The first thing we let slide when time is short, and one of the most common jobs that follow us all home – red pens ready!
Words: Andrew Johnson
Marking has always been there, but generally the way in which we mark has changed over the last five to ten years. Through an Ofsted approach to progress over time, research-based evidence highlights marking and student responses can increase progress by up to eight months.
Marking has become a much more imposing element of teaching than it was before – used for both monitoring and evaluation; this summons policies, literacy codes, ink colours, response times and individualised feedback. It’s no longer to solely benefit the students we teach. So, it’s easy to see how the practice has become so overwhelming.
Putting students back as the focus, sometimes it’s important we think about how our books are used first before thinking about how best to cut down on the time it takes to mark a set.
I used to hate marking, and whilst I certainly don’t love doing it still, it’s no longer the biggest drain on my time because I changed the way I approached it and discovered a few hacks along the way.
The sole purpose marking has is to see how well a student is doing and to encourage them to do more and delve deeper. In a nutshell, that’s it for me. So, trying to do this effectively doesn’t necessarily equal spending countless hours.
Teachers are sometime victims of their own workloads, striving for perfect books, filled with comments. But we’d never imagine giving a student 10 things to do in the first 10 minutes of a lesson. We’d all much rather have them doing one thing well than 10 things poorly. So, carry this into your marking.
If you find yourself dictating a sentence for revision, or worse getting students to make pages and pages of notes, don’t. Give physical notes if you must, printed and stapled. Even better, offer the course revision booklet so students don’t need to write down every minutia, only for you to mark spelling mistakes on work that essentially isn’t theirs.
Only get students to write things in their books that inform you about their understanding of what you are teaching. And plan, carefully, what students need to write in their exercise books – they are exercises in learning.
Plan it. Make yourself a calendar with your groups on. If they’re supposed to be marked every two weeks, make a three-week rota for each set of books. The most these books will ever now be out of date is one week.
Start with the first date, when will you intend to mark these books? Use your timetable to choose a day when you will have had this group, but also that has the biggest gap in days before you will see them again. So, when life happens, a slip on this date has a buffer that means you’ll not be us of time with your own rota, and hey presto, already less guilt.
This date is also the day where you’ll plan something in lessons that you would want to assess and mark and give students feedback on. Make this a lesson that the outcome is directly the purpose of your marking for this round of marking. So now you have a date, and you have something worth your precious time to mark.
The last date is the date when you see the students next. This lesson you put sometime aside to ensure students can read and impact on the target you have set from the piece of work you just marked. This might sound like a pain and an overkill, but it has a lot of power. Imagine knowing exactly when each set of books is going to get your attention?
PEER AND SELF-MARKING
Get students a red or green pen and get them to mark their work and answers when you run through things at the end. When you’re questioning and getting answers, allow students correct and mark their own responses in a different colour so students elicit what they know and what they didn’t.
Students learn from their mistake yes, but only if a student can remember what the mistake was. Do it on the day with peer and self-marking. All their work should be check off by themselves, so they can leave your room confident in what they know, even if it turns out not to be 100% of what you wanted them to know.
The biggest trap we fall into is trying to comment on everything, and to get students to improve on everything we’ve read. It makes us feel better when we know there are lots of lovely comments throughout the books, and often this comes from a perceived pressure from parents rather than for students themselves.
You’d never dream of giving students 10 to 15 tasks to do as a starter of the lesson, asking many to redraft, evaluate, correct, think and generally go back through something from a cold start. But with marking we so often do.
You know that piece of work from your planned lesson that was on your calendar that you set up, read this first. Read from start to finish and write one comment with a task at the end. Keep it specific and better still, link it to the level of outcome you expected from the lesson.
So, for example, outcomes for my lesson on leaf structure (using solo, which I am a big advocate of) would read like this:
- Unistructural: Student can identify some key parts of leaf structure
- Multicultural: Student can write simple descriptions of what parts of the leaf are able to do
- Relational: Students can explain how the structures in the leaf work together to maximise photosynthesis.
- Extended abstract: Students will be able to apply understanding to new situations in a much specialised leaf structure such as marram grass.
With that in mind my comments would generally start to sound like this: “Well done in this piece of work you have reached (grade/level/descriptor) because I have seen great evidence of explaining how a leaf is adapted to its function.”
The task to improve should now be linked to the next outcome you would expect a student to reach, with some advice on how to get there. “To reach the next (grade/level/descriptor) I want you to apply your understanding of leaf structure to this diagram of marram grass, how is it adapted to live with little availability of water? (Hint, think about the positioning of the stoma and how air flow may or may not affect them, as a friend for help and use your revision guide should you need to).”
These comments will be similar with possibly only four versions for each student. So why not write these as grades for the class? The time you save, possibly an hour or more, can be used to add value to those comments. You can now add a paragraph to that student about the values they have in your lessons, subtle things to focus on and possible behaviour for learning. You now have high impact and high personalisation, all with a fraction of the time. Done.
That student now knows what they did, and what the next level of their understanding is. They can now give this a good go, working within their ZPD and making bridges of understanding that consolidate something they have already done.
REFLECT & REVIEW
Towards the end of the term I am now looking at the marks in the book that indicate to me which areas this student understood and which ones they didn’t. This is the powerful part of marking that we essentially are aiming for every time we mark every attempted piece of work. But often we are so exhausted of marking we lose focus on what it’s telling us about the student.
Change the game, get to the heart of the value of marking quicker. Which would you prefer, a student who has a teacher who marked every question, or a teacher who knows which areas students did well in and used their gained time to plan to mop up those misconceptions and errors?
5 Easy Marking Hacks
So, we’ve rewritten the game a little bit now, we are sharp and focused, and our feedback is worth reading and it’s not taken hours of personal sacrifice to do it. Your Sundays may once more feel like they belong to you again! So how do we speed it all up further?
Here are five simple but effective hacks to maximise time and reduce the impact of marking on our teacher’s lives:
- OPEN BOOKS
I recently got a student to time how long it took me to find the page I last marked in an exercise book. It took an average of seven seconds, nothing right? Well, if I have 10 classes of 30 students who I mark the book of every three weeks, the time taken to simply start where to mark is about 33,600 seconds. Just over nine hours a year! To claim it back, get students to stack their books open on the last page that was marked, then fold the books in half in groups of 10 to carry.
- PENS AND KIT
How many minutes do you waste finding a pen to mark with? Loads I’ll bet. Simply get two pencil cases, one that stays at home and one that stays at school. Keep them stocked and in a specific place. Be disciplined. Also, get a pen with flow. I have a set of Lamy fountain pens (mainly for my hipster image) but the benefit of marking with them is the pen flows. I can write clearly and quickly with little resistance, indefinitely more enjoyable then using a scratchy cheap pen.
- DIVIDE BY 30
Marking a set of books is not just one job, it is thirty mini-jobs. Break them up so you can take two jobs to morning briefing to go over whilst you wait, or so you can go to bed guilt free if there are some books not started. Create the mindset that it’s not one task, and it opens a world of possibilities about when and where you can mark.
Marking books whilst watching your favourite TV programme or checking Facebook every five minutes, all that leads to is a task you already don’t enjoy taking longer, and more importantly your favourite film doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Set yourself half an hour or even better an hour. Make a drink and go for a wee, then crack on, head down.
- GREET AND MEET
Stand in the door and speak to each student when they arrive, what does this have to do with marking? Simple, you are not reliant on checking on the understanding and attitude of students from their books, and it’s the best part of my day as a teacher.
Link it to marking even more strongly by getting students to complete exit tickets about our lesson. They could stick this into their exercise books, again helping you to cut to the chase of helping students to improve.