Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books?

books2

Marking is an act of love

Phil Beadle

If you’ve never taken part in a whole school book scrutiny, I’d recommend it. Seeing how students treat their exercise books across different subjects is very revealing. I’ll happily agree that students’ books can’t give a complete picture of their learning and progress in particular classes but they certainly ask interesting questions about whether marking and presentation matter.

Just for a moment, let’s assume we all understand and agree that giving quality feedback to students is the most important thing teachers can do (click here for more on this.) Let’s also assume we agree that while other forms of feedback may be equally valuable, teachers marking books is one of the most important and effective ways of ensuring that students are getting clear, timely feedback on how well they are making progress. This being the case, why do we waste so much time doing other stuff?

Phil Beadle, in typically provocative style, puts it like this:

You can turn up hungover every morning, wearing the same creased pair of Farahs as last week, with hair that looks like a bird has slept in it, then spend most of the lesson talking at kids about how wonderful your are; but mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.

How To Teach

Not only does this make me feel slightly better about my weakness for Pinot Noir, it also confirms what I’ve long believed: the more often I mark their books, the more effort they will put into their work. No effort on my part = no effort on theirs. So, at least on one level, decent presentation depends on marking.

I may have entertained doubts about the importance of presentation before reading Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence, but not now. In it he sets out his manifesto for supporting students to create beautiful work. My ears are still ring with the words, “If it isn’t perfect it isn’t finished.” It’s such an inspiration to know that this is not just possible but actively worth pursuing. But it’s up to us to explain why sloppy work is unacceptable. If you want titles underlined, get students to think about the reasons and explain what the point might be; don’t just insist on compliance. Students will not value their written work unless we do. I suggest regular Amnesty Lessons to ensure books are up to snuff; get students go back over their work looking for errors and correcting them and insist they take pride in what they produce. 

I have started referring to writing as ‘drafting’, as in: “I want you to draft an article on…” This then encourages re-drafting. My thinking is that if students know from the outset that this is how writing is supposed to work then maybe then they will see more point in moving towards a beautiful, finely crafted end product.  But none of this will happen unless they know, deep down in their souls, that I will be checking. 

I was criticised recently for mindlessly spouting the research finding that while 80% of feedback comes from peers, 50% of that is wrong. The point was that while this may be case in some classrooms, it doesn’t have to be in mine. Peer assessment has long been a vaunted component of AfL with the point being that students should be “activated as learning resources for one another”. I’ve been as guilty as anyone in the past for getting students to mindlessly dribble about ‘what went well’ and how work could have been ‘even better if…’ Clearly, well designed success criteria are essential for this process to be effective, but even more important is that the process is public and transparent. If students know that you and everyone else are going to be reading their scrawled “Great work LOL!!! – maybe do a bit more next time :)”, and that it will be held up as unacceptable then maybe they’ll think a little more about how their feedback can be formative.

The best strategy I’ve come across for making this happen is Public Critique, explained superbly by Tait Coles here.

To avoid this:

critique

We have this:

critique

The idea is that work is displayed publicly so that everyone gets to see everyone else’s work and everyone’s else’s feedback. It takes time for students to get good at this and, certainly at first, requires the teacher to do a fair bit of reframing of students’ feedback. To begin with this benefits from being a formal process but as it becomes embedded in classroom culture it can become much more on the hoof with students asking for and receiving critique as and when they need it.

This can, and does, have a staggering impact on the quality of students’ work; their pride and enthusiasm shines through and is clearly visible in their books.

My other contention is that marking students’ work is the only really effective way of differentiating lessons. In an ideal world I would mark their books after every piece of written work and give each student detailed and individual feedback for them to act on the following lesson. The fact that I regularly fail to do this is a constant source of shame: must do better. In a previous post I set out how I thought written feedback should take place:

Students do work, I mark it with feedback that requires them to do (or re-do) something, and then they do it. Based on my knowledge of each individual I will have a good idea of what they’re capable or and whether the work they’ve handed in demonstrates progress. I would aim to mark a class’s books regularly enough that at least 1 out of every 4 lessons is spent acting on feedback. Not only does this mean that every student in the class has a uniquely differentiated lesson plan, it also means that I don’t have to fritter away my time planning ‘activities’.

Here’s our Triple Impact Marking Protocol for English (other subjects adapt as appropriate)

Easy for me to say? As an English teacher I have fewer classes than, say, your average humanities teacher. How on earth are they supposed to keep up with this workload? This is not easy. If you have 15+ classes a week you’re really going to struggle to look at their books often enough to make a difference to their learning. But that’s the issue, isn’t it? Just covering content won’t cut it and, other than redesigning your curriculum to avoid this kind of logjam, the only way forward to set up a system whereby students do the majority of lesson-to-lesson monitoring and critique and you put together a timetable to mark each classes books once per term. I know this is a tough gig, but if you approach marking as planning then it might seem a little more do-able.

I glibly repeated this mantra that marking is planning in a meeting recently only to be bluntly told that this is not the case in science. Now, I’ve nothing against science teachers or science lesson, but I just don’t see this. Of course I appreciate that science teachers are under enormous pressure to cover content but surely not at the expense of making sure that they’ve learnt what has already been taught? Of course subjects are different and what works in my English lesson won’t necessarily work in the same way in science but unless you mark their mark their books how on earth will you know whether you’re teaching is having any effect? Yes, you can use traffic lights, hinge questions, exit cards and other AfL paraphernalia to get a sense of students’ understanding, but there’s nothing like trial by extended answer for separating the knows for the know-nots. Maybe this was a misunderstanding? Maybe we understood different things by ‘marking’. According to Dylan Wiliam this would hardly be surprising:

In most Anglophone countries, teachers spend the majority of their lesson preparation time in marking books, almost invariably doing so alone. In some other countries, the majority of lesson preparation time is spent planning how new topics can be introduced, which contexts and examples will be used, and so on. This is sometimes done individually or with groups of teachers working together. In Japan, however, teachers spend a substantial proportion of their lesson preparation time working together to devise questions to use in order to find out whether their teaching has been successful, in particular through the process known as ‘lesson study’ (Fernandez & Makoto, 2004).

This is fascinating and begs a couple of questions. Firstly, should we mark our books alone? And secondly, what if marking was concerned with devising questions to find out whether teaching has been successful?

On the first question, I’m all for marking collaboratively and of course moderation and standardisation are vital. Sadly, it just isn’t practical to do this all the time. Much as I love the teachers in my department, I really don’t want to spend that much time with them! But having some sort of ‘marking buddy’ with whom we regularly compare our books is probably a healthy and sensible thing to do.

dirtThe second question is, the whole point of the type of marking I’m advocating and that I’d want to see in students’ books: thoughtful dialogic questions based on the work students have done and designed to prompt them to make progress. Ensuring the progress actually happens requires some DIRT (Dedicated Improvement & Reflection Time.) This has two wonderful advantages:

1. Your next lesson is planned. Every students has an individual lesson plan based on your careful marking

2. Students get to consolidate their learning and have an opportunity to master the skills and knowledge they’ve learned.

So, all this was a very long winded way of saying, mark your books.

At my school our next INSET day will have all staff scrutinising each others’ books. This may sound heartless and unfair but surely this is a matter of professional pride? And if not, just as students need to know I’ll be looking at their work, I need to know that someone else will be looking at my marking.

I’ll end with an anecdote. In what has become folklore at my school, one teacher said to another after being given an opportunity to observe each other, “You’re the reason SLT give us a hard time!” A decent leader should have a damned good idea about whose books need monitoring and whose  can be used as exemplars. Middle leaders should be scrutinising their teams’ books regularly and sharing the findings in a non-judgmental but in way which very clear about their high expectations. This is just too important to leave to chance.

Related posts

Making feedback stick
The joy of marking
Project Based Learning: I did it my way

47 Responses to Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books?

  1. Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) says:

    This is interesting and rings true with my observations. Work scrutiny is really good strategy when done in a collaborative manner; not as an SLT inspection. We’ve done is recently in my Physics department and we’ve all learned alot. I do think there are differences across subjects. In English, DT and Art, for example, it is common for the same skills to be developing over time and the redrafting and refining require a continual flow of feedback of a particular kind. In Maths and Science there is more compartmentalised content as well as some generic skills. I always get great results from students.. but I don’t feel the marking is the key; it is direct in-class feedback. I actually think 80 % of Maths feedback (guessing the exact number!) can be peer of self generated – because you can check the answers. The teacher only has to look for overall patterns over time. In English is isn’t the same; the nuance is more subtle. The same is true for any subject with extended writing. But in Science, you are dealing with chunks of conceptual understanding; if they are wrong, you can’t properly give feedback in marking….you need to talk to the student or the class directly and explain it all again, better. So… I sympathise with your scientists…. Re-drafting Science isn’t the main issue; understanding it is.

  2. learningspy says:

    Thanks Tom

    I’m not unsympathetic to the plight of scientists. Of course understanding concepts is key (it is in English too) but that is precisely why marking is so vital. If you haven’t marked the thier books how do you know whether they’ve understood the lesson? And that’s why marking is planning. Obviously this doesn’t have to mean that you blindly make students repeat the same mistakes – as a professional you need to judge exactly how your marking will inform your planning.

    There is no defence for not marking though.

  3. Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) says:

    I agree; marking is vital but I don’t think it is the best way for me to know if a lesson has been understood. For me, in Science, 2-way feedback in lessons, and then progress-check tests that you go over in detail are more efficient and effective than taking books in and writing comments. Between subjects, it isn’t whether to mark or not, it is more a question of scale and frequency and then how you give the feedback. I find written feedback to explain concepts very inefficient…almost always requires me to go over again verbally. I tend to cut to the verbal…

    I love the fact that you promote marking as planning. It’s a powerful concept.

  4. Ellie Russell says:

    The idea of marking has often filled me with dread, though every time I look at the work in books it’s so obvious how useful it is! I am trying to give students specific feedback on an aspect of their work every four to five lessons. It’s true, the content in our subject is rather generous shall we say. However, I am able to write a couple of tasks or questions for each student to answer that relates directly to the work they have been doing and give them the opportunity to improve their understanding. Last week some of my Yr 8 students were asked to give explanations to support their descriptions. For others in the class it was a chance for them to give me more detail in their evaluation of some practical work. A perfect starter to the following lesson. I confess I am not managing to be this thorough with all my classes, but I am spending more time thinking about how to find out what they are getting to grips with during the lessons. Inspirational talks from Dylan Wiliam have focussed me on thinking REALLY hard about what questions I ask and the ABCD voting cards make sure I get feedback from all my students.

  5. learningspy says:

    I agree Tom – which is why I’m advocating asking questions rather than trying to explain concepts via written feedback. This wouldn’t work in English either: if a students doesn’t know how to evaluate a writer’s intentions I need to show them not just write it down and hope they read it. This is the whole point. I’m just saying we need to mark books, I’m say we need to use marking more efficiently to ask questions and set tasks. One of these tasks could be read page 14 of Physics text book and explain concept X? This is about killing multiple birds with a single stone.

    Of course verbal feedback has a powerful impact and any teacher worth their salt will be using it constantly. We need to use both together.

  6. lgolton11 says:

    While science does have compartmentalised knowledge I do a lot of peer and self assessment marking – this provides the pupils with the critique and feedback their require for short answer questions. When it comes to the extended answer questions I will explain my lesson this week. My yr 11 clearly had not understood the key properties of groups of chemical substances as evidenced by their inability to answer extended questions on their mid assessment test. This meant that I went back and used HOT maps to allow them to structure their knowledge and then a Compare and Contrast HOT map to support their literacy to produce an extended answer. This follow up lesson is as a direct result of my marking of their tests. t
    The follow up lesson is specifically designed to allow you to fill in those gaps or to set pupils their own individual targets to improve and is a school wide part of the assessment policy.
    Also this week I used another pupils test where he had achieved full marks on the extended answer question as a model for other pupils to understand how and why he got the marks.

    It all comes from marking – we cannot escape it but pupils are capable of marking many aspects of their work in science and as a teacher I am capable of finding where they do not understand and supporting those gaps. In class feedback is important but it is that personalised feedback provided by marking with questions, ideas and next steps that provide my pupils with the ways to move forward.

  7. [...] Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books? Apparently silent reading hasn’t been around as long as you might think. The 4th Century church leader Saint Ambrose’s reading habits were unusual enough for Saint Augustine to note in Book 6, chapter 3 of his Confessions that: When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud. Why is this important? Well, ever since I learned to internalise my reading I’ve been devouring books and developing my interior world. [...]

  8. [...] information you glean from marking books and tests.  I love David Didau’s insistence that marking is planning, for this very reason.  We also need to be open to feedback from parents.  Very often students [...]

  9. [...] believe we need to consider as we devise our own History Department ‘Menu of Feedback’. What’s the point of marking books? Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

  10. [...] Work scruting: what’s the point in marking books? [...]

  11. [...] by the information you glean from marking books and tests.  I love David Didau’s insistence that marking is planning, for this very reason.  We also need to be open to feedback from parents.  Very often students [...]

  12. [...] boiled it down to the following essentials: • Time is precious (the 2 minute lesson plan) • Marking is planning • Lessons should focus on learning not activities I’ve written before about my medium and [...]

  13. [...] I always used to prioritise lesson planning over marking.  Now, I prioritise both by ensuring the students act on the feedback.  They either complete an activity or redraft-or both.  The rest of the lesson is built around any other misconceptions evident in students work. The next few lessons are sorted too because you know what to teach based on the work produced by the whole class.  You are saving time because the next lesson is planned and you are making your lessons more efficient because they are truly tailored to what students need to learn.  David Didau writes about his ‘marking is planning’ mantra here. [...]

  14. [...] the medium-term plan to work out the next steps. I am completely with @learningspy when he says marking is planning. The progress map on @learningspy’s blog works well as does the 5 Minute Plan, the 7 [...]

  15. simon clarkson says:

    Sorry but I really don’t agree with this.

  16. [...] Marking IS planning. I’m constantly marking – it’s (perhaps) the most important thing I do. Here on my thoughts on marking: http://learningspy.co.uk/2013/01/26/work-scrutiny-whats-the-point-of-marking-books/ [...]

  17. [...] marking – it’s (perhaps) the most important thing we do. Here are some of my thoughts on why marking is [...]

  18. marvinsuggs says:

    Read through this with interest. We’ve instigated a WWW/EBI format across the whole school using specific blue forms so SLT can pin point that kind of marking. In Science this has ‘devolved’ into feedback from end of unit tests which come around all too quickly. I appreciate the comment about beautiful bookwork but is there value in a subject like science for note taking to be a little less rigorous and the focus of our marking to be this communication of ideas and concepts? I think back to numerous training sessions where my notes weren’t worth marking but they helped me formulate ideas or at least process what was important.

  19. [...] part 3 – designing lessons for learning Go with the flow – the 2 minute lesson plan Work scrutiny – what’s the point of marking books? Anatomy of an Outstanding [...]

  20. shafattack says:

    Sorry but I disagree. I teach ict computing business. All on pc. Nothings printed out. Wastes to.e, costs money,needs space. I go round whole class every lesson, assess and give feedback immediately. Suggest how to improve grades. Check again after while to check.
    Since school did not understand this, had to print out loads of work before inspection, wasting paper, tome, money and remark.just to tick that box. Kids had current grades effort atl on whiteboard most lesson. If they improved they got immediate gratification.
    i have illegible writing too. So pointless exercise. but no one would listen.
    hope I explained myself well enough.

  21. David Didau says:

    I’m not sure what you’re disagreeing with here. I’m not in favour of pointless exercises in general or printing out work purely for the purpose of scrutiny specifically. I’ll happily acknowledge that a number of subjects (drama, PE and, possibly, ICT) should not be part of this kind of whole school scrutiny. However, if you’re going to ask your students to produce written work which then goes unmarked there is a problem. As long as you have a system in place to ensure this happens, all will be well.

  22. Jo says:

    This is all very interesting, so much so that I am writing a comment, which I have never done before on any blog! I agree with what you say, but thought I’d share my own experience.

    I teach science and have been searching for the ultimate marking strategy for some time. I think I am almost there and is certainly along the lines of what you are advocating.
    I think it comes down to this: In my subject, there is a lot of content. In my mind, the key to understanding is having as much opportunity as possible to explore, problem solve and discuss ideas. Talking is much more time-efficient than writing; as a result, my lessons regularly involve no book work at all. Mini-whiteboard writing, yes. Small group discussion, yes. But formal writing or worksheets – no. The result is that we cover content faster, more thoroughly, but without the unnecessary notes in books that I often have little time to mark anyway (what used to happen? books would inevitably be marked badly because I was time-pressured, so any written work containing misconceptions could go uncorrected or be corrected at too late a stage and the students didn’t take anything from it). Now, I get to move around my class, have great conversations with my class and pick up misconceptions at an early stage, before they are committed to formal answers on paper.

    But, of course, they still need to be able to give good written answers. It is a skill that needs to develop. So, rather than giving pointless homework, I give formative homework tasks every two or three weeks. This is done on google docs (although when I first trialled it, it was done in textbooks). I set a question and give clear assessment criteria, all of which are fairly open in style, but still show the student what is expected of them. This is a mastery assessment technique, so the marking takes place in the form of comments and questions and the homework continues until I am happy that the student has reached the necessary standard. So the piece of work may go back and forth several times for one student, as they refine their answer / technique or address any misunderstandings. Another student may be spot on first time, so they go no further (unless I choose to push them more). The beauty of this is that students HAVE to read my comments and make improvements until they are at the desired level. It doesn’t eat into lesson time, it’s valuable homework and, most importantly, the kids really value it. It’s important that they understand that they have to keep on addressing my questions and comments until they reach the necessary standard of work – after a few tasks I saw a real improvement in their first draft, because they didn’t want to have to keep re-doing it; they gained more pride in their work. And I saw a real improvement in end of topic test scores – we were moving into an area of deep understanding that just hadn’t been there for many of them before.

    So I advocate students to talk more, write less and teachers to set less but smarter homework – mark smart!

  23. Christian says:

    I love the above comment. I too am a science teacher and I also have this problem with marking. Our school are stepping up marking scrutiny so I’ve been having to think about my strategies but I really don’t want to change my discussion filled lessons. I also use mini whiteboards and use them to hold miniscience conferences and I encourage debate across the room. Their books seem to, more and more, only contain notes. So, I am so inspired by your idea that I am going to undertake it myself. I’m going to leave my less-used email address christiano282@hotmail.com just in case you see this and would like to share your ideas and how you implement them a bit more in depth. If not, you’ve already helped enough :) Thanks

  24. Jill Berry says:

    Thanks for this, David – though I’m coming to it a little late, in several senses!

    I taught English between 1980 and 2010 – I was a teaching head for the last ten years. Blogs such as this one make me think back to my practice and what I, the pupils and also the staff I worked with gained from/learnt from marking (and how it could have been better!). I was also an exam marker between 1983 and 1993 – different from marking as a channel of feedback to students but still interesting in terms of accuracy of assessment.

    One thing that particularly struck me was your comment: “Middle leaders should be scrutinising their teams’ books regularly and sharing the findings in a non-judgmental but in a way which very clear about their high expectations. This is just too important to leave to chance”. I became Head of English in 1989 and stayed in the role until 1993. It seems to me now that that was a very different world – National Curriculum/key stage testing/league tables/Ofsted just coming in. I think as HoD at that time I spent much more of my time and energies as an administrator than middle leaders (a term we didn’t even use then) currently do – one of the (many) ways in which education has moved forward positively since my first years of teaching.

    I realise how much more effective I would have been as a HoD if I HAD used work scrutiny to initiate dialogue with the members of my department and as part of the balance of support/challenge in my leadership of the team. We DID discuss work/assessing work together when we moderated GCSE (we did an English/English Lit dual certification qualification which was 100% coursework – the most satisfying and rewarding exam course I ever taught! I was a marker too, so spent a week at the NEAB, as it was, each summer, moderating samples from all centres and checking accuracy/reliability of marking).

    Since finishing as a head I do various things including consultancy work and I am involved in ML training so I will be able to use blogs such as yours in the training of aspiring and new HoDs – thanks.

    One last thing – I read here (and in David Fawcett’s blog on Critique which I’m also going to RT) the Berger ‘If it isn’t perfect it isn’t finished’ quotation and that makes me very uneasy. I absolutely agree about not accepting sloppy work, but there’s a world of difference between sloppy and perfect. Three of the six schools I taught in were selective girls’ schools and bright girls can have a particular problem with not handing in anything they deem not to be ‘perfect’ and you have to stop them sometimes doing a ridiculous number of drafts (drafting is good but you need to know when something is good enough and then move on to something else) because they felt anything less than perfection wasn’t acceptable. I’d say aim high and have aspirations, but also be realistic and reasonable in your expectations of yourself and don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t hitting ‘perfect’ every time!

    Interested to know what you think. Sorry this reply is a bit long….(verbose English teacher…)

    • David Didau says:

      Hi Jill

      Initially I shared your reservations about that Berger quote and told my classes ‘if it isn’t proofread it isn’t finished’ instead.

      On reflection though, there’s actually something really encouraging about realising that ‘perfection’ is just about time & effort rather than talent. It can be motivational to say ‘this isn’t perfect but that’s because there’s still things you need to do.’ If high expectations aren’t that high then they won’t be transformational.

      Cheers, David

  25. [...] – David Didau writes here about why written feedback is crucial and some useful tips, like ‘triple impact marking’: http://learningspy.co.uk/2013/01/26/work-scrutiny-whats-the-point-of-marking-books/ [...]

  26. [...] – David Didau writes here about why written feedback is crucial and some useful tips, like ‘triple impact marking’: http://learningspy.co.uk/2013/01/26/work-scrutiny-whats-the-point-of-marking-books/ [...]

  27. […] Work scrutiny- Whats the point of marking books? David Didau Making feedback stick David Didau Improving written feedback Alex Quigley Marginal […]

  28. […] Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books? […]

  29. […] Feedback: it’s better to receive than to give February 2012 Making feedback stick  July 2012 Work Scrutiny: what’s the point of marking books? January […]

  30. […] Advice on marking books, giving written feedback and conducting a work scrutiny  […]

  31. […] Didau has been talking about this for a while and I’m leading a research group at school based around it.  I’m determined to […]

  32. […] the ‘perfect’ lesson Work scrutiny: what’s the point in marking books? Are worksheets a waste of […]

  33. […] Work scrutiny: what’s the point in marking books? The joy of marking Making feedback stick […]

  34. […] of AfL – you can read more about marking as planning here from the following contributers: @LearningSpy - “Work Scrutiny – What’s the Point of Marking Books?” @headguruteacher […]

  35. […] 2. Work scrutiny: what’s the point of marking books? 26 January – 19,764 views […]

  36. […] Triple Impact Marking  (via David Didau here) […]

  37. […] Are they standards being met? How do you know? Formalised classroom observations and work scrutinies are mechanisms for ensuring these basics are in place with out the need for any clumsy grading, but […]

  38. […] Work scrutiny – What’s the point of marking books […]

  39. Rhys Baker says:

    I am a science teacher. I agree that science is very content heavy, and doesn’t readily lend itself to the sort of skills based marking and DIRT that other subjects do. We have a lot to get through.

    BUT

    We also have very distinct modules. Marking in the manner suggested by you could easily be done at the completion of a module, before administering a end of unit test. Personalised revision, reflection and improvement as a revision lesson. Test next lesson. Review the tests the lesson after. That is up to four consecutive lessons checking and improving and embedding understanding.

    I’m saving these ideas for later. Many thanks!

Feedback is always appreciated

%d bloggers like this: