Summer marking shouldn't end in penalties for teachers

Marking is a stressful and lengthy process – and this summer it has been especially challenging, writes Rufus Reich

Rufus Reich

Exams and assessment: Summer marking shouldn't penalise teachers in FE colleges

Marking season is here again and this brings with it those long sessions of sitting down with a pile of papers and a cup of tea that nearly always grows cold before it is fully finished. Since Covid started, I have found working from home allows for fewer distractions (such as less office noise), more regularly brewed pots of Earl Grey and, overall, a faster working process – even if England in the Euro 2020 football tournament did slow things a bit. But marking this year has brought some problems for many tutors I know who have been really up against it to get everything completed ahead of tight deadlines. 

Colleges are keen to support students by giving deadline extensions where there are "mitigating circumstances". The range of these is wide and any request for more time is generally accepted. The effect of this may be positive for students, but for teachers, it creates bottlenecks. Instead of incoming papers being staggered at a gradual rate, they tend to arrive in floods and bursts. A colleague was faced with marking 70 papers in two days – which, without stopping for meals and sleep, is probably possible. 

Summer is also a time for staff training. Students are away, teaching schedules are empty and there is time for such fun events. But again, where marking bottlenecks occur, these can lead to clashes. Being expected to attend compulsory training sessions when papers are waiting on a tight turnaround schedule adds further stress. Inevitably, people are pushed into working hours beyond their contract to fit things in, with any expectation of recharging your mental batteries over the summertime placed indefinitely on hold.

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Something has to give and it frequently does in the form of people being forced to phone in sick later on to restore some sense of balance. 

The pressure of summer marking

Marking also nearly always throws up some form of controversy or other. People may be marking to different standards or to widely varying interpretations of the marking scheme. Exam questions may, in hindsight, have failed to match the learning objectives as closely as desired. Clashes and power struggles may emerge where marking and assessment values are in conflict – with the whispered slurs of "grammar Nazis" and "grammar anarchists" applied by ideologically opposed camps of assessors.

Calibration of marking is something that should be undertaken ahead of marking season, of course. But, again, time constraints often mean that such planning only gets born out of resultant chaos rather than wise foresight. Instead, ad hoc decision making tends to fill the void with hastily convened chats to discuss particular papers where a wide divergence of appraisal has occurred. This is fine where colleagues can agree in a mature fashion – or even disagree. But sometimes it can lead to hurt feelings and a sense of one’s professionalism being disrespected where roughshod decisions are taken. 

The greatest danger in the marking process is fatigue. After so many exam papers, and undrunk cuppas forgotten in the fray, the eyes tend to glaze over, followed by the 1,000-yard stare out of the window. It must be how prisoners feel after sowing mail bags all day long. The spirit floats away into the clouds whilst the body sadly waits for its return, whereupon the marking struggle will recommence. Fatigue leads to heuristic marking where instead of reading each individual paper carefully, it becomes equated with a previous paper of the same approximate standard and comments applied become generalised and standard. This does not mean the grade awarded is necessarily wrong but it can raise the chance of comments later being disputed by an aggrieved student.   

Marking is a time-consuming business, because for it to be done to a high standard, teachers much approach each paper feeling energised and fresh. Unfortunately, summer exam marking is too often treated like a factory production line with teachers expected to churn out graded paper upon graded paper without end. If breaks, meals and sleep can be factored into the process then surely life is better for all. And there is no reason why this should not be the case. A simple algorithm could be devised such that where bottlenecks do occur, teachers whose ratio of papers to mark per hour exceeds a certain limit could have the flexible option of extra time – and without incurring penalties. That way, no one loses. (Sorry, I could not resist the football pun.) 

Rufus Reich is a pseudonym. The writer is a FE lecturer in England

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