drive for ever greater efficiency I’m all for lining up as many wild fowl as possible to take out with a single shotgun blast. And so with marking. Good marking is also planning. By marking pupils books we can see clearly what they are struggling to grasp and what they need more to practice further. I would aim to get proportionately more work back than I put in, so if I’d spent a minute marking a Year 7 book, I’d expect 10 minutes spend acting on feedback. And if I’d spent 10 minutes marking an A level essay, that should result in an hour’s lesson time redrafting and improving said essay.

Marking also has the additional benefit of being the purest form of differentiation. Each individual can be given specific improvement tasks tailored exactly for their peculiar needs. As long as lesson time is dedicated to ensuring pupils act on the fruits of your marking you can quite reasonably claim to have planned and differentiated your lessons.

5. Self assessment – don’t get me started?

When we ask children to self assess their work what we get back is, for the most part, bland to the point of meaningless. “I tried my best.” “I found the work really hard.” “I thought it was fun.” Who cares? What impact is such drivel ever going to have on learning? There’s acres of research to show that as a species we are dreadful at self assessment – consider for instance the Dunning-Kruger effect.

And further, I am wholly and utterly uninterested in the current fetish for pupil/teacher dialogue enacted in books. It is a quite spectacular waste of time to attempt to initiate dialogue through writing – why not just have a chat? The only merit for such nonsense is to provide an artificial means of accountability. And as such I abhor it.

Instead, why not make the ‘dialogue’ work like this:

  1. Pupils proofread for accuracy using a sensible and simple proofreading code, suggest possible improvements, and highlight where they would like feedback.
  2. Teachers ask questions and set questions to be answered in lesson time.
  3. Pupils answer questions and complete tasks in order to further improve their work.

How much more sensible does that sound?

And with that, I wish you happy marking and the very best of luck for the year to come.

The other posts in my back to school series are here:

Part 1 – Routines
Part 2 – Relationships
Part 3 – Literacy
Part 4 – Planning

19 Responses to Back to School Part 5: Marking

  1. Great post as always. Just right for getting the motivation going as we approach the new term. Just one thing puzzles me. Have you changed your mind about dialogue in books or have I misunderstood the point?Dialogue – A pupil’s exercise book can be an almost sacred space in which a teacher can gently prod their charges from ignorant caterpillars into the iridescence of knowledge and understanding. One of the many changes I’ve made to my marking practice is to encourage pupils to ‘talk’ to me via their books. Instead of making comments, I now ask questions: “Why have you done…” How could you improve…? “Is ___ correct?” And in return they can ask their own questions, make points of information or clarify my misunderstandings and assumptions. Some of what they have to say is profound and some is sometime witlessly banal. But I always try to respond. I’ve experimented with asking them to write these conversational gambits in particular coloured pens or to use designated parts of the page, but have settled on a mostly freestyle dialogue that unfolds when and if pupils feel they need or want it. But because lessons are constructed around giving and responding to feedback, these conversations take place far more than they ever did when left to pupils’ ad hoc whimsy. For the record, I’m not a fan of www/ebi – it just doesn’t seem to generate a dialogue.

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Frank – yes, I have changed my mind on this. It’s not that I think dialogue is wrong per se, it’s more that I started to see that when I worked with teachers and did training on marking, this point was widely misunderstood and often resulted in SLTs increase teachers’ workload for no good reason. Also, it takes a great investment in time to train pupils to respond in a meaningful way – I decided that this investment is better made in getting pupils to talk about their work rather than write about it. Obviously, I could be wrong 🙂

      Does that make sense?

      • Frank says:

        Yes, and thanks for the swift response. I tried it (I try many of your suggestions) but did find it a little difficult to manage in practice. Cheers, Frank

  2. […] on Routines is here, part 2 on Relationships, part 3 on Literacy, part 4 on Planning and part 5 on Marking. You’d be a fool to skip over […]

  3. […] This series of #backtoschool blogs summarises much of my thinking as it’s developed over the past few years and is aimed at new or recently qualified teachers. Each area has been distilled to 5 ‘top tips’ which I hope prove useful to anyone embarking on a career in teaching. That said, I’ll be delighted if they serve as  […]

  4. mroberts1990 says:

    This is genius, particularly the annotating by code and getting the student to select the focus of assessment they want to work on! Thank you so much for sharing – will plan to implement these in the new school year and see how it goes!
    With self-assessment I saw this interesting idea where the children have three different coloured boxes to place their work on the way out of the classroom. The colours are traffic lights – so the regular red, yellow and green method of self-assessment. This means the children are given the chance to think about their learning, express that opinion but it doesn’t waste time recording in their books and also, as the teacher, you can see the general feedback from the class and make a quick note on who struggled.
    Of course, self-assessment is a skill that needs to be learnt to be effective but was a little idea that I thought I might try.

  5. This is all really excellent stuff. Just two technology-inspired comments.
    The idea of predicting the common mistakes reminded me of the teachers who video responses to the most common mistakes (not talking head — see pen on book, or use a graphics tablet) post them on a private YouTube channel and refer students to them. Mind you, doea the whole concept of predicting mistakes raise the question of why, if you can predict them — etc etc..
    Then there’s the idea that ‘anytime,anywhere’ access with 1-1 devices can involve teachers and students in an online to and fro collaboration. Anna Dwyer, Assistant Head at St John the Baptist School in Woking speaks at conferences about 1 – 1 and says she never sits down to mark paper-based work. ‘What matters is the quality of the feedback’.

  6. […] found, and been authorised to use, a method which was brought to my attention in a series of excellent summer blog posts by @LearningSpy who referenced it to Joe Kirby’s blog (sharing good practice or what)! […]

  7. […] away by re-emphasising that this is not my original idea. I came across the method in a series of excellent summer blog posts by @LearningSpy who referenced it to Joe Kirby’s blog! The idea is so simple – basically […]

  8. […] @LearningSpy – Back to School – Marking […]

  9. […] Back to School Part 5: Marking – David Didau […]

  10. […] Didau has pulled together some excellent suggestions which I would advise reading and […]

  11. Heidi Woodruff says:

    I love this system 🙂

  12. […] Back to School Part 5: Marking. This series of #backtoschool blogs summarises much of my thinking as it’s developed over the past few years and is aimed at new or recently qualified teachers. Each area has been distilled to 5 ‘top tips’ which I hope prove useful to anyone embarking on a career in teaching. […]

  13. […] about the content of lesson, or will it be a distraction? 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. And with that, good luck. Back to School Part 5: Marking. Practise Teaching, Teaching Practice. Teachers Make a Difference. Teacher motivation – Justin […]

  14. […] I must be honest, I didn’t actually formulate a policy as such. Policies don’t make us, we make the policies. In order to achieve this I wanted to first get staff on board with something that would actually work for us and would be valuable. We were not going to mark more than one piece of student work in a week. We were able to drill down to the true objective of marking – student progress. Back to School Part 5: Marking. […]

  15. […] I would argue that much of the best and most useful feedback our students receive happens as they are working, not necessarily after they have finished working. Let me explain. Last week, I was off sick for three days in a row, the longest illness I have had in nine years of teaching. (Don’t ask – it wasn’t pleasant!) It meant that my year 11 students had to plan and write a full piece of iGCSE English language coursework without my help or guidance. As a result, their first drafts were patchy to say the least, littered with very avoidable errors. This episode has got me thinking about feedback and its role as an in-built part of teaching. Feedback – both from and to the students – informs almost every decision teachers make, whether we are planning or delivering lessons. 1) During initial planning. CPD – Marking and Feedback. Approaches to Marking. […]

  16. […] by re-emphasising that this is not my original idea. I came across the method in a series of excellent summer blog posts by @LearningSpy who referenced it to Joe Kirby’s blog! The idea is so simple – […]

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