Less marking, more feedback: A challenge and a proposal

I’ve been arguing for some time that if teachers spent less time marking (by which I mean writing comments on students’ work) then they might have a lot more time for giving meaningful feedback which actually helps develop more flexible, durable learning. This is a message that tends to play well with harried, over burdened teachers but often fills school leaders with horror. The fear is that because some teachers are lazy, good-for-nothing loafers they’ll simply take this as an opportunity to shuttle off to the pub every evening and their students will be even more neglected.

I can certainly understand this concern, but – rightly or wrongly – every school leader already has a list of who these teachers are. They know who they feel they can trust and who is undeserving of such largesse. As such, the principle of earned autonomy is a useful approach. Treating all teachers equally is fundamentally unfair – some will be vastly more experienced than others, others will be considerably more conscientious than some, and so on. Instead it’s entirely reasonable for a school leader to say, these teachers have earned a greater degree of autonomy than those.

If your outcomes are consistently good, if you’re seen to play a full and active role in promoting the values of the school and supporting colleagues then you should be trusted to do what you think is best for your students rather than simply tick off a list of ‘non-negotiables’. I call this Intelligent Accountability.

So, here’s my proposal: If you’re a teacher and you’d like to explore whether marking less might result in better feedback for your students I suggest you approach your leadership team with a plan. Nominate one class and suggest that for a term you will not mark their work and use the time saved in other potentially more effective ways. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Read students’ work, identify common mistakes and misconceptions and design whole-class feedback sequences.
  • Experiment with using Comparative Judgement to help students get a better understanding of what excellence looks like in your subject.
  • Work on creating a range of exemplar work to model and scaffold more effectively.
  • Explore ways to reduce feedback over time to support learning over the longer-term.
  • Plan new teaching sequences, create better resources, improve sequencing of curriculum.

I’m sure you can think of plenty of other productive ways you might use the time freed up by not marking. Then, at the end of the term, compare the work your students have produced with that of similar students in similar classes and see if you can draw some very tentative conclusions. Of course this won’t prove anything, might as a structure it might reassure skittish school leaders that you’re a professional and you take your students’ progress seriously. Most school leaders are well-intentioned and want both you and your students to thrive; help to reassure them by making your proposal as clear and structured as you think it warrants.

And here’s my challenge: if you’re a school leader, allow your teachers to rise to this. If teachers come to you with a clear proposal for how they feel they might better use their time, take them seriously. Look for ways to support reductions in their workload and take the view that even the teachers you think of as feckless have stress jobs. Apply the principle of earned autonomy to reward those teachers who’ve proved themselves reliable to do what they think is best rather than what you’d like them to do; there’s a good chance they know best. And support those teacher you feel haven’t yet earned this autonomy by giving them a clear set of steps to climb and offer them the support – and I mean genuine support – to be better.

What d’you think? Worth a shot?

17 Responses to Less marking, more feedback: A challenge and a proposal

  1. If the teacher is looking at the work of a class to analyse what feedback to provide, and how to plan lessons building on the pupils’ work, then surely they can find time to ‘acknowledge’ the work in quick, simple ways and words with some humanity (and honesty).

    I agree with all of your suggestions except the idea of NO marking at all. Teachers can HUGELY reduce marking time by stopping all the multiple, complex ways that have arisen over the years to feedback technically to their pupils. This proliferation of over-marking is onerous, unnecessary, and, quite frankly, ridiculous. I’ve been banging on for years that teachers should ask their HT for the ‘time management studies’ linked to the various marking techniques.

    Please consider the extreme idea of NO marking and how that would feel to the pupils themselves.

    I can tell you that I, as a child and young person, would have hated NO marking after my efforts – even if the teacher gave me individual feedback orally.

    I am sure that I’m not the only one.

    • Michael Tidd says:

      As far as I can tell from my own school books, very little was marked when I was at school.
      I don’t buy this claim that it shows value to children. Children feel valued by all sorts of interactions, and yet we’ve trained them to value marking above all else.
      I don’t advocate NO marking either, but I think the children’s esteem argument is a poor one that indicates only how much damage we’ve already done by the over-use of marking.

      There are similar arguments about grading teachers’ lessons.

    • David Didau says:

      I haven’t actually advocated no marking, just less. A lot less.

      As to children’s feelings about having their work marked – this is something they need to be weaned off as it often becomes an unhealthy dependency.

      • Emily says:

        I completely agree – written marking is one tiny aspect of feedback provided and there is absolutely no evidence to suggest it holds any value. I would LOVE to have a term off marking work! Currently completing my MA in Education and all I ever get is written feedback, which means very little and is not always clear. Definitely advocate weaning society off their marking mentality. How will the kids cope when they’re out in the world of work with only numbers and verbal feedback to work with? 🙂

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    I hate to disagree with you Debbie, but teachers at Michaela school never mark workbooks–and even though they haven’t been around for long enough to sit GCSEs, anyone visiting the school cannot help but be impressed with the amount and quality of knowledge absorbed by all pupils. Lessons are highly interactive, and constant quizzes and tests tell teachers everything they need to know about what their pupils have learned–and not learned. In other words, feedback is an integral part of teaching–which is how it should be.

    AfL has made something of a fetish of feedback, and it’s based upon a personalised model of learning. At Michaela, all children learn the same basic knowledge–what Sir Ken derides as the ‘factory model’ of education. Like it or not, factories are far more efficient than when each of us plods on in our own little educational workshop. Far from espousing 21st century learning, Sir Ken advocates a return to the guild system of medieval times.

    This is not to say that pupils at Michaela aren’t encouraged to read independently–far from it. As the learn more, their interest in the world beyond their digital bubbles expands. But the beauty of the system is that the teachers work a 9 to 5–if they want to go to the pub, there’s nothing stopping them.

  3. My apologies, David, you did say ‘less’ and not ‘no’.

    I’m conflating your post with the current suggestion, via blogs and twitter, that teachers should not mark at all.

    I remain concerned about that – and regardless of Michaela’s excellent results, ‘no’ marking is still not something I would support.

    Perhaps the age of children matters as well?

    I know of adults, however, who really need/welcome that pat on the back, the recognition, of hard work accomplished.

    I have no disagreement with all children learning the same basic knowledge – and how to differentiate as necessary from the same starting point/body of work – so I’m not advocating the personalised learning agenda.

    Learners have to fare well in whole classes and we do have a revival of ‘whole class teaching’ – then we surely need to acknowledge that the children are also individuals without planning individual learning programmes. What do they say about ‘teachers’ craft’?

    • aswplease says:

      Yep, it’s nice to get a ‘well done’ – but quicker to do it verbally, surely?

    • David Didau says:

      The fact that everyone likes praise is, of course, well known. I’m always pleased when someone says they’ve enjoyed something I’ve written. What’s less well known is that praise doesn’t seem to have any effect on our learning. That is to say, regardless of my preference for having my back patted, it doesn’t help me master new knowledge.

  4. […] I’ve been arguing for some time that if teachers spent less time marking (by which I mean writing comments on students’ work) then they might have a lot more time for giving meaningful feedback which actually helps develop more flexible, durable…  […]

  5. julietgreen says:

    “Read students’ work, identify common mistakes and misconceptions and design whole-class feedback sequences.” This is a nice easy one to implement and I modelled it for my last observation. I would love to have it adopted schoolwide. Books can still be marked and specific things indicated with arrows etc., but minimally, without comments. I’d be happy to go down the ‘no marking’ route, too, but since our school policy was previously that every piece of work had to be marked before the books were handed back, we have a way to go. We used to have a policy of every 3rd piece of work had to have detailed comments!

  6. what a great idea David, The only other things i would trial are students assessing each other and staff assessing each other. Whilst these are not new ideas I’m not aware of any school district implementing these as strategies. THe rise of MOOCs has forced the investigation of students assessing each other and after completing about 30 MOOCs and experiencing the student assessing student paradigm I think its worth a shot. THe student learns by assessing other students and time is saved for the teacher.

  7. Erleichda says:

    Great blog- totally agree that all teachers should NOT be treated the same. We are punishing the majority for the inaction of the minority. As a teenager I remember almost no marking or feedback and laughing at the ‘tick and flick’ that obviously hadn’t been read. What I would have loved was more verbal feedback in class and teachers who didn’t sit and read from the front or dictate from OHPs. I take your challenge David!

  8. […] Finally, if you’d like to do something about reducing your marking workload, have a read of the ideas in this post. […]

  9. […] I’ve been arguing for some time that if teachers spent less time marking (by which I mean writing comments on students’ work) then they might have a lot more time for giving meaningful feedback which actually helps develop more flexible, durable learning. This is a message that tends to play well with harried, over burdened  […]

  10. […] I’ve been looking for opportunities to talk to students as much as possible about their work. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But we don’t always have the time or opportunity to give detailed, individual feedback to the 100s of students we might teach in a particular week. You can read about how one teacher manages it here. But, as David Didau says: […]

  11. […] I have been totally swayed by those who argue that the focus of feedback should be switched around. Instead of the focus being on what the teacher feeds back to the student, re-align it to what […]

  12. Robin Young says:

    I for one am in favour of your ideas and have been experimenting with similar ideas this academic year – although this is the first time I have come across the term “comparative judgement”.

    I do know that some work requires individual and thorough feedback – e.g. A Level Science Lab books need quite rigorous marking. However, when I am marking a set of 30 pieces of year 9 homework, I will quickly lose the will to live when correcting the 154th version of “tempriture”. This is a pointless sacrificial task – so I prefer to scan the books for the common specific errors.

    I have tried giving general class feedback that is less specific and found that this can be less effective if the pupils are unable to understand precisely what to do to make improvements. To counter this problem I might design a scaffolding resource to help the whole class make structured and directed improvements – e.g. thought stems (from your literacy book) or other graphic organisers and/or exemplars of good work to help pupils restructure their own piece of scientific writing. The next (DIRT) lesson is then given to making these improvements. It doesn’t save time. There is planning and marking involved. The positive is that it potentially leads to higher quality feedback which in turn improves the performance of most of the class. It also saves me from dying through the writing of mindless comments that won’t be read or acted on. I hate those meaningless dialogues in books where pupils use purple pens to say how they are going to improve their work with an equally mindless comment and then don’t actually make any further progress!

    I have found this template for whole class marking useful (https://twitter.com/MrThorntonTeach/status/779768955724529664 ) and it provides a useful tracking record of the performance of the whole class – something that gets lost if all the comments are buried in idividual books.

    So hey ho! Not less time on the job to go down the pub but time better spent planning for progression!

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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