The problem with marking

To mark, or not to mark, that is the question.

“In England we spend preparation time marking, in Germany they practise the exposition and in Japan they think up good questions.”

Dylan William c.f John Tompsett (2015) Love over fear

Recently, I have been thinking a great deal about my approach to marking.  I feel like I have lived (or survived) many different marking epochs in my very different schools.  I survived the simple tick, flick and sticker approach to the ‘one size’ fits all feedback grid.  I have wrestled with the ludicrousness of verbal feedback stamps and dedicated my time to the burdensome but earnest ‘triple marking’ and green pen comments.  I have gone from detailed feedback sheets with a box for student feedback to the summative comments in the margins and diagnostic suggestions at the end.  I have used self, peer, group and gallery marking.  I have created simplified marks schemes and tick box success criteria and I have used marking codes and highlighter to speed up the process.  I have given whole class feedback as well as dedicated time for individual reflection and improvement based on personal feedback.  I have worked in places that have a prescriptive marking policy (once every 4 lessons, by the way) and others which have a more laissez-faire approach.

Now, it feels as if we have reached a more mature and ‘post-modern’ age of marking and feedback.  We are finally asking what marking is useful?  What marking helps students make the most progress?  For whom do you mark? I have really enjoyed engaging with these questions and challenging my own ways of working.

Is this the nirvana of teacher autonomy, where professionals can develop their own methodology about the when and why, where a diversity of approaches is seen as a strength rather than a lack of consistency or is it a wild-west where anything goes?

If it perhaps unfair to suggest that we are without guidance when it comes to marking and feedback.  The EEF Toolkit and Hattie tell us that quality feedback is essential in helping students make progress – but they stress quality not quantity.  I guess this effect is multiplied when explicitly linked to metacognitive strategies and the emergence of dedicated improvement and reflection time.  This all seems a long way away from when I was an A-level student (1992-1994, if you are asking) and I remember submitting essays and getting nothing but a grade at the top.  This is in stark contrast to what feels like the detailed, extensive feedback I feel obliged to provide that sometimes takes up more space than the submission.

As an A-level teacher, I have always tried to give students a written exam question on each topic that we study which is marked with diagnostic feedback.  As the specification dictates that we study one topic per week, this has meant an essay per week.  In recent years, this has become a bit ‘DIRT’-ier which has combined more reflection, questions for them to address, redrafting and a target to focus on next time.  However, in essence, my rule of thumb has remained the one essay per week.  It is not as exciting as the take-away homework where a menu of activities is on offer to build on students’ learning.  I often let them choose an essay title, but the product remains the same – a 400 word essay.  As well as individual feedback, I choose one essay a week to share with the whole class as a learning point about introductions, synthesis, use of evidence or the killer conclusion.  So far … so traditional?

This strategy has served me well for many years, it ensures that students have had to read the textbook, process the material and attempt a real-life exam extended writing question from the first week onwards. It means that most students will have a large bank of exam questions in their assessment books which can be used for revision purposes and that I have progress trackers for each topic which inform my planning and revision strategies.  I have for many years lived the ‘marking is planning‘ mentality and believed that it is a significant contributor to my humble successes.  However, I have always had a niggle about how much time this strategy requires and since having my own children, I have had to work hard to maintain this marking commitment.

I have been rather impressed by the ‘marking is different to feedback’ brigade ably led by Messrs David Didau and Toby French who have challenged over-prescriptive marking policies and the fetishisation of marking and they have got me thinking.

I guess I am wondering whether this commitment to quantity and quality is sustainable, particularly with the recent growth in KS5 class sizes or even desirable, as it will come with a considerable opportunity cost. Perhaps an essay per week from each student is an expectation which is no longer realistic?  I can her people spitting out their tea and shouting at me right now, ‘get them to peer mark‘ ‘make them more independent so they can check their own learning‘.  In essence, I do not disagree with these instincts and both are worthwhile approaches.  However, there is something quite special about reading a whole essay, getting inside the students’ thinking and working out what they did well and where they went wrong and what they could do to improve.

Moreover, I have always felt there is an opportunity cost to marking, which is planning. It has become clear that by being a slave to my marking I have not been able to spend as much time improving the quality of my lessons.  However, the student voice suggests the students are very happy with weekly assessment and the level of feedback I give.  The weekly essay means that students have to settle early into a regular pattern of work around my subject of reading, reflecting and writing.  However, what is possibly lost in order for us to commit to this marking treadmill?

Now there are some things I can do to help with planning. I have really, really enjoyed my departments ‘joint’ planning approach this term and it feels good to talk through the topics as we deliver them. I want to do more of this – but we are only allocated 3 hours of departmental time this term.

Nonetheless, I wonder whether it is time to consider my own personal sacred cow of ‘an essay a week’. This is difficult for me as I tend to put what little success I have down to this strategy that stretches the learning of the topic and technique into weekly bite-size chunks. However, it might be time to think again.  However, I am anxious at letting go of the familiar and with good cause.  If I did not set formal written home learning would students commit to the wider reading and the practice of academic writing?

We have talked about moving towards an expectation of fortnightly formal ‘essay’ or exam question,  alongside a range of independent tasks and essay plans to structure their study time in-between. I am still uncertain about how I feel about this in my own classes – particularly where I am the ‘majority’ teacher, I want them working hard and committing their knowledge and skills to paper.  I need to square this questioning of my every day practice with my knowledge that regular, consistent rehearsal of the extended questions is what helps my students achieve.