To Mark Or Not To Mark

One of the two big takeaways which I discussed in my clip for Craig Barton’s ‘slice of advice’ podcast was that you don’t have to mark pupils’ written work.

I think the first place that I heard of this radical idea was from several of the teachers at Michaela School. They promote the idea of whole-class feedback: instead of marking pupils’ work, look through it, note down common strengths and weaknesses or misconceptions and use this to plan feedback which you deliver to the whole class.

Many of the advantages of this approach are discussed by Andrew Percival from minutes 14-18 on Craig’s podcast: It’s easier to give detail and nuance verbally, it gives teachers more time to think about planning lessons, it encourages focus on ‘improving the pupil, not the work’ (a quote from Dylan Wiliam).

For me, another major advantage is not having to spend hours writing individual comments… I did so for 10 years and it was the one part of my job that I hated, even though I knew that the research showed that it was more effective than giving numerical scores. I guess I just didn’t think enough about whether there may be an alternative.

I used whole-class feedback last term together with online homework. I set this through diagnosicquestions.com but next term I plan to trial drfrostmaths.com, particularly because I like the fact that there is the option for adaptive level of difficulty in the questions. Pupils get immediate feedback as to whether or not their answers are correct and hence the chance, which many have taken, to correct their mistakes.

Once all pupils have completed the task, I look through the answers and choose which questions I wish to discuss in class. Last term, I then presented solutions to these questions, or asked a pupil who had correctly solved the problem to do so. Next term, I think I will try to present a slightly different question (possibly just changing the numbers) because this will be less frustrating for those pupils who have already answered the question correctly. It will also give those pupils who struggled originally the chance to re-do the question to show that they have improved their understanding.

I’ve just mentioned one negative of the whole-class feedback approach: some of the feedback won’t be relevant to some pupils, so we may see this as a waste of time. An alternative would be try to give verbal feedback based in a more individual way, but this would take a large amount of time with a whole class. One advantage of individual written feedback is that producing it does not use up the limited resource of lesson time.

Another advantage of written feedback may be its longer-term nature. A pupil may well have forgotten what you said to them yesterday, but if you wrote it down they can go back and look at it again. As I developed as a teacher before I stopped writing comments, I was getting better at directing pupils to look back at my past comments when they had not taken my suggestions on board.

Overall, I feel that these two issues do not outweigh the advantages of whole-class feedback (though from my comments above, you can tell I’m a bit biased!) However, they mean that I haven’t completely ruled out written feedback.

What do you think?

2 thoughts on “To Mark Or Not To Mark”

  1. My views on this have also evolved over the years. I quickly stopped writing individual comments in books as it was so time-consuming, actually really bad the way I was doing it because I usually gave about 2 minutes of lesson time for pupils to “engage” with the couple of hours I had spent writing comments. Bonkers. So I quickly moved to using symbols which I blogged about some time ago. But even that didn’t feel very effective. Although pupils write the comments in their books themselves, saving me time and “forcing” them to engage, often I found I was struggling to come up with something meaningful for them to write.
    Nowadays, I only take in books if I want to look through a set of questions that I ran out of time to review in the lesson. Ticking correct answers is something that I nearly always get them to do in lessons, but sometimes I will do myself as that is actually the quick bit, it’s writing comments that is the waste of time. The only point in me doing this is if I am planning the next lesson alongside. So working out what you will whole-class teach, what task you will set the class and which 3-4 students you aim to talk to one-on-one. If I am organised, and the lesson goes according to plan, generally I would do this using exit tickets. Much less faff than taking in books. Also I want to ensure that they are in the habit of keeping their books and bringing them to every lesson.

    1. Thanks for your input, Mark.
      It sounds like you make a sensible judgement as to whether its worth looking through pupil work, and plan accordingly. I imagine that many assessment policies, which specify specific marking frequency, have been created in response to many teachers lacking your initiative.

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