The Blagger’s Guide to… Marking

You know all those teachers who really love marking? No. Me neither.

That teetering pile of books sits on my desk in silent reproach all week, just to be taken home for a tour of the back of my car, my hall, maybe the dining room table. There they wait, judging me as I sit with my feet up trying to ignore the impending gloom that will come when I eventually heed their call.

And, I suppose, heed their call we must. School leaders expect to see marking, parents expect to see marking, pupils expect to see marking. Everyone wants their dose of coloured ink.

The problem for the blagger is this: feedback is important. We can see this in the meta-analysis carried out by the EEF who suggest little else has so much impact for so little cost and with such secure evidence. Darn it! It would be so much easier if like most other burdensome tasks it turned out that feedback was ineffective.

So what is the blagger to do? Obviously the idea of spending the weekend working their way through a pile of books is intolerable (and rightly so) and yet the learning processes thrives on feedback…

And there we have our answer. The first thing the blagger needs to learn are the little words “feedback, not marking”. Nowhere in the EEF toolkit does it say that marking is effective. Many of the feedback strategies trialed in research have very little to do with pouring over a pile of exercise books, red pen in hand. There are any number of ways the more time-conscientious teacher can give powerful feedback.

  • Live feedback. If you asked someone to taste something you had cooked and to tell you their opinion and their response was “I’ll put it in writing and let you know in a week” you’d think their behaviour a little off. We would welcome feedback there and then. Much feedback is best given there and then in the classroom – especially if picking up on misconceptions you don’t want to be embedded in their work.
  • Whole class feedback. Why trawl a pile of books just to write the same few corrections in each book? For a start, you will probably be correcting the work (fine if it is something they are going to have to re-do in exactly the same way) when usually we want to be correcting the pupil so that they don’t make the error in different work in the future. Flick through the books, make a list of common mistakes and give this feedback to the class. They can then look for the errors in their own work. If anyone asks, say you are “developing their independence” and get a gold star. Bonus points for calling it meta-cognition.
  • 1-2-1 review. Another problem with marking books (and believe me, there are a lot of problems) is that we tend to ask them to do things they don’t know how to do. They may well need to “substantiate their conclusion” but the chances are that if they knew how to do so, they would. This is why we tend to seek out verbal feedback. Spend some time, while the rest of the class are working, sitting with a pupil and discussing their work. You can then explain in detail how they can improve and set them tasks to improve.
  • Respond through your teaching. One of the most powerful ways of using feedback is to adapt your teaching on the basis of the feedback you have received. A quiz reveals no one remembered how a river behaves on a meander? Re-teach it and make a note to teach it better next time. You ask a question about covalent bonds and get blank looks? Quick – to the whiteboard!

In short, the blagger needs to remember that there is nothing sacred about marking. It may feel like a tradition steeped in time, but so was fox hunting and we seem to be doing just fine without that piece of nonsense. Feedback may be a critical part of learning but marking is just one, poor, strategy among many.

Do say: Don’t worry boss. I am using a combination of whole class feedback and weekly review to ensure progress.

Don’t say: My class books for the work scrutiny? Well, there was this small chip-pan fire…

My new book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, is available for pre-order now!

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