Mark My Words...

I was recently lucky enough to attend a webinar (if you can, in fact, attend a webinar) delivered by Craig Neville.  It was a very good way to spend around an hour of my evening so I thought I would share my take-home with you lovely people.

First of all, I would like to publically thank Craig for his presentation, which was very close to my own philosophy on marking and helped me to once again feel like a sane person in the face of many awkward conversations I have had in SLT meetings in various schools through the years.

Essentially, the discussion centred around the four pillars of what marking in schools should be:

  • Consistent
  • Meaningful
  • Manageable
  • Motivating

It is so important to remember that not everything needs to be marked.  We've all taught lessons that were either a) purely an exercise in applying a taught skill - a sandbox, if you will, in which the children can hone their newly acquired skills without fear of retribution, or b) a complete trainwreck where nothing went well, the children came away even more confused and we curse the ground for not swallowing us whole. These lessons NEED NOT BE MARKED! What would be the benefit?

Note, however, these lessons (especially the trainwreck ones) should be evaluated and revisited. The children's work should be looked at (before burning to remove all evidence - we must, after all, remain flawless in our professionalism) and lessons should be learned (by us, if not the children). But marking them would be a waste of ink. More importantly, it would be a waste of time.

So don't mark those ones.

If you've made it this far, well done! Aren't you brilliant? You have succeeded in reading to this point! Don't you feel special? All warm and glowy? No? Well that's okay because it was also discussed that marking purely for motivation is a bit of a waste of time as well. I'm not saying (nor was Craig) that the occasional 'Well Done!' is unwarranted. There are those children who have tried and struggled and have finally managed to succeed; those children deserve recognition... but would it not be more meaningful to verbally reward them? I know, I know, children read their comments and we give them time to act on them (don't we? Be honest!) but verbal praise in front of peers can often be more meaningful.

Of course, the other end of motivational marking is the dreaded 'you have to write something to prove that you've looked at the book' situation. To this, I argue that the next lesson should be evidence that you've looked at the books. The mere fact that the children are making progress is evidence that you've looked at the books. Discussing with the children about what you found when you looked at the book should be evidence that you've looked at the bloody books!

I have always been a great believer in promoting best learning behaviours in children; I'm just not convinced that spending time writing them a note informing them that they have done what they were expected to have done is all that beneficial.

I guess, in a nutshell, I'm saying that if the marking is motivating it should also mean something. So let's have no more policies that include 'Well done's or stickers for expected outcomes.

It can take upwards of two hours to mark just one day of English and Maths work in 30 books. Ofsted says: Marking should not create unnecessary workload. So what's happening? Why do we do it? We do it because it's in the marking policy, which Ofsted also says should be followed consistently through the school. Great, thanks, Ofsted. Useful advice. there. What happens if your marking policy insists of triple-layer-feedback marking for every piece of work? Which some do (I've worked in a few schools that have insane ideas on how much time we have to mark books. Even to the point where I was advised by the Head to 'just take it home and do it while you watch TV tonight'!).

The problem with these seemingly contradictory guidelines is that school management write the policies, while front-line staff have to follow them. I was in a staff meeting once that had been called as (and I wish I was kidding) an 'emergency reaction to abysmal marking and feedback practices.' Seriously. As a staff, we were to retroactively go back through every book (core and foundation subjects) and ensure that every piece of work was marked and had an appropriate comment in the form of a question for the children to answer. This was, after all, policy.

Imagine the horror when I suggested that we, as a staff, go through the books and the policy and see if there were things that no longer apply. I suggested that, if the children were still making progress, despite not partaking in what amounted to a penpal relationship with the teacher, then surely the marking we were doing was fine? Furthermore, I had the cheek to suggest that the marking policy be updated (it was written in the early 2000's) to reflect the most recent, relevant ideas, and that we should focus more on effective feedback that simply making the books look pretty (oh yes, it was one of those schools that insists on several different colour codes that the children never learn). My ideas were not met with enthusiasm by SLT.

Okay, so what? What do we do about it?

I'm glad you asked. Below are some ideas about how to better manage the marking workload for teachers. Some are my ideas, some are Craig's ideas, some I have taken from Pinterest (if you're a teacher and you don't regularly search Pinterest for marking idea, what are you doing? Well, marking books, I guess. Nevermind, as you were...). Please feel free to steal them and pass them off as your own in your next staff meeting!

Don't mark it all yourself.

Everyone in the classroom is responsible for the children's progress. Ergo, everyone should be responsible for marking and providing feedback. This includes teachers, TAs and children. I don't see the point in a maths lesson that does not build in 10 minutes to mark the work. It is the quickest way for children to see if they have understood the lesson and can completely change lessons that follow, or groups that need to be formed.

Further to this, have three book piles for the children to deposit their books into as they leave the room. One for 'I get it all; I don't need help.' One for 'I think I need a bit of support.' And one for 'I am totally lost. Please help!'

I have heard protestations of damaging children's self-esteem if they are encouraged to admit that they need help but this is nonsense. Children know when they need help and the majority don't mind asking for it. The ones that may be a little self-conscious, in my experience, simply put their book in the middle pile. If they do put it in the 'I don't need help pile' then you just move it when you check through.

And yes, you do still have to check the books. But this is merely a check. You are no longer marking. It takes around 10 minutes to check (and I mean thoroughly check) 30 books and adjust your next lesson accordingly.

Have an entry ticket.

I have used this to great effect. Essentially, I use my success criteria for the lesson to think of three AfL questions. One should be for those who have excelled and need to be stretched; one of those who have understood and need to independently apply that understanding; and one for those who have not grasped the concept. I write these questions on the whiteboard and give them a shape code (I use corners to denote the level of understanding. The more corners, the deeper the understanding. So, triangles for those who didn't get it; squares for those who need to show application and circles [infinite corners] for those who excelled).

Next, it is a simple case of going through the books and drawing the shape. I tended to add a nice wavy bubble to show the children where I wanted to see their answer. The beauty of this approach is that you can still give very focussed feedback to those children for whom it would actually make a difference. You can also draw more than one shape.

Using this approach, I have marked 30 books in a little over 5 minutes.

Let the children do the work!

One for English now. I visited a school as part of a collaborative English Learning Hub (aren't we good at creating important-sounding names for ourselves?) and I looked through some books that were seemingly unmarked. I checked all the way back to September; not a jotting... save for some dots in the margin. Intrigued, I asked what the deal was.

"For every error, we mark the line with a dot. Two dots; two errors. It's up to the children to discuss, with their learning partners, what that error could be."

How genius is that? The dots related both to generic GPS errors and to the overall learning intention (both of which were highlighted during the lesson). The school didn't sweat the small stuff - if the focus was expanded noun phrases, then wayward commas were overlooked - and the children learned a lot from finding and fixing each other's mistakes.

But what about those wayward commas? Well, they became the focus either of a future lesson or of a quick recap the next day. Progression feedback was also delivered verbally the next day. Marking time for a class of 30: around 10 minutes.

Below is a table outlining various other methods for cutting the workload.

Again, thanks to Craig Neville for his brilliant webinar.  If this post has raised a smile or even piqued an interest, please visit his blog over at and tell him that I sent you!

Please also give this post a like; add a comment below; let me know if it was helpful... I'm new to this whole blogging thing so any feedback is good feedback!


Instead of...Teacher marks all the work
Provide answers/SC
Children use colour pen to mark according to SC
Writing annotation in the body of the work and giving an overall comment
Only write annotation in the body of the work
Writes an overall review highlighting two strengths and one area for improvement
Writing extensive comments
Only give one strength and two improvements (or, just improvements)
Works on the issue in dedicated class time (or finding their own strengths)
DIRT (Dedicated Improvement/Reflection Time)
Writing ‘well done, you have…’ to all good aspects of work
Double tick work that is correct (single, double, triple ticks - agree with school and students what each of these mean)
Comment on why double ticks have been given
Teacher marks the whole essay
Only mark certain elements or certain parts according to objectives
Highlight the areas they want closely marked
Teacher marks the same mistake over and over in every student’s book
Prepare a starter activity in which students relearn something
After completing starter, re-check work
Marking every question in detail that a student has completed
Highlight all the areas that would achieve marks/correct
Correct/review non-highlighted elements  
Writing in detail what students have done well
Only write what needs to be improved
Act on the improvements
Teacher marks an exam paper and provides students with a percentage
Provide students with mark scheme
Mark their own exam papers.
Teacher marks a whole piece of work
Mark half the piece of work and provides detailed feedback
Complete marking, bearing in mind the feedback provided
Teacher provides feedback and students act on feedback in every assessment
Ask student to write their previous target at the top of their new piece of work
Acts on target in piece of work providing them with more support

Carl Headley-Morris  - @Mr_M_Musings