Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My 10 point marking strategy

More than just ticking boxes
More than just ticking boxes


“There is little robust evidence to support the current widespread practice of extensive written comments and so we propose an approach based on professional judgement.”
From: Eliminating unnecessary workload around marking

It’s really good that, at last, there are voices of officialdom stating that marking does not have to include extensive written statements on every single piece of a pupil’s work, that pupils should respond to their teachers’ comments in writing, or how often marking should be done.

Assessment in general, and marking in particular, should be fit for purpose — so the first thing to do is agree on what the purpose is. The point of marking, surely, is to ascertain whether a pupil has understood something, with a view to either providing her with something more challenging, or helping her to get over the difficulties she is having.

Once the purpose is agreed, then any marking practices should be evaluated in the light of that. For example, so-called “deep marking”, which is often to taken to mean a process whereby the teacher writes a comment, and the pupil responds in writing, which the teacher must then read (and presumably respond to in some way, if only to indicate that the pupil’s response has been read), is extremely time-consuming. For some pupils, it would be very onerous, if their reading and writing skills aren’t very good. So you have to ask yourself: does the end justify the means?

Put simply: if it’s quicker to say to a pupil, orally: “Try doing X next time; go on, have a go at it now” than to write a paragraph saying the same thing and then have the pupil respond, then surely it is better to just give the oral comment.

In a different context, writers and would-be writers often engage in lots of activities around writing, but then have too little time for the writing itself. I’m often guilty of this myself, and have to pull myself up from time to time. For example, rather than finish the book you’re working on, you decide to spend time organising a blog tour to promote it. But that doesn’t actually get the book written.

Writers have a yardstick by which they can judge how useful their activity is: it’s the acronym WIBBOW, which stands for “Would I better off writing?”. You can read a succinct summary of it here: Business for breakfast V1: Ch 8 by Leah Cutter.

I suggest that a similar yardstick be applied when marking. If you find yourself writing copious notes on pupils’ work, then maybe you should ask yourself:
  • Would I be better off talking to them?
  • Would I be better off doing a special lesson to cover the misconceptions that many pupils seem to have in this area?
  • Would I be better off asking the pupils to mark themselves against a set of criteria (rubric) I’ll design?
  • and so on.
This all seems to me to be eminently sensible, and I speak as one who didn’t shirk my marking responsibilities. So here is the marking approach that I developed, which comprises ten aspects.

My aim

I started from the view that my aim was to ensure that work from every lesson is marked. If work isn’t marked, pupils won’t bother doing it. That applies to adults too of course. I did a course a couple of years ago in which the tutor set homework. I dutifully did it the first couple of times, but after the tutor made no reference to the homework ever, except to ask if he’d actually set some because he couldn’t remember, I didn’t bother — despite the fact that it would have been beneficial.

Why me?

However, I also took the view that it didn’t have to me that did the marking.  There are alternatives that you can use some of the time, in particular automatically self-marking tests, self-assessment, peer assessment and actually having a conversation with my pupils (see below).

Time-saving devices

In most cases the same sort of comments are required on every pupil’s work, and I didn’t see the point of wearing myself out by writing the same comment over and over again.

The alternative approaches I developed were:
    • Producing a handout with comments like “You need to think about a more efficient way of achieving this”, “You need to put more comments in to explain what your program is doing” and “Please run your work through the spell-checker next time!” These would be designated as comments A, B and C, and so on the pupils’ work I would write A, B or C as appropriate.
    • I also used codes in my mark book to help me give feedback to pupils. For example, ??? would indicate that the pupil asked some incisive questions, and that I should try them on some harder work or further reading next time I saw them. My codes were just ones I made up, and had anyone else come across my mark book they would have found it harder to decipher than the Rosetta Stone. But the point was, it worked for me.

My mark book

As I have already hinted, my mark book was a mine of information, for me. I also maintained a spreadsheet, but using my mark book, and referring to it, was much more immediate. I daresay you could use an app to achieve something similar, if you walked around the class with a smartphone or tablet, but that wouldn’t be as good as a mark book for seeing the class as a whole.

For example, seeing a whole column of ???s for a particular piece of work would have alerted me straight way to the idea that because everyone in the class was asking quivery high-level questions, I could raise the game for the whole group, not just one or two individuals.

My mark book also served as evidence I could use in a professional judgement kind of way. If a student did quite poorly in a test or mock examination, but my mark book indicated that he was a grade A student, then my report to parents would give him the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes the opposite would happen, and I’d ask the student to explain how he had managed to do so well in the test when he seemed never to hand homework in or do it to a very high standard.

Talking is good

One of the things that struck me about the idea of deep marking, and marking in different coloured pens, is how out of hand communications can get if you rely on emails. A couple of months ago I was having an email conversation with my accountant about a figure we disagreed with, and I was trying to understand how he had arrived at his. After several emails going backwards and forwards, he gave me a call and we managed to sort it out in two minutes!

The same applies in a classroom: talking to pupils in depth can give you valuable insight into how they are thinking, and can also help them understand what they need to do.

I also think there is a further psychological benefit, in that it will be obvious to them that you are taking an active interest in them, not merely ticking a box or going through the motions. They may not think about in this way on a conscious level, but I’m fairly sure it makes a big impression.

But when I suggest this to teachers, they often say they don’t have the time to talk to 30 kids when they have a curriculum to cover. Well, first of all, the point of teaching is to enable the students to understand something, not get through a list of topics. Talking to them is a good way of finding out if they understand something or not.

Second, you don’t have to talk to all of them in the same lesson. I tried to see about 5 or 6 of them in each lesson, for a two or three minute discussion while the rest of the class were doing their work. Sometimes, I’d spend 5 or 10 minutes with a group of about half a dozen kids at the same time. Either way, it meant that I got to talk to each student at least twice in a term.

Automatic self-marking tests

These are excellent for undertaking a quick check on students’ understanding, without incurring the burden of marking 30 papers. I used to use a program called Hot Potatoes, which is still available. I also used an online quiz tool that has since bitten the dust, but others have taken its place.

A good self-marking program will have the following features:
  • Easy to set up questions and answers
  • The ability to use different question types, such as multiple choice, matching, cloze (in which the student fills in blank spaces in the text) and free short answer texts (although I tended to avoid the last because the marking algorithm tended to be unforgiving: an extra space could render the answer incorrect.
  • The pupils receive immediate feedback on their overall mark and, more usefully, which questions they answered incorrectly, and what they should have answered.
  • The teacher receives the same information as the pupils.
You may wonder why, given my opposition to grades or levels as opposed to comments, I should advocate using a program that provides a mark. My answer is that there is nothing to be gained by throwing the baby out with the bath water. If you were to set an automatically marked test every week, to the exclusion of anything else, I’d raise my eyebrows. If you then told me that you added up all these marks at the end of the year and gave each pupil a grade based on it, I’d think you were in dereliction of your duty. But used carefully, such tests can provide useful feedback both to your students and yourself, and extra evidence to use in your professional judgement.


There are two very useful ways of having the pupils assess themselves. One is to ask them to mark their own answers to a test or quiz that you’ve set. That saves time because all you have to do is collect the work in so that you can (a) transfer their marks to your mark book and (b) select two or three at random to make sure they haven’t cheated.

A deeper approach is to give the pupils a rubric or an artefact that exemplifies the qualities and standard you’re looking for, and ask them to evaluate their own efforts against that yardstick.

This is a good approach because (a) it shows the pupils what you’re looking for, (b) if they haven’t come up to scratch then hearing it from themselves is less likely to depress them than hearing it from you, and (c) you can use these self-evaluations as a basis for your chats (see above), and work out the pupil’s next steps and targets together.

Peer assessment

This can be very useful too, for similar reasons as self-assessment. However, some guidelines are in order, especially (a) assessing against objective criteria (which you, they, or both of you may have come up with) and (c) not revealing whether particular criteria (on a rubric you give them, say) equates to a particular grade. The reasons are that first, pupils tend to want to give their friends the benefit of the doubt by choosing a higher grade judgement, and (b) the discussion then becomes all about the mark or grade, not the quality of the work.

There and then i.e. real time marking

As far as possible, I have always preferred marking pupils’ work while they are with me. First, it means not having to make as many written comments, and second I can ask them to clarify things, which may affect the comments or grade I give them.


Stickies are definitely a good thing. I used to use a smiley face stamp to indicate that I was happy with the work (one stamp), really happy (two stamps) or ecstatically happy (three stamps). I I also used them to illustrate a point: that what mattered was not the number of stamps, but the conversation around why they had one, two or three stamps. I sometimes used an upside down smiley face to indicate, gently, that I thought the work could have been better.

Clean copy policy

Kids hate having red ink (or any other colour ink) all over their work, so I had a clean copy policy in my classroom. What that meant was that once the work had been marked, discussed, and corrected, I asked the pupil to print out or save a hieroglyphics-free version to their portfolio. That meant that they could display perfect work to their parents or the Headteacher. After all, we both knew the process that we’d been through to get there.

Postscript: my views on marking with different coloured pens

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Friday, July 24, 2015

A message for posterity

I have decided to take up the #Blimage Challenge. See the end of this post for more information about it, but basically it’s to write a blog post based on or stimulated by an image someone sends you. Steve Wheeler has made the picture below available.

The best thing about these desks is the graffiti. I don’t usually condone defacing things, but when I look at the desks I see a slice of history – history that nobody will really know about, but which is there all the same. Let me explain.

That graffiti didn’t write itself. People, presumably school kids, did it. Someone has carved their name: K Ha…. Who was or is K Ha…? Did they make a success of their lives? What happened to them? Is there anything to show that they existed, apart from their name carved on the desk?

My fascination with such minutiae of life is not confined to names carved on desks. Case in point: there’s a photo of Marilyn Monroe at Grand Central Station. Look closely, and you’ll see a man in business dress. Who was he? Did he know that Marilyn Monroe was there? Did he go home and tell his wife? Or did he only realise when he saw the photo? Did he see the photo?

I have some home movies taken 40 years ago. In one of them, there was an American car driving in front of us. That was (and is) unusual. Who were the people in that car, and where were they going?

I suppose it’s all about mortality and legacy: once you have shuffled off this mortal coil, will there be any evidence that you were ever here? 

And if there is, who would know? 

Read about the #blimage challenge here: Blimey, it’s blimage!
If you fancy taking part, here’s an image you could use as a stimulus:

An alleyway

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A statement of the obvious

WATER SUITABLE FOR VEGETARIANSI was looking for sparkling water the other day, and came across this. 

And there was I thinking that all water is suitable for vegetarians!

Monday, November 03, 2014

The Gatekeepers

One of the worst things you can do, in my opinion, is write someone off academically on the basis of their achievements so far. It's an easy way out – far easier than being imaginative and looking at things in a different way. 

These thoughts were prompted by a visit to an event at the House of Lords on 30th September. Having been invited by Professor Margaret Cox, I attended a Reception there. This event, organised by the National Conference of University Professors (NCUP) was hosted by the Right Honourable Baroness Blackstone, the purpose being to discuss matters of education, and in particular higher education. Universities, we heard, not only have a preference for students to have three A-levels, but to have them in particular subjects at particular (high) grades. 

Nothing new in this, of course, except that what struck me was the inflexibility of the system as it seems to be now. It's always dangerous to use one's own experience as an example, but I'll do it anyway. When I was applying to read a degree, I was given a conditional offer by a university of: 

  • Economics: grade B minimum
  • Economic History: grade B minimum
  • English: grade C minimum 

Unfortunately, I obtained a B in English and a C in Economic History. I sent them a pleading letter, and they accepted me anyway. I have a strong impression that were I applying today I may not have been so fortunate. 

There are two unfortunate consequences of all this. One is the obvious one that students who could do well at university given a chance are not given that chance. Another is the fact that there is little point in exhorting schools to be more imaginative and innovative in what they offer their students, because university entrance seems to be dependent on such a narrow range of achievements. 

I understand the universities' point of view in some subjects. If, for example, a student has not achieved an A Level in maths, how will they even begin to cope with a degree in physics?
Now, I have no experience of dealing with university entrance, but I do have experience of teaching kids who have, in effect, been written off. Young people who have been placed on unchallenging courses partly because nobody really wants to bother with them and partly, mainly, because nobody thinks they would be capable of achieving much in a more challenging course. 

However, students know when they are on a "Mickey Mouse" course, and they also rise to the challenge of a more demanding one. Obviously, some students will not do well on a more challenging course, even with lots of help and guidance. But at least they will have had the opportunity to do so and, if the course has been organised properly, will still come out with a certificate of some description that shows the skills and knowledge that they have acquired. 

It seems to me that most universities could definitely do more. How about, for example, pre-course courses to bring promising students up to the requisite standard? If they don't pass, they don't get to do the degree proper. 

I realise that there would be potential problems with such an approach, but I am arguing for a twofold change: 

1. Look at a broader range of achievements than A Level grades alone
2. Put into place extra courses or support where necessary

If I, as a humble schoolteacher, was able to get around 90% of "written off" students a GCSE grade C or higher in Information Technology, I'm sure university professors could achieve something similar. 

Mirandanet was also represented at the event, and you can read a more dispassionate view by Sarah Younnie on the Mirandanet website.

If you enjoyed reading this article, please visit the ICT in Education website at, where I write about education technology, ICT and Computing in education.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

No accounting for taste…

I visited a cousin of mine recently, so I thought I ought to take her a present. What better gift, I thought, than the spread illustrated below?

After all, it is, to say the least, unusual, and I was pretty sure that she would not have come across it before. And I also thought it would be a bit of a laugh.

snot “Oh wow!”, she exclaimed when she opened the wrapping. “My favourite!”

“Eh?”, I said. “You mean you’ve come across this stuff before?”

“Well, the stuff, but not called that.”

“It’s not really… well, that, you know. It’s lemon curd.”

“Yeah, I know”, she said. “I gotta show my family this!”

And then she proceeded to take a photo of it on her phone, and send it to her husband and kids.

I was disappointed that she didn’t express complete disgust. But I have to say I held a sneaking admiration for her unflappability.

It reminded me of a comment reported by a review of “Oh! Calcutta!”, a play designed to shock audiences with full-frontal nudity. Apparently, one teenager, emerging from the theatre, commented to his friend,

“I think my parents would like it.”

If he was correct, then that is unflappability!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A bad week for cafes

My favourite cafe when I’m away has huge windows which, if you sit near one, let in a tremendous amount of light. Light is good for creativity, I have found, and I am at my most creative when I’m in a cafe, so a cafe with lots of light is indubitably a winning formula.

This particular cafe also has reasonable food at reasonable prices, by which I mean they are less unreasonable, when compared to how how little the food actually costs if you have it at home, than a lot of other cafes. They do a nice latte too.

But this week the cafe is closed.

There was a sign up which said they are closed for staff holidays and would be open again on the 7th December. On the 7th December I raced down there — well, ambled along there at a snail’s pace if I’m honest — only to find that it was still closed. The sign had been replaced by one which said, less definitely, that they were closed for staff holidays. No hint of when they would end.

On Saturday I discovered that the cafe right at the end of the beach was actually open. Astounding! Chairs only, mind you. I asked what had happened to the tables and was told that they only bring them out in the summer. They did a very nice latte; cheap too. Sitting there watching and listening to the sea, and feeling the sea air, was pleasant indeed. But with no table to work on, creativity was, again, somewhat stifled.

It hasn’t been open since anyway.

On Monday I dithered outside another cafe, trying to decide whether the menu and the light would be conducive to creativity. Just as I came to the conclusion that they would, I was virtually knocked over by a horde of octogenarians. That settled that then.

Dunwich December 2013
The guidebook didn't tell me this!
According to my guidebook, there is a cafe not a million miles away where they do fish and chips to die for, accompanied by a hot steaming mug of tea. What my guidebook did not tell me is that it is now closed until March.

All is not yet lost: there are a few cafes in the vicinity that I have still not explored. Perhaps I will try one or two today.

But if recent experience is anything to go by, any surge of optimism is likely to be misplaced!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Knighton Wood

We discovered Knighton Wood by accident, just over a year ago. We’d visited Bancrofts School, and drove into a side road in order to turn round and go back the other way. That side road was Knighton Way, and at the end of it is the beginning of Knighton Wood. We promised ourselves  visit, and yesterday we fulfilled that promise.

Knighton Wood is an enclosed part of Epping Forest, and has some interesting history associated with it. Adjoining it is Lords Bushes, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest. We happen to like it for its beauty and solitude, although that was marred temporarily by a couple of dog walkers shouting into their mobile phones!

You can read more about it on the London Gardens Online website, and see more photos in my Knighton Wood set over on Flickr.


Knighton Wood (23)