'How I minimised marking and reclaimed my weekend'

11th June 2017 at 16:01
Marking ruins many a teacher's weekend, but Mark Enser believes he has found a way to avoid the written feedback trap

Stand in a school staff car park on a Friday afternoon, watch the teachers leave and count the number of them who emerge blinking into the sunlight burdened by piles of books.

I will guarantee that it will be the majority of them.

Some stuff the books into a bag for life, others in boxes. I have even known some teachers to buy special carts on wheels in order to get their teetering piles of marking to the car.

Some of these books will never get further than the hall, where they will sit all weekend in silent reproach and cast a shadow over any attempt to relax. Others will be hastily marked on a Sunday morning, while the kids are busy, or will drag out and dominate the whole weekend.

How did it come to this?

A report from the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group, titled Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking, hit the nail on the head when it said:

“Marking has evolved into an unhelpful burden for teachers, when the time it takes is not repaid in positive impact on pupils’ progress. This is frequently because it is serving a different purpose, such as demonstrating teacher performance or to satisfy the requirements of other, mainly adult, audiences.”

Here is the heart of the issue. Marking stopped being about supporting pupil progress and started being about collecting evidence. It is time for this to change.

A report by Hattie and Timperley, The Power of Feedback (2007), reinforces that feedback can, indeed, have a powerful effect on pupil progress – but this feedback need not be marking.

There are, in fact, many ways in which feedback can be more effective and, importantly for us, more efficient. Here are five ways I minimised marking and reclaimed my weekend.

Reduce the need

The first way to reduce the amount of marking you do is to reduce the need for marking. Reduce the number of errors in students' work. I remember, in my early years of teaching, painstakingly going through a class set of books and correcting the same errors on page after page. If you notice the same errors creeping in to many pupils' work, you are better off reteaching the topic than marking the errors.

Redraft and proof-read

Before a pupil hands in a piece of work for you to look at, I’d suggest asking them to proofread it and make any corrections first (sometimes I will insist on a certain number of corrections before I will look at it). Self-assessment is fraught with difficulties, but if you share a very clear success criterion for a task they should be able to make considerable improvements before it ever reaches you.

I might include things like:

  • Check you have made mention of which option is most sustainable
  • Check that each point is supported with evidence
  • Check every time you have used there and their
     

In an exam, and more importantly in life, they will not always have access to immediate feedback and we need to eventually break this reliance and build self-regulation. This is a good first step.

Use verbal feedback

I’m not sure when or why it was decided that the ultimate form of feedback should be written, as it is often hugely inefficient. During a lesson, circle the room and give verbal feedback on aspects of their work as they are completing it.

This works best for simple tasks. For example, I know that no matter how clearly I explain how to create climate graphs, some pupils will confuse their line graph and their bar graph. I want to nip this in the bud before practice becomes permanent.

One of the most powerful ways of reducing your marking load is to mark books during the lesson with the pupil, giving verbal feedback as you look through their book with them. This allows them to get specific feedback on their work and have a conversation about the improvements that are needed.

Whole-class marking

I have lost count of the number of times I have written "you need to explain your answers" in pupils’ books. Or “explain why you have discounted the other options”. Or “back up your argument with evidence”.

I have now stopped. It is inefficient. When I look through a pile of books I make a note of the common errors and then go through the list with the class so that they can see if the error applies to their work make the corrections needed.

This works especially well for exam papers, where the same issues tend to come up for each question. I’ll go through the paper with the class, one question at a time, and explain the errors made as they annotate their paper with these comments.

Quiz

One of the main purposes of feedback is for us, as teachers, to know what the pupils do and don’t know. Looking in their books can often be ineffective for this, as their work may not reveal what has actually stuck.

A better method may be a quick quiz at the start of the lesson: 10 questions on one slide, answers on the next. Mark each other's. “Hand up who got question 1 right?” etc. Effective and efficient feedback and not a red pen in sight.

Mark Enser is Head of Geography at Heathfield Community College. He blogs at teachreal.wordpress.com

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