Marking Hacks! How to get home by 5pm

Hello everyone!

The weather here in London has taken a turn for the worse and I am avoiding planning and resourcing for the term ahead.  What better way to do that than to discuss my five favourite marking techniques!

If you have listened to my latest podcast (Mr M’s Musings: The Podcast, available on Spotify, iTunes and Google Podcasts), you will have heard me talk about these five (and 16 more - it’s well worth a listen) briefly.  Well, today I’m going to go into greater detail and not only explain how to use the techniques but also how they can save you time and how to implement them even in a school with a rigorous assessment policy (remember, there should NOT be a Marking Policy in your school; marking should be a small part of the Assessment Policy).

This post is pretty much a spiritual successor to my second most popular post of all time (Mark My Words, June 2019), so if you liked that, you should like this as well.  

Before I begin, a couple of things: even though I will refer to these tips as ‘hacks’ please know that it makes me cringe as much as it does you but ‘marking hacks’ gets more attention than ‘marking tips’ and I need people to click! Also, every single one of the following tips assumes two things:

You have, and use, success criteria (no more than 5 per lesson) and everyone in the room knows about them. They do NOT have to be written in books.

You always have a pen either in your pocket, around your neck, or in your hand, and will always be ready to mark something within the lesson.  Immediate feedback is the best feedback.

With those two assumptions in mind, here we go…!

If you can, host Free-Writing Fridays
(it doesn’t have to be a Friday).  

This is where the entire class (if you can swing it; the entire school. Speak to your English lead about this) is given either completely free reign or a set of choices to write about for an hour.  This work is not marked but it can be shared and celebrated. If you have a TA or extra adult, it is a good idea for them to walk around and keep children on-task. And this is not a place-holder activity.  Truly independent writing has been shown to benefit children in every aspect of writing: organisation, word choice, sentence fluency, spelling, punctuation, confidence[1] … the list goes on and on.

As the teacher, you sit down with a group of six children and look at the work in their books.  You discuss any points of concern; highlight any areas of exemplary writing or understanding; and discuss any next-steps.  There is no reason that, while you’re working with one child, the other five can’t get on with the free-writing as well.  If your school is a very targets-driven school, this is a good time to discuss those as well. One-to-one feedback has been proved to be effective time and time again[2].  Not only that, but you’re also modelling how to mark and give feedback[3], so when it comes to peer- or self-marking, the children already have a good idea of how to do it so you are potentially reducing your marking workload even more!

Set up and Run a Marking Club

This one is controversial but it needn’t be.  It will cost you one lunchtime a week (possibly more - I ran it every day) but will benefit you greatly: how do you fancy not having any maths books to mark?  Read on…

Quite simply, offer children the chance to come in at lunchtime and mark some books.  They will bite your hand off.  They get to use a teachers’ pen! They get to see the answers! They get to peek behind the curtain of learning! They love it.  When they come in, you give them six-to-ten books each, have the answers either on the board or printed out (I recommend on the board - think of the trees) and they mark the work.  Simple.

You can add layers to this.  You can say that books that scored above a certain amount go into one pile, between a certain amount go into another pile, and below a certain amount in a third pile.  Or you can do what I did and have the children create these piles as they leave the room.  You’ll be surprised at how quickly the work gets marked (and how accurately - generally, the children who sign-up for this sort of activity are very organised anyway).  

This works best with Upper Key Stage 2 children (from 9- to 11-years-old) but, there is no reason younger children can’t be trained.  At the very least, you could talk to the Year 5 or 6 teacher and ask if you could borrow some responsible children. I recommend you start with three and build to six because then the whole thing is over in about twenty minutes.  It works best with maths but, if you are using success criteria, I have used it successfully in every subject.

I mentioned that this was controversial and it can be.  I have had both parents and teachers (and school leaders, for that matter) argue that children should not be allowed to casually look through everyone’s books; that it is an ‘invasion of privacy’ (that was the school leader) and ‘could lead to bullying’ (that was a parent).  These are legitimate concerns and, somewhat uncharacteristically, I am not going to summarily dismiss them.  Instead, I am going to point out that this is a club.  It is a privilege that these children have chosen.  Therefore, it can be taken away.  

You set up ground rules; you explain their responsibility and outline the trust you have in them to be respectful.  To any additional naysayers, and I’m talking about the adults here, you remind them that the children are expected to participate in peer-marking and group-feedback anyway (and it is even recommended by an independent government case study[4]); this is just an extension of that.  AND studies have shown that, if anything, children are more likely to inflate the success of their peers, rather than shame or belittle[5] (which is why you need that success criteria.  Also, I recommend providing a list of comments the markers can add - they do like to add comments so why not make them useful?).

Finally, when the children are done, have them leave the books open so that you can quickly run an eye over the marking; you still need to know where the class stands!

Mark Like a Data Scientist*

Quite simply, gather a sample of the class’s work by randomly grabbing one or two books from each table.  Mark those.  Remember, the point of daily marking is to assess whether or not the learning has happened.  A sample of 33% (two books per table in a class of 30 children, assuming an average of six children to a table), combined with your knowledge of how the lesson went (remember, you should be constantly walking around with a pen during the independent part of the lesson, as should any other adult in the room), will be enough to let you know what needs revisiting and what has probably been covered enough. 

You can compound the benefits of this technique by having the children leave their books on one of three piles - I’m fine with this; I think I’ve got it; and I’m lost! Or whatever you choose to use. That way, you can sample from the piles (one from the top, middle and bottom of each pile should be fine) - giving you only nine books to mark!  If you combine this with the marking club mentioned above, you can actually deep mark the books that need it in a matter of minutes.

This technique probably works best with maths but there is no reason why it can’t work in other subjects as well… but you will need success criteria.

*My wife is a data scientist and strongly objected to this subtitle - there is not enough control to conduct a proper power calculation, and the population of the study is, strictly speaking, too small, even with outcome assumptions based on government guidelines.  So I guess it should read: Only mark a few books… but that’s boring!

Only mark a little bit

Not only has this saved me so much time; it was also the hack that got me to love marking books. It works equally well with all subjects but lends itself sublimely to extended writing pieces. Again, you will need success criteria against which to mark. Using this technique will save you up to one hour of marking. I promise.

Only mark one random paragraph. Don’t tell the children which one it will be. In fact, you don’t even have to decide until you’ve read through the work, which you do need to do.  But that’s fine.  Reading doesn’t take very long and it is often the bit that gets sidelined when you’re marking. It has to - how can you truly read something properly if you’re looking for errors all the time? So read through everything (with a pen in your hand if you come across something you can address instantly) then, when you’re finished reading, pick a paragraph - it can be long or short, depending on the need - and mark it according to the success criteria. Any comments you leave at the end of the work (and there needn’t be any at all) must relate only to that paragraph.  

When the children get their books back, allow enough time for them to not only read the comments and address any issues but also to apply that marking to the rest of the writing.

If you’re concerned that you will be pulled up for not deeply marking the whole thing, remember this: your role as an educator is to ensure progress.  You are not a copy editor.  You are a teacher.  You can teach the need for accurate apostrophes or paragraphs or use of fronted adverbials just as well through one concentrated piece of marking. Arguably, you can teach it better because the message is not diluted through repetition.  And if the mistake is only present in the paragraph you marked? Great! Did the child point this out to you?  Wonderful! That means they’ve checked through and applied your marking to the rest of their work. Remember the words of the Department for Education: marking should not be “an unhelpful burden for teachers”; it should be “manageable.”[6]

Coded feedback (entry ticket)

I’m going to close off here by revisiting a classic from my post way, way back in June 2019. I have used this to great effect.  Again, you’ll need accurate success criteria for the lesson.

Use those criteria to think of three different levels of assessment questioning. 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.  Essentially, a do, an explain and an explore question. 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 focused feedback to those children for whom it would actually make a difference.  You can also draw more than one shape for each child. 

Save me time!

So let’s review.  Marking can take up to 15 hours a week[7]. This is ridiculous. Let’s see how much time we can save just with these five hacks:

By walking around with a pen in your hand and reading over shoulders, you will have already developed a good idea of which books you are going to use as a sample for marking (some, you will have marked to a satisfactory degree in the lesson). This hasn’t taken any extra time because you were in class teaching anyway. When the children pile up their books at the end of the lesson,  have them make four piles - Got it, Nearly there, Need Help and Sample. If you explain the purpose behind each pile, no-one will get upset.  You can even tell the children to choose who will be on the sample pile and set a rule that everyone has to be on it at least once every week.

By running a marking club, you can address most of your sample marking for at least one subject and have an idea of how the rest of the class is doing. 

So far, that’s just 10 minutes of your free time taken and we’ve gone through at least 30 books. Let’s say that’s maths covered… mostly; there’s still one thing left to do but it won’t take long.  Make sure the children leave the marked books in the three confidence piles and open. 

That leaves English and a foundation subject.

You will have had the children pile their books on their table open at the beginning of the work from that day.  Not having to open the books saves a lot of time - I don’t have any peer-reviewed figures but I can tell you anecdotally that it has saved me up to 17 minutes a day. Next, you’re going to go to the books - you’re not going to go and collect all 30 and take them to where you are.  This has two benefits: 1) again, it saves time; 2) instead of looking at a pile of 30 books, you are only looking at a pile of up to 6 at a time. Psychologically, this is a stress-reliever!

You’re going to skim through the writing the children have done and mark only one paragraph.  Stick to the success criteria; if there are no mistakes at all, celebrate it.  If you are going to leave a comment, don’t leave more than two.

But wait! Before you write that comment, is the same correction occurring in more than five books?  If so, make that an Entry Ticket for the morning.  Make a note of it on a separate piece of paper and assign a shape to it.  Don’t write more than you need to!

Realistically, that’s another 30 books marked, with comments and reflection for tomorrow’s lesson, and it’s only taken 20 minutes. So far, we’re at half an hour.

Remember how I said we were going to come back to maths? Now’s the time to do your Entry Ticket coded feedback.  The children have already marked the work and left the books in piles at lunchtime, so you have a pretty good idea of who needs what.  You’ve already planned your do, explain, explore questions (you may even have them already on the board for tomorrow) so now all you need to do is draw in the codes.  That’s another five minutes.  Thirty-five in total.

You could, if you’re feeling very confident with this system, teach one of your marker children to quickly draw in the codes at lunchtime, removing this step altogether.

Now, all that’s left is that foundation subject.  I would sample-mark these and acknowledge the rest with a tick (or a stamp, if you’re really savvy). Ten books in a sample set, marking to a set of criteria… fifteen minutes? Twenty?  Even if it takes you twenty-five, you’re completely done with the whole class set of 90 books in an hour.  

And yes, over five days, that’s five hours. But a certain amount of marking cannot be avoided; it is part of the job. However, I can guarantee that if you can spend one hour a day marking, leaving you with zero books to take home and zero books to mark in the morning, you will feel better and less stressed.  You will know where everyone in your class is because you would have sample-marked their work at least once throughout the week.  When those books are collected in for the dreaded scrutiny, you won’t be panicking because you will know they are all marked. What’s more, you’re involving the children in their own marking so their engagement will be genuine.

I truly hope this is useful to you. If it is, I’d love to hear about it. My contact details are at the bottom of this post. If you want to hear more marking hacks, check out my podcast where I talk about 21 of them. If you like what you’ve read here, go back and check out the post from June 2019: Mark My Words.  Mostly though, look after yourself.  It’s a tough job, emotionally and mentally. It’s rewarding as hell, don’t get me wrong, but it is tough. It can be draining and there can be days when you feel like you’re just not cut out for it.

You are.  You can do this.  You’re awesome.

Carl Headley-Morris

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References for this post


Roth, K. and Guinee, K. (2011) Ten minutes a day: The impact of Interactive Writing instruction on first graders’ independent writing, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 11(3), pp. 331–361. doi: 10.1177/1468798411409300.

Bushnell, A., & Waugh, D. (2017). Inviting Writing: Teaching and Learning Writing Across the Primary Curriculum. Learning Matters.


Gordon J. One to one teaching and feedback BMJ 2003; 326 :543 doi:10.1136/bmj.326.7388.543


Burnett, Paul C.; Mandel, Valerie (2010) Praise and Feedback in the Primary Classroom: Teachers' and Students' Perspectives, Australian Journal of Educational & Developmental Psychology, v10 p145-154 2010


Sherriff, T (2018) Reviewing feedback and marking in primary schools, Department for Education, ​​


J Darling, R Bardgett, M Homer. (2010)   “I GAVE HER 10 OUT OF 10!”—CAN SCHOOL CHILDREN CONTRIBUTE TO SCORING OF STUDENT PERFORMANCE IN  AN  OSCE?, Leeds Institute of  Medical Education,  School of  Medicine,  University  of  Leeds,  UK;  Department  of  Paediatrics,  Bradford  Royal Infirmary,  Bradford,  UK, ADC/2010/186338.176  


Bushnell, A., & Waugh, D. (2017). Inviting Writing: Teaching and Learning Writing Across the Primary Curriculum. Learning Matters.

Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking: report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group. (2016). [Text]. Department for Education.


Teachertapp (2017). How often are teachers required to mark work?, Accessed: 25/02/2022