Marking in Perspective: Selective, Formative, Effective, Reflective
Context and Motivation
I’m feeling relieved, smug and virtuous because I’ve just marked some books. It feels good because a) it was overdue and, hence, was having that ‘albatross’ effect; b) for a change I am looking forward to going into my class tomorrow without feeling guilty and most importantly c) because I feel like I’ve renewed a connection with my students’ learning in a way that is hard to do any other way; I’ve done something worthwhile which always feels good.
To be absolutely clear, I am a Dylan Wiliam devotee; you won’t catch me doing marking slavishly because someone tells me I should or because it looks good; I only do marking if I think I need to – and this only if I think it will make a difference. I expect my staff to have the same attitude. I’m convinced that a lot of marking is a waste of time and that, the best feedback is immediate, ephemeral and in the moment and that peer and self-assessment are every bit as important as traditional marking. (I even get my students to take the books in to mark them as part of our co-construction process described here.) However, this blog is written in the context that a) I’m not on the defensive having actually done some marking and b) we’ve just had a mock-inspection where my eyes opened to the view that teacher marking in books can play a crucial role in supplementing all that goes on during class teaching, to the teacher’s benefit as well as the students’.
So, this is my current assessment of what marking should be like if we are to maximise its impact:
Marking should be selective:
Teachers in general spend too many hours marking. I have had countless teachers come to see me over the years, stressed out and close to tears because they feel crushed by it. Marking 25 essays or a set of maths books with 50 or 200 sums in each is a massive task. I have long felt that this can’t be sustainable or entirely effective and was heartened to read Dylan Wiliam’s views on this. He suggests that the total time spent by teachers on marking costs taxpayers £billions for very little benefit, making it the most expensive PR exercise in history. Given limited time in the space between the working day and family life, where do priorities lie? Time spent marking is time not spent planning lessons; I’d suggest a lot of ‘slavish marking’ time would be better spent preparing better lessons – more learning options, more subtle differentiation and so on.
To counter that, as described above and below, marking is undoubtedly important; it has its place as one of many feedback strategies. It is the only form of feedback parents see, that remains in the hands of students at all times and serves as a reference point for further work. Teacher feedback helps build trust and confidence in the overarching feedback regime that may include a high volume of peer and self assessment. It is also evident to me that, after a too-long gap between marking events, there is a deterioration in my students’ work; presentation slips and details become lost; they get sloppy. It is a saw-tooth effect with each marking period giving them a fresh jolt of standard-setting.
So, clearly, there is a balance to be struck to achieve the optimum time-efficient, impact-to-effort ratio. Regular, selective marking is the key; identify the key points of your marking cycle so student and parents know what to expect; highlight the link to other set-piece formal assessments and keep it in proportion.
(It is interesting to note that at Wuxi No 1 High School, our partner school in China, teachers set and mark homework for every class they teach every single day. But here is the difference….drum roll…they only teach two or three 45 minute lessons in a 9 hour day! The rest is for preparation and marking! Different world. )
Marking should be formative:
For me, it almost goes without saying that ‘marking’ means giving formative comments and no grades. However, this is in the context of a process where other assessments with specific grades are given at intervals –eg tests, criteria-referenced assignments and so on. The issue with grades is well-documented but I still find teachers who can’t drop the nonsense of A-/B+, with no reference point. Numerical marks based on a clear scheme (or, for example our *,1,2,3 system – see here ) are fine but arbitrary grading really should have died out by now.
If Afl matters, which it does, teacher-marking is a good place to model it and deliver it. As one element in the AfL armoury, really good formative marking is key, focusing on what is going well and what specifically needs improving and how. So much marking is not formative – it just does not deal with the process of how to improve. This is the key reason why so much marking is a waste of time – it does not lead to improvement and merely seeks to satisfy perceived demand. A few ticks will keep ‘em happy?! However, even with really effective formative comments, again selectivity is important. Too often you might find a piece of work covered in red pen…. Where to start? What to focus on? It is better to highlight some key things that can be worked on and improved rather than slicing error-strewn work to pieces. Some effective strategies include:
‘Star and a wish’ or www and ebi (what went well/even better if) / success criteria tailored to specific tasks on pre-printed sheets/ highlighting error locations but not correcting them / identifying selected spelling and grammar errors/ giving precise pointers to achieve improvements with a requirement for the student to redraft the same work again.
Crucially, especially if any length of time has passed, any marking has to be done on the basis that it will be acted on….which helps with selecting what and how much to mark. Extended retrospective marking can be utterly pointless if a student is never going to act on the comments.
Marking needs to be effective:
Once we have cracked the business of getting really good formative, grade-free comments into students’ work, the next step is ensure that they act on the comments. The feedback loop needs to be closed. Imagine the skateboarding scenario where a skateboarder gets tons of feedback from his peers but then waits until the following week to try it out! It doesn’t happen… they have another go straight away. This means that time has to be built into the learning cycle where teacher comments are acted on, otherwise, once again, it is a waste of time. At KEGS, in various different subject areas, we have talked about this issue. It means re-drafting essays, doing corrections in maths and languages and re-plotting the graph; it means putting an emphasis on securing immediate improvement rather making a to-do list for improvements that might be made at some point in the future.
A fundamental paradox of marking – one that I find helps crystallise an efficient response – is this: the students who need the most help and the most feedback, are those who are least able to engage with written comments in order to secure improvement; the students who need the least help are those best able to engage with written comments. Even with extensive written feedback, there is a need to explain it verbally to some students – otherwise they simply won’t know what to do. Here, the marking is really just generating the key points for a discussion.
Marking should be a reflective process:
Aside from the specific bits of feedback I can give to my students, the main effect of marking their books is that I feel I have sharper view of what their individual and collective strengths and weaknesses are. I can plan ahead more effectively . After a lot of in-class peer and self assessment, it is interesting to me to discover that some students’ work is much better or worse as presented in their books relative to their in-class responses. In other words, the ephemeral, in-the-now exchanges don’t always give the full picture eg. Some common misconceptions have emerged that I hadn’t been aware of before. So, as a result of this marking episode I have made some notes that will shape the direction of the learning journey we are embarking on.
Finally, having been through the recent inspection process, I feel that marking is a really good way to show what our approach to learning is all about; of showing what I am up to with my students: that they are making progress over time, that I am individualising planning for differentiation, trying to develop literacy skills and giving good formative feedback. During a lesson observation by OfSTED or anyone else, it is tough to put all of this together in a half-lesson package. However, if you can supplement what is on show in a particular lesson segment with evidence that it is all going on in the students’ work, that is a big help.
The final reason for making an effort with marking is this: students tell us that they like it. There is a real danger of peer-assessment fatigue; it builds resentment and presents a challenge to our credibility. One student of ours recently complained: ‘just once in a while, I’d like someone who knows more than I do to tell me how well I’m doing!’ The key reason I am looking forward to giving my books out tomorrow is that my students will really appreciate it. I will then make them struggle through my comments to make the corrections…. when they will appreciate it a little less but, hey, that’s the job!
When I deliver CPD sessions about marking I often use the line that if you are only doing marking to satisfy your head of department, stop! This does not mean that you should not do any marking at all! It just means that your marking should be selective, effective, reflective and formative!