Marking – Methods and Approaches

It’s the bane of our working lives. It’s what occupies our evenings and weekends like no other task. It fills us with guilt and feels as though it is akin to painting the Forth Bridge.

Of course, I refer to book marking.


There seems to be a perpetual quest in all teaching circles to discover the Holy Grail of how to most effectively provide meaningful feedback to our students, yet as the sheer volume of discussion pieces, this included, on the subject attests to, we have not yet found what really works. In a job where our time is at a real premium, and we are forced to quite rightly consider the impact of each of our approaches on the progress and attainment of the students we teach, it is only fair that written feedback, which occupies so many of our working hours, its something we constantly strive to improve.

My thoughts, naturally, tend to focus on what good marking in Mathematics looks like. Tied up within this however are a further subset of questions regarding its frequency, the way in which students are expected to respond, and how I can use this to drive genuine, meaningful progress in understanding. In my role,  within my department, I am also keen to answer these questions in order to provide effective support to those colleagues around me.

It was shortly after I had sat down to write this post this morning that I encountered a tweet from David Weston (@infomed_edu); “[@DavidBoggitt] there’s an enormous danger that most marking is a waste of everyone’s time. UK marks more than nearly every other country” – a viewpoint that is very much supported by Dylan Wiliam’s belief that; “In most Anglophone countries, teachers spend the majority of their lesson preparation time in marking books, almost invariably doing so alone. In some other countries, the majority of lesson preparation time is spent planning how new topics can be introduced, which contexts and examples will be used, and so on.” (Fernandez & Makoto, 2004)

Marking and feedback has been thrust very much to the fore since OFSTED took the decision to do away with graded lesson observations, and instead, quite rightly in my view, look closer at progress over time. This therefore shifted the onus on schools to check that students work indeed demonstrated the progress over time that an inspector would want to see when he arrived. Whole-school marking policies have been devised in order to ensure that the books of every teacher demonstrate that feedback is being provided to students regularly, and that students are responding to this feedback – after all, there is very little point in putting in the hours if students are turning the page and moving on without considering any written advice they have received.

However, as the Education Endowment Fund’s review of the evidence on written marking found earlier this year, “[t]he quality of existing evidence focused specifically on written marking is low.” Indeed, OFSTED themselves do not have a specific expectation on schools marking policies – they “do not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback”, but it is rather down to schools to factor marking into their assessment policy and then OFSTED judge schools against their individual assessment policy.

I tend to find a lot of conflicting advice on Marking Policies and approaches, and tend to find that the difficulty comes from what we are aiming for our marking to achieve. For some, it forms the basis of planning – in which case it needs to be extremely regular, but not necessarily heavy on the comment-based advice. For some it is a way of differentiating the way they deal with misconceptions – individual feedback can allow this, but will be more cumbersome for staff. I have also seen approaches such as Access Maths Feedback sheets where a differentiated approach to student feedback to their marking is used using a Fluency, Reasoning and Problem Solving approach.

Are any of these unachievable within the questions and tasks that a teacher provides in the classroom setting, without having to take away a set of books every evening, and spend upwards of 2 hours trawling through and circling errors and misconceptions?

I am also reminded of a wonderful blog post I read a while ago, but I am unfortunately unable to find, in which the author describes the danger of ‘over-marking’ as being akin to the way in which we become over-reliant on a Sat-Nav to direct us and are unable to use a map to determine out own route. This, for me, tied together with Dan Meyers assertion that students have become programmed to believe that, just as in the 20 minute sitcoms that students spend so much time enjoying, everything is tied together in neat, resolved bundles, and we don’t build build in the experience of challenge that students need to overcome sometimes to really develop in their mathematical understanding (another post for another day). In constantly marking, correcting and signposting, do we impact on students abilities to understand the errors they have made, and also to create the links between various areas and topics that are so important in developing the relational understanding of the subject?

Without any real research into the effectiveness of various forms of written feedback, it seems that there are currently very few answers as to what really works for students, beyond the almost natural and embedded reaction that ‘of course we need to mark work,’ and ‘it’s the sort of thing that OFSTED would love see.’

I would be really interested to hear your thoughts as to how you personally or your departments are directed to mark, and what benefits have been found in using various approaches. Furthermore, does the time spent on these approaches seem to be truly reflected in the progress of students, or should we be spending more time planning how our lessons can achieve similar results?


3 thoughts on “Marking – Methods and Approaches

  1. Karen S-Morris says:

    My new school HOD is introducing once every week for marking books as students are given 5 50 minutes lessons per week – I don’t believe that will improve progress alone but as you said spend time planning effective lessons for the classroom. Then think about the work load for staff who has 5 teaching groups with about 25-30 students in a group (that’s like stress overload). I believe that assessments can help us (peer/self/verbal feedback stamp/teacher feedback) also, achieve progress over time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. modulomaths says:

      Thanks ever so much for your response Karen, it’s great to hear what’s happening in other Departments. WI’d be interested to know if, in a few months, it has had a notable effect on the progress of your students. That does sound like an awful lot of marking, especially, as I say in the post, that is time that could otherwise be spent planning lessons that allow you to anticipate, draw out and deal with misconceptions, provide time for practice, problem solving etc that would potentially have a greater impact. However, due to lack of any meaningful research on the subject, we are reduced to anecdotal and hypothetical suggestions!


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