Some principles for effective marking

5th December 2013

In this blog, I want to look at some of the principles underpinning effective marking from the schools I’ve visited and the education blogs I’ve read. The following represents my current thinking on the subject. It is not a definitive list, neither would I call myself an expert. However, from what I understand, the principles on this list should constitute a firm foundation for developing a sound school policy on marking: One that will benefit the students and satisfy the inspectors when they call.

If I’ve made any mistakes or missed out anything important, please let me know. I consider this document a work in progress and very far from the final word. Here’s my list:

1. Be clear about the purpose of your marking

One of the main points of confusion (well it certainly confuses me) is what exactly we mean by the term, ’marking’. The dictionary definition: ‘a line, figure or symbol made as an indication or record of something’ (Chambers) isn’t much help. And the etymology is very murky – if anyone knows what it is, can they please get in touch. For these reasons, we need to be careful when we use the term and we need to be even more careful when we hear it used by others – especially our cousins in the inspection service.

It seems to me, marking comes in different forms and serves different functions. It looks different in each case, and requires different strategies and resources to work.

Basically there are four kinds:
– Marking for accountability
-Marking for assessment
-Marking for planning
-Marking for supporting and developing student learning

I would define each of these categories in the following ways (please feel free to argue and disagree with my list):

Marking for accountability: This is essentially marking to demonstrate, to others, that the children’s work has been looked at by those responsible for their education. ‘Others’ might include, senior leaders, inspectors, parents and the students themselves.

Marking for assessment: This is marking to assess the development of the students’ learning – often called summative assessment. Although there is also some confusion over the terms, summative and formative, and a very heated academic debate still fumes over the difference, I’m not going to enter that territory and for the purposes of this blog I’m going to say ‘summative assessment’ does not include the student and ‘formative assessment’ always does (the ‘formative’ bit being the forming of the student’s learning).

Marking for planning: This is marking that informs the teacher, helping her to make an assessment of the students’ understanding and development and to use this information to plan ahead.

Marking to support and develop student learning: Often called ‘formative assessment’ or ‘assessment for learning’ this is carefully formulated feedback for students on their own work, giving information on how to improve, opportunity(s) for self-reflection, and further activities to develop their understanding.

It seems to me, the use of marking changes as children move through the primary phases. In Nursery and Reception most marking seems to be of the accountability and assessment kind (although there is a great deal of ‘modelling’ of writing for students, which I will look at in detail when we get to the blog on marking in Early Years). But, as the students move through KS1 and KS2 the emphasis shifts and marking, while still including a significant amount of marking for accountability and assessment, becomes a more dynamic process, involving the students themselves in a much more dialogic way. This is not to downgrade what happens in Early Years (far from it), but is, I think, a reflection of the children’s own developing skills and dispositions, particularly in reading and writing.

2. Effective marking includes detail and rarely needs praise

I am aware some might consider this a highly contentious statement and that many excellent educators will disagree with me fervently. However, I’m not saying, ‘don’t be nice to the kids’. Smiling, affirming, and genuine compliments are all allowed. In marking these can take many forms, including stamps and stickers, although I don’t use them myself. What I’m arguing against is the kind of senseless and useless platitudes that once littered my own marking: “Wow”, “Fab”’ “Brilliant work”. Frankly, who cares what I think? If I believe that saying, “Awesome” every time one of my students does any writing, what am I saying about them?

The principle I’m proposing is not about being dire and critical in our feedback, but about being honest and generous. Let’s not make the children dependent on our judgements, let’s help them to become self-analytical and self-motivated. The most important judgement, good or otherwise, is the student’s themselves. This is not to say, we shouldn’t be assessing the children’s work and making judgements about their development (this is the purpose of marking as assessment), but that the purpose of marking – as feedback – is to help the students develop their own capabilities and to become honest judges of their own work. We make it too easy, if we make the judgements for them.

3. Do your marking as quickly as possible

One of the most consistent messages I hear from teachers, both in schools and from blogs, is to get your marking done as soon as possible and back in the hands of the students, with a task for them to work on. As a child I went to a secondary modern school, the only marking our teachers did was ‘tick and cross’, I don’t remember learning anything that way. At University I got essays back marked with grades and comments, but usually weeks after they were handed in. I don’t blame my lecturers, I’m sure they were very busy, but I didn’t learn much that way either. The best feedback, by far, was when I did my PGCE. Our assignments were short, quickly marked, and followed by seminars where we discussed the content. There was dialogue, analysis, and feedback. Much of what we did was immediately applicable and relevant. As a result, I learnt more in those few months, than at any other time in my life.

In primary education, especially KS1, this is more important than ever. Time goes very quickly when you’re are six and the writing you did a week ago is from another age. Most of the teachers I spoke to in KS1, marked the children’s work the same day and started the first session of the next day with a lesson where the students where handed back their work and given the chance to analysis it themselves and work on a development activity.

This was more difficult in KS2, where the children produce work of greater length and sophistication, but the teachers still made every effort to have the work marked and back with the students as soon as possible.

This puts great pressure on teacher’s time and commitments outside school. Many of the teachers I spoke to said they stayed late every day, rather than take their marking home, and the ones that had young families said it was extremely difficult to get things in balance. This can obviously cause a great deal of stress and burn out. Therefore, it is essential that the workload is manageable.

4. Make marking manageable

I often think of teacher workload like one of those shove-penny games at beach arcades. As you drop a coin in at the back the coins are shifted backwards and forwards. Sometimes, they accommodate the new coin and nothing happens. Other times, the new coin pushes and shoves the old coins in such a way that the ones on the front topple and fall into the chute below.

Introducing a new initiative at school is like adding a new coin into the shove-penny machine. I don’t know a teacher who isn’t working at, or close to, full capacity. None of us are sitting around, twiddling our thumbs, wondering how to occupy our time. So, the first question we have to ask when introducing a new initiative is – where are we going to find the time? Effective marking is a huge commitment – a massive coin as it were – and asking teachers to start marking in the detailed and elaborate way I’m suggesting, will involve them in a significant re-structuring of their workload. Coins will inevitably fall off the front, and this needs managing.

There is little doubt, schools who want to develop effective and successful teaching and learning practice (as recognised by Ofsted), need to have a well-working and school-wide marking strategy. Further, if you are a school looking to improve, it seems one of the most important things you can do is introduce an effective marking approach. For more information on this visit Mary Myatt’s blog, written from the perspective of an Ofsted inspector.

However – if my shove-penny analogy has any meaning – the extra workload will have to be managed careful and some things will probably have to go. This is a major challenge to school-leaders and not an easy one to solve. As we all know, just saying something is a good idea and writing an action plan, doesn’t make it happen. Especially, if it involves a change in culture and work-practices.

One suggestion, is to look at what teachers are doing currently and freeing up some of their time by taking away a few of their commitments. In many schools this means employing extra pairs of hands. Another, is dropping some initiatives and ‘slimming-down’ what the school offers, especially after school. It is fair and reasonable to ask teachers to run after-school clubs, as well spend hours marking and preparing for lessons? These are difficult decisions, some involve the re-allocation of money, others a change in what schools can provide, but what is the alternative – a policy that never gets properly integrated, with frustrated and stressed, teachers and managers?

The most important thing is to keep an honest and frank dialogue going, where teachers can share their ideas, but also express their frustrations and concerns. Feedback is essential in my opinion. We need to be able to say if a new initiative isn’t working and if the extra time and commitment is ruining our lives. In my experience, big projects that involve the whole staff and mean a change in school practice, do not work unless everyone is committed and included. Mistakes will be made, changes will need to happen, and voices must be heard.

The next blog will look at marking in Nursery and Reception.


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