Thursday, 15 September 2016

Blog 1: 'Marking' By Robert Wilne

There are two aspects of being a teacher that tend to provoke the strongest responses from non-teacher friends: envy about the length of the summer holiday, and sympathy – pity, really – about having to lug home pupils’ books to mark their work. Marking work (in the sense of “putting ink on paper”) can be very detrimental: to the individual teacher, obviously, if marking is consuming large proportions of “down time” – time for eating, sleeping, refreshing, for not working – but also to the pupils themselves, if marking is too often prioritised over lesson preparation. A very common New (School) Year Resolution is to stop allowing marking to take over one’s life (and kitchen table), but how can that be achieved while also fulfilling the requirements of the department marking policy, the school marking policy, the calendar of book looks and work scrutinies, and SLT briefings that begin “Ofsted expects you to …”?

Let’s start with the last point: Ofsted inspects, it does not expect. This is very clear in the School Inspection Handbook, on p11:

  • “Ofsted recognises that marking and feedback to pupils, both written and oral, are important aspects of assessment. However, Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its assessment policy. Marking and feedback should be consistent with that policy, which may cater for different subjects and different age groups of pupils in different ways, in order to be effective and efficient in promoting learning. 
  • If it is necessary for inspectors to identify marking as an area for improvement for a school, they will pay careful attention to the way recommendations are written to ensure that these do not drive unnecessary workload for teachers."

Therefore, if you are told that you have to mark work in a certain way because it’s a requirement of inspection, that assertion is incorrect and should be challenged. This is not to say that Ofsted is agnostic about marking, and they will, quite rightly, question teachers and leaders if they find examples of ineffective and pointless marking. This was discussed in the Subject Leader workshops (Secondary) at the 2015 Ofsted Better Mathematics conference, and slides 56-71 from there are well worth your looking at and reflecting on, and bringing to any departmental or whole-school discussion around marking policy and practice.

Any planning of the quantity, frequency and format of marking must first consider two fundamental questions: why mark pupils’ work at all, and what forms of marking are worth spending the time on? To help with the second question, a short review of the evidence on written marking was published by the Education Endowment Foundation in April 2016. The review draws five main conclusions (p5), and includes a comment that should be written in bold large font at the front of every school’s policy documents / practice descriptions about marking: “A mantra might be that schools should mark less in terms of the number of pieces of work marked, but mark better”. The review also highlights areas where further research is needed (including – tellingly – “Testing the impact of dialogic and triple marking approaches to determine whether the benefits of such approaches justify the time invested”), and gives some case studies; presumably one could contact the cited schools directly to find out more, and how the impact – the benefit – of their approaches has been felt over time. Recently the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics has published guidance on marking; though it is addressed to primary teachers, much of what it says is applicable in all the key stages.

Marking pupils’ work often feels onerous because we don’t see the point of doing it – we write comments they don’t read, we give feedback they don’t follow, we correct errors they make again. The EEF review concludes that “Pupils are unlikely to benefit from marking unless some time is set aside to enable pupils to consider and respond to marking”. There really is no point in marking work if, when we return it to our pupils, we don’t give them time to look at, understand, and respond to or act upon it. This time needs to be put into lesson plans, and the plan kept to. If I were observing a lesson in which the teacher returned marked work and didn’t give the pupils time (some minutes, not a few seconds) to absorb the feedback, I would find it hard to have confidence that the learning over time in that class was as good as it could be. I do recognise that this is squarely in the “easier said done” category; indeed, the EEF recommends further research into “Investigating the most effective ways to use class time for pupils to respond to marking”.

The usual answer to the “why mark at all?” question is that it helps pupils make progress if they know what procedural errors they have made and what conceptual misunderstandings they need to dispel. If they know the next step to make (and they know it clearly – the EEF review concludes that “The use of targets to make marking as specific and actionable as possible is likely to increase pupil progress”), they’re more likely to make it: this is the sound premise of assessment for learning. But marking should also be assessment for teaching: by marking, we get a sense of how successfully we conveyed an abstract mathematical idea to our pupils. If, from marking pupils’ work on a certain topic, we realise that they haven’t “got it”, we know we have to choose a different model or representation when we revisit the concept, we have to plan a different sequence of questions and activities to embed conceptual understanding, and we have to foster and steer the class discussions differently if we’re going to dynamite the misconceptions that, we’ve realised from the marking, still remain. That’s why marking ought to be “little and often”: we need to know today how to adapt our teaching tomorrow. Policies that require books to be marked thoroughly and in great detail but only infrequently (say, fortnightly) miss this point completely: they are little more than “assessment for parental appeasement” policies. The irony is that teachers often spend considerable time writing “next step” targets into pupils’ books, instead of using that time much more profitably to design the next lesson very carefully and in the light of what the marking has told them so that, in the course of the next lesson, the pupils actually make the next steps, rather than just reading about them.

Of course, assessment for teaching can only happen if the questions and activities you’ve given the pupils do indeed open for you a window into their thinking and understanding and reasoning: marking umpteen repetitive “drill and kill” questions that only tell you about each pupil’s procedural fluency gives you thin information and so are of little value to you … and they probably were of little value to the pupil as well. This is said explicitly right at the start of the National Curriculum Programmes of Study: pupils should have

  • varied and frequent practice with increasingly complex problems over time, so that pupils develop conceptual understanding and the ability to recall and apply knowledge rapidly and accurately

The activities and tasks we give to our pupils, both in class and at home, must be crafted so that they deepen the pupils’ thinking as well as improve their technique. If you get to the end of a pile of marking and think “that’s taken hours of my weekend, what was the point?”, the answer – the fault, indeed – might not be in the marking policy you’ve been asked to follow, but in the questions you set them in the first place. The EEF review is clear that “Some forms of marking, including acknowledgement marking, are unlikely to enhance pupil progress”; so too, though, are some forms of questioning. Discussing what the worthwhile forms are should be at the heart of most – all! – department meetings.

What do you think about marking? What do you do? What don’t you do? Let us know: you can leave a comment, or you can email We’ll discuss everyone’s ideas in a future blog.