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An alternative approach to deep marking pupils’ work

Here are some ways schools can modernise their marking practices, while still providing students with the helpful feedback they need.

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Despite developments in educational technology, which can improve efficiency, providing in-depth written feedback to pupils to help improve their performance is still valuable.

But triple marking is hugely time-consuming. With a heavy workload cited by 40% of teachers as a reason they would quit the profession, and 62% of respondents (in a 2019 NEU poll) saying this is something they intend to do within the next five years, it pays to consider the alternatives.

Helping to reduce the burden of deep marking, here are some ways schools can modernise their marking practices, while still providing students with the feedback they need.

Distinguish between work that needs deep marking and work that doesn’t

No government or Ofsted policy ever set deep marking as standard (although Ofsted has been cited as the original promoter of extensive written feedback).

Despite this, a 2016 DfE report found marking in schools to be excessive in nature, depth and frequency. In response, the DfE set out its pivotal workload principles, which discouraged activities like triple marking. However, three years later, and despite under 10% of educators thinking their workloads are manageable, these activities are still widespread.

“There is remarkably little high-quality, relevant research evidence to suggest that detailed or extensive marking has any significant impact on pupils’ learning.” Sean Harford, HMI National Director for Education

So, a necessary first step to tackling the issue of marking is for school leadership teams to recognise that it is unfeasible to deep mark every piece of work.

For example, teachers don’t need to explain careless mistakes or typos. Instead, it is far more critical that educators focus on underlying misunderstandings rather than occasional lapses. A simple cross beside silly mistakes is clear enough.

Likewise, grading every piece of work is also seen as excessive and even counterproductive, according to research by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). One reason being that pupils end up concentrating solely on the grade rather than formative comments.

Use peer and self-assessment

Another alternative to deep marking is for teachers to mark only the final draft of any work. Before this, students should be encouraged to correct errors through more purposeful self and peer assessment.

As well as removing some of the burden from teachers, peer assessment can have an enormous impact on a student’s understanding of key teaching points. It also helps learners to support each other and boosts progress.

To maximise peer/self-assessment in the classroom educators should:

  • Establish a clear assessment criterion that is easy for students to understand
  • Make sure pupils provide reasons for their feedback and encourage them to explain how work could be improved
  • Use anonymous examples of work to make the process as fair and as positive as possible
  • Make assessment a core part of the lesson rather than a bolt-on at the end
  • Use technology to support this process and boost collaboration and communication
  • Provide feedback on the peer/self-assessments to help them improve the standard of critique

Change your marking policy

To tackle the marking challenge, some schools are adopting a far more radical approach.

For example, Shaw Primary Academy in Thurrock has implemented a whole new style of marking which completely eliminates the need for teachers to mark books at home.

This system involves signs and symbols which enables teachers to quickly and effectively mark pupils’ work during the school day. Written feedback is only ever given during lessons and teachers compile one single summary sheet at the end of each day highlighting the specific actions they will take in future lessons (e.g. working directly with a child, changing a group, offering some advice, providing more challenging work etc.). If a pupil features in this summary sheet then a specific symbol is placed in their book and they know to ask the teacher what they need to do differently.

Other educators have adopted a ‘no marking policy’, where (for a set period) teachers don’t mark any work at all. Instead, they analyse work for common errors and misunderstandings and use these findings as to the basis for teaching in the next lesson.

“After over two years of working in this way, our system is now very well embedded and has had a noticeable effect on pupil progress… The children love it, the teachers love it and it’s really effective.” Clare Sealy, Headteacher, St Matthias School

Providing feedback to students with advice on how to improve is hugely important. But there is a difference between feedback and marking, and, in many cases, verbal feedback can be done more quickly and more efficiently. So, another way that schools can avoid over-marking is to establish a feedback policy through which comment is provided in one of three of ways:

  • Immediate feedback at the point of teaching
  • Summary feedback at the end of each lesson/task
  • Review feedback away from the point of teaching (including written comments).

“Perhaps the most valuable feedback that happens in schools has nothing to do with marking: it is the feedback a teacher gathers as a lesson progresses. That is where real immediate action can have immediate impact”. Michael Tidd, Headteacher

Use technology to reduce the burden of deep marking

According to the EEF’s research, using real-time assessment processes to identify their pupils’ strengths and weaknesses — and adapting teaching methods to this knowledge — has shown to boost student progress. And here technology can really help. Indeed, real-time assessment tools (such as class polls, end of lesson surveys and anonymous quizzes) are incredibly effective in raising student attainment, increasing positive student outcomes, and improving their ability to learn new topics.

What’s more, by giving pupils the scope to work using a medium they feel comfortable with, such as mobile devices or on interactive front of class technology, teachers get a more accurate picture of their pupils’ motivation and understanding.

Technology can even be used to support rather than replace deep marking while reducing the burden on teachers. For example, with the Promethean ActivPanel learners can benefit from real-time assessment with teachers providing live feedback before making a final assessment. So, with this approach schools can deploy the same sort of amending process, without the massive amount of marking work more traditional deep-learning methods require.

The verdict

Variety and fresh thinking are crucial in modern education, and assessment is no exception. To boost student progress and attainment, and support teachers, student assessment should be approached from multiple angles, using different mediums and approaches.