Marking is an act of love
Have you ever flicked back through an exercise book and seen the same repeated comments followed with soul numbing certainty by the same repeated mistakes? There are few things more crushing to the spirit of hardworking teachers than this dramatically enacted evidence of the fact that, apparently, 70% of all feedback given by teachers to pupils falls on stony soil. I’ve seen my fair share of books like these. Heck! I’ve been responsible for more than my fair share of ‘em!
I’ve always felt guilty about marking. There’s always something to mark and when you’re tired and stressed it’s often the first thing to go. I got involved in a discussion on Twitter over the weekend in which someone suggested that if you’ve got your planning right, you shouldn’t have to mark. Their point was that finding out what they’ve done wrong merely highlights what you’ve not taught properly. It’s a point of view I suppose, but not one to which I subscribe.
I guess if you’re marking like I used to, then it’s easy to feel like this. But over the past few years, the thing which has improved most in my teaching is without doubt my marking. What was once an endless, dreaded millstone hanging around my guilty neck has been transformed from chore to, if not a pleasure, certainly a highlight of my working routine. Now, I look forward to seeing their eager little faces reading through my carefully crafted instructions on how to improve. Gone is the meaningless empty praise of ‘Well done!” and gone too is the time spent fruitlessly scratching about for some meaningless platitude that I’m pretty sure will never make the slightest dent in pupils’ almost wilful determination to misuse apostrophes and omit capital letters.
The big difference is DIRT. The idea that I should dedicate part or all of a lesson to Directed Improvement & Reflection Time in which pupils act on my feedback has been a revelation. All those hours spent marking now have a visible impact. I tell them how to improve and, By God! they do it. There’s no trick to it, no gimmick, nothing clever or mysterious; just the embedded routine of high expectations.
At Clevedon School, this has been formalised into Triple Impact Marking:
Here are a few of my thoughts on how to change the way you think about marking and, maybe more importantly, how you go about it.
- 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.
- Find Faults and Fix – I also give over lessons to making sure that work is well presented. In the past this wasn’t something I cared about all that much but reading Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence changed all that. I now embrace his maxim that ‘if it isn’t perfect, it isn’t finished’. Of course, the confines of classrooms and curriculums mean that there just isn’t enough time to achieve perfection but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim for it. I often direct pupils to find faults and fix them just before I collect books in. This means that the basics all have to be in place: neatly underlined titles and dates but also there is an expectation that pupils will proofread their work. My rule is that if they fail to proofread it, I won’t mark it. Sounds Draconian, but it works. The same is true of sloppy work. In the past I’d often noticed a trend where the quality of presentation sharply deteriorated a few weeks after a new books was issued. Now, when kids hand in work which is clearly below their best levels of presentation I make them write it out again. You rarely have to do this more than once before the message sinks in: you should be proud of your work, and that includes its presentation.
- Marking is planning – it is an inescapable fact that teachers’ time is precious. I just don’t have it to waste. If I’m going to commit time to marking a set of books I want that to be time I don’t have to spend planning lesson activities. Now, because of DIRT, the marking is the activity. For younger children, 10-15 minutes of a lesson might be usefully spent improving work and acting on feedback, but for older children, I can easily get one or more lessons out of my marking. The more questions I ask and the more tasks I set, the more time they will be expected to spend in response. Dylan Wiliam says that feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor and he’s right. If it’s taken me a minute to mark a piece of work, that should result in 10 minutes worth of improvement.
- Marking is differentiation – I’ve said before that marking is the purest form of differentiation. There can be no better way to respond to the needs of an individual than to read what they have written and give them specific tasks to challenge them to be better than they currently are. This is really the same point as No. 3 but is worth making on its own just so the message sinks home: if you mark well, you really shouldn’t have to waste time planning what to do in lessons. And you most certainly shouldn’t have to waste time planning separate activities for pupils for different abilities. All most some? Kiss my ass!
- Time savers – despite all the juice I try to squeeze out of my marking, there’s always scope to save more time. I love Lisa Ashes’ idea of using + – = to mark. Here’s my spin on it:
Don’t write out comments. You end up writing such similar comments across the class, and they won’t read them anyway.
Instead, get them to write them out. Choose three to five targets or questions before you start marking, then scan their answer, choose the best fit between the student’s work and the group target, and draw an icon. One minute per book maximum. At the start of the next lesson, you write the targets on the board, students write their targets in their books. They get instant feedback and can take action on their target straight away.
Another favourite time-saving technique is to focus your marking on what will really make an impact. What if, instead of marking everything, we only marked the bits where pupils are struggling, where they’ve made particularly telling mistakes and where they really taken a risk? But surely it’s impossible to find these rare nuggets without wading through the whole damn thing? The solution is to ask pupils to highlight those areas where they really want feedback. Ask them where they’ve struggled or where they’ve taken a risk – they’ll generally know right away which parts they’re most anxious about and this means you can hone in on the most crucial aspects of their work without burning out.
And what about this absurdly simple strategy taken from Doug Lemov’s blog? The ‘Dot Round’ is explained thusly:
The idea is that you assign students independent work and, as they are working, circulate to observe their work. If their work is wrong, you put a dot on their paper. Very subtle, not a permanent “wrong” mark, just a reminder that there’s something that needs checking. And here’s the best part - that’s ALL you do/say. The idea is that the dot reminds students, subtly, to find their own mistake and, in time, encourages self-reflect and self-correct. You could even then ask students to discuss: who got a dot and found it? who got a dot and didn’t.
One final thought: I’m regularly asked how often teachers should mark books. This depends. As an English teacher, rich in curriculum time and with an admittedly light time-table I try to mark books after every lesson. However, this is unrealistic and unsustainable for main scale teachers. I’d tentatively suggest that making once every four lessons is a reasonable ratio. This would mean that core subjects mark once a week and RE teachers aren’t too swamped. Of course this isn’t always going to feel possible and there should be some leeway built in. But setting aside an hour a day for marking (which is what I do) is time well spent. And as you get used to it, the more efficient you’ll become.
So, that’s it: my thoughts on how to make marking matter. Hope they’re useful.
Update: Inspired by @shaunallison, here’s a first go at creating a Feedback Flowchart:
And for many more excellent posts on marking, please refer to the October blogsync.