Mock season is upon us again, and, traditionally, it's a time that strikes fear into the heart of any essay-based-subject teacher.
Forget the ease of a right/wrong answer or multiple-choice question, instead we have hours of poring over dense pages of cramped handwriting. Marking in your frees, marking on your bus journey home, marking on your lunch break – a quick scroll through Twitter and Facebook confirms it: we're not alone. Everyone is drowning in marking.
But the fact is, this isn’t sustainable – and it’s not good for students’ progress either.
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This mock series, I resolved to do things another way, to ensure that the load was as equitable and – dare I say it? – interesting and useful as possible.
How to make marking mock exams less stressful
1. Equal, random allocation
Once students had completed the papers, I, as head of department, collected them and sorted them into randomised, equal piles. Bitter past experience had seen me hunched over a Sisyphean pile of top set papers while my colleagues teaching smaller classes who wrote less basked in the golden light of free time, their pupils’ scant answers marked in an afternoon.
Sharing of the load is the only equitable way to divide this task. It provides inbuilt moderation, too, on top of the explicit discussions we held around how marks were arrived at.
2. Everyone is involved
Everyone – Year 11 teacher or not – should have experience of what the current cohort is capable of. This year, I have ensured that early career teachers and trainees have a nominal allocation of three papers.
For these markers, I did not give a random sample but instead ensured that each had a higher end, a middle and a lower end answer alongside a range of marked responses in a "standardisation pack" for reference. This not only built confidence for their marking for future classes but also provided a valuable training opportunity, too, as non-Year 11 teachers’ allocations were "double-marked" in moderation conversations.
3. Embrace the learning
Teachers who survived the great teacher-assessed grades and centre-assessed grades debacle of the past few years are now well-used to interpreting essay mark schemes – and this means they are ideally placed to support their less-experienced colleagues.
This year, I carefully paired ECTs and non-Year 11 teachers with those of us who are more experienced, in order for us to work together in a collegiate way to not only assign marks but also to "see" the teaching of others – not only the disciplinary knowledge we’d expect in, say, an essay on Macbeth but also the procedural knowledge: the turn of a phrase, the structuring of points.
Collectively, this knowledge makes for stronger teaching within a department – not only in Year 11 but also in the crucial lower years where the foundations for success are laid.
4. The gift of time
For teachers of essay-based subjects, time is always at a premium. For too long, it has been blindly accepted that our marking is a burden we simply have to bear.
While it is true that there are "pinch points", we know they are coming and we can plan for them so there isn’t a build-up of marking from classes in lower years. A sensible discussion needs to be had around what is reasonable during heavy marking periods.
In our department, this means explicitly planning for lessons that will not require heavy marking: clear success criteria for students to self- or peer-assess, "show what you know" retrieval lessons (we use a clock face with the hour spokes extending out and give five minutes per segment), or knowledge organiser paired quizzing.
Department time must be given over to teachers. We held a working party (with copious amounts of tea and biscuits) from our directed time allocation that helped break the back of each teacher’s marking pile.
5. Constructive feedback
When I proposed randomised allocations, I was asked how teachers would know how their class did. This is very simple: raw marks are entered into a shared online spreadsheet, which teachers can then download and filter to their class. A simple colour-coding system for marks provides a clear overview of areas for celebration and improvement at cohort level, then once the marking/moderation deadline passes, Year 11 teachers then collect their papers back and read through, making notes specific to their class before delivering a bespoke whole-class feedback lesson. Again, this is delivered on a specific day so all classes receive their mark and areas for improvement at the same time.
Mock marking: equitable, useful and – dare I say it – fun? Perhaps not quite the latter, but it’s no longer the behemoth it once was.
Laura May Rowlands is head of English in a secondary school in Hampshire