Marking is an act of love

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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:

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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:

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and Joe Kirby has also written about how using symbols can save precious time. He says,

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:

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And for many more excellent posts on marking, please refer to the October blogsync.

Related posts

Work scrutiny: what’s the point in marking books?
The joy of marking
Making feedback stick

44 Responses to Marking is an act of love

  1. […] Read more on The Learning Spy… […]

  2. Damian says:

    This sounds great, can you take a few photos about what this looks like in practice.

  3. Rebecca King says:

    Yes, I would find it really helpful to see some examples too. Thanks for all your advice so far!

  4. […] 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?  […]

  5. Steve Davis says:

    I agree with your observations here David, since learning how to train the kids to TIM and offer dirt time I’ve seen real progress in my students approaches to problem solving. I think the real key to this being so effective is a ‘whole school application’. Having consistent language with this form of assessment improves the reflective powers of the students. As a result I also don’t despise the marking process as much as I once did!

  6. 4c3d says:

    You may like this approach too.

    Also the next article I will be publishing next Wednesday is the link between Learning Intelligence (LQ) and Assessment. A description of LQ and articles linking it to many other aspects of learning can be found at:


  7. […] is the best way to critique students? David Didau expresses in his article ‘Marking is an act of love’ that taking the time to mark students work is a great way to help students learn what they are […]

  8. Jon Cox says:

    I totally agree with you, but how could this be done efficiently and effectively at KS1? I teach Year 1 and most of the children are unable to read comments (so who are these for anyway?). One-to-one verbal feedback is effective but ruinously time consuming…

    • David Didau says:

      This is an important question Jon, but I’m afraid I don’t have the answer. I suspect the solution is to work on making verbal feedback more efficient but I’m not sure where to start with that. Will ponder…

    • Sarah says:

      Chudleigh Knighton P.S, Devon are doing some interesting things with marking. The teacher divides the marking of the class up into three and each week ‘deep marks’ a third of the class, including individual time with each students for feedback. This is rotated every three weeks. I wonder if that would work for you?

      • Written feedback for yr1 almost only for accountability. However, verbal feedback v imp, individually, group and whole class. I use the ch’s work to illustrate a learning ‘task’ to focus on for each piece of writing and start teaching the writing cycle about half way thru the yr. a bit at a time.

  9. […] Edssential article from @learningspy : […]

  10. fiona west says:

    I use WWW/EBI so as to enable feedback on the positive aspects of the pupils output piece of work but have developed the EBI part. I know write questions through the pupils output and then the EBI is ” if you read and answer my questions” .getting pupils to do their responses in green pen means they are always easy to distinguish from the original work. Peer marking can be developed by getting peers to determine if the green responses to my questions are appropriate. Knowing this element of public scrutiny is expected has lead to better quality responses.
    Altogether marking worthwhile and feel purposeful because the progress is visible and the learning is effectively personalized in a way not possible in the classroom.
    DIRT time is crucial now and I am so pleased to have ‘discovered’ it.

  11. […] subject over the weekend.  The first was by the marvellous David Didau (@LearningSpy) entitled ‘Marking is an act of love’.  In it, David talks about the strategy of ‘DIRT’ – Directed Improvement & […]

  12. Amanda Trehearn says:

    Teachers love talking. Talk less to the whole class and more to individual pupils using Evernote. Pupils email work into an Evernote folder and teacher speaks 3 mins of feedback (600 words?) Adds 1 grade at ALevel

  13. […] “ 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?”  […]

  14. […] is a predominant feeling among teachers about marking: ‘I’ve always felt guilty about marking. There’s always something to mark and when you’re tired and stressed it’s often […]

  15. […] doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to do more, or to find efficient ways to do more (like here and here), but that it would be best to do this minimum level of marking for all our classes as […]

  16. […] AS learning) is quickly becoming the marking acronym of notoriety here, and here and over here. What is more, in marking the assessment, you may also discover a key question, topic, or skill […]

  17. […] David’s “Marking is an act of love” post, which you can access by clicking here.  David’s “The Learning Spy” blog is also one that features on our list of […]

  18. […] strategies in mind. Some classic blog posts have influenced my thinking: Tom Sherrington’s, David Didau’s and Mary […]

  19. Ian Lynch says:

    This is an area where technology has a lot of potential to make marking and feedback even more effective and less painful.

    • I agree with Ian Lynch! I am a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Toronto and have struggled with organizing teams of graduate students to help mark large first year calculus classes for over a decade. Some of my colleagues have resorted to multiple choice style assessments that are automatically evaluated using bubble sheets. My experience has led me to conclude that education has an intrinsic human-to-human element that is hard to scale when the class size becomes very large. In 2011, I worked with a team of 100 graders to evaluate 5,000 exams, each consisting of 16 pages of short essay style handwritten responses to math contest questions. It was a logistical nightmare! The process led me to an idea and, with help from my University and an amazing team, I have built an education technology company called Crowdmark. Crowdmark provides an online collaborative marking platform that helps teachers, working alone or in team, grade better.

  20. […] his post Marking is an act of love David Didau offers the following feedback flow chart, adapted from an original from Shaun Allison […]

  21. […] Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) have shared how the process is used in their classrooms, at their blogs here & here, but the potential of using a DIRT framework is possible in other curriculum subject, […]

  22. […] Learning Spy, David Didau, blogged that ‘marking is an act of love’ (click here for link to his informative blog).  I heartily agree because it provides us with the opportunity […]

  23. […] have read countless blogs on marking and feedback. Here are a selection of my personal favourites: David Didau (@Learning Spy)- Marking is an act of love Mary Myatt(@MaryMyatt)- Should I be marking every piece of work? Alex Quigley(@HuntingEnglish)- […]

  24. […] Time’. Championed by @jackiebeere in many of her brilliant books and by top bloggers such as Didau (he even has DIRT archives) and Quigley. Rewriting the wheel is not what i’m about here […]

  25. […] by sharing with us how he has developed the Triple Impact Marking strategy used by David Didau here further to include some additional […]

  26. […] Marking is an act of love […]

  27. […] of marking mocks quickly enough so that students can act on your feedback in the next lesson, therefore planning your next lesson for you. If this isn’t practical, why not get them to mark their own/each others in class? Some […]

  28. […] Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) have shared how the process is used in their classrooms, at their blogs here & here, but the potential of using a DIRT framework is possible in other curriculum subject, […]

  29. […] Marking is an act of love […]

  30. […] but it’s a mistake to believe that this impact is always positive. I written in detail about marking and the power of Directed Improvement Reflection Time. I’ve  also considered some of the things we’re not usually told about feedback and […]

  31. […] Marking is an act of love […]

  32. […] Marking is an act of love […]

  33. […] 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  […]

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