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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