Mark smart – cheats on getting it done.


Someone asked me the other day how I manage running a class full time plus phase leadership and assessment; this was on a week where I had long meetings on three out of the five days after school, plus I had lost a large chunk of PPA to a sick cover teacher. Just how do you get the marking done, let alone everything else?

Well, ‘I’m not gonna lie’ as they say, – it’s pretty damn hard, but I do look back and think ‘God! What did I do when I was just class teaching?’

Part of the trajectory to getting increasingly smart with your time as a teacher is experience. Remember being an NQT and marking thirty books took three hours? Well, those days are long gone – maybe an hour at the most these days. And, my marking is probably ten times better now. The trouble is that it’s easy giving tips and ideas, but it’s impossible to pass on years of experience. Teaching is like juggling and we know that takes a while to get good at and even then you still drop the ball.

However, when I sat thinking about just how much smarter I work than even five years ago, I can point to a few strategies that really help. Firstly, getting smarter with marking is essential and is one of the biggest obstacles to teachers feeling on top of things. It has to begin with following your school marking and feedback policy of course, but from what I can see, most schools are taking workload into account and not expecting in-depth marking of all children’s learning. So, step one: do you need to mark everything in detail? Is an acknowledgement tick OK for some pieces and if so can your TA help here drawing your attention later to any misconceptions found? Delegate any way you can – but always ensure you know what’s going on with your children and act on it – that’s the bottom line. No point in getting a TA to mark if you don’t share what he or she found out.

So, we agree that every piece of learning should be acknowledged and looked at by an adult – even if this is during the lesson, immediate feedback is the most effective of course. It is just not acceptable to have page after page of learning with no indication that an adult has ever seen it, even worse if the pages are full of errors and there is no evidence of the next lesson attending to these. It used to annoy me if I saw my children’s books like that – and I did quite often. Still, times have changed.

Whatever we think about accountability, we have to accept now that children’s books are pretty much public documents as well as their own workbooks. They are a record of a learning journey which includes the interaction between the child and their teacher and, whether we like it or not, showing learning and progress is how schools and teachers are judged now.  If teachers want to be judged on performance over time and not just on fleeting lesson observations then we need some tangible record of this. Sure, I could rant all day about the rights and wrongs of having to prove children’s learning to others rather than getting on with it all… Oh the frustrations of accountability swamping the endeavours of authentic education, but other people need to know children are learning and they need some form of evidence. Pick your battles – whether we should mark books isn’t one of them, but how you manage your marking might be.

So what about this in-depth marking? I know that lots of people debate whether the time spent on this is ever really worth it because some of the time you might as well just put all that into planning the next lesson.Yes, this is true, so that’s why in-depth marking everything is not productive- but careful planning is.  Also, if you open the books and everyone has made the same grievous error revealing a painful misconception then you’re better off teaching that concept again rather than wasting time marking all thirty books in the exact same way. However, in my experience that rarely happens – unless you mucked up the teaching in some way, then why didn’t you spot this common error during the lesson and change course then?

Mostly what happens in lessons is that 30% of pupils fly along with the concept and you’ll need to stretch their application of it (all that Blooms stuff), 50% will make the odd error, but just need deliberate and varied practice of the concept before applying it elsewhere and then there’s that 20% who just haven’t got the links to the concept yet and you need to deconstruct the process into smaller steps. I’d like to think that eventually everyone masters it – but hey, let’s get real – the spiralling curriculum and intervention groups have to apply now and then.) Hopefully, after a few sessions, that 20% have moved into the deliberate practice club and a lot of the 50% are ‘Blooming’ along synthesising and evaluating etc.

In this situation, in-depth marking, with each pupil spending time responding to it, does result in progress and, whether we like it or not, this interaction between you and  pupils needs to be evident to others. We’ve argued for years that it’s children’s learning that should be the focus rather than how teachers teach so now let’s try to make the most of it.  However, how we do this is what seems to be causing teachers problems.  So here are some ways to ‘mark smart’:

  • Mark while you teach – get those colour coded pens in your back pockets and after the children have got going, get round and dive into their books. Tick things that are on the right track, highlight things they need to spend more time on, then pop back to that child in a few minutes. This way you’re making your immediate feedback evident too. Why not write down a quick question for them to think about there and then – draw a fill-in bubble next to it for them to show their response. If they respond to marking in a different colour, ask them to here.
  • Self marking during the lesson– for some maths and some SPAG focus lessons, half way through the lesson stick the answers on the board and get the kids to mark their own in response pens. Then when they go back – travel around and pick up those who tripped up. Why not get a peer who got it correct to explain how to a child who got it wrong?
  • Self marking at the end of the lesson – this will you save time so you can focus on the more in-depth responses rather than working out who got what. Even a correct answer can be in-depth marked remember.

Marking outside the lesson:

  • Story time marking – so you have a meeting after school and there is no time to mark. What are your priorities? How will you know what the pitch is tomorrow too? Don’t take books home – that’s madness, 7am – 5pm is enough of a working day thanks. So get your TA to read a story for half an hour while you mark. If you haven’t got a TA, then get some quality CD stories; stick them on while you mark. Any school leader who frowns on this then I ask why? Of course putting on a DVD of Mulan for the eighteenth time is wrong, but why not let Roald Dahl do a bit of the work and let him tell them a story while you prioritise? My children love listening to stories and drawing at the same time at the end of the day.
  • Mark during independent afternoon sessions – Sometimes you look around the room and everyone is merrily getting on with things. It might be an art lesson for example, the music is playing and the children are enthralled in cutting up bits and making a collage. Again, you have a meeting after school (or something you need to leave early for) and it’s time for some in-depth marking. Grab five books and sit next to child who could do with a little support now and then. Multi-task and while you’re sat there mark those five books. Go back get another five books and move to another child if need be. This is like mum or dad helping with the homework while cooking dinner – nothing wrong with it now and then. Of course doing it every lesson wouldn’t be right at all– but use the children’s independence at times to help you manage things.

Now the next issue is which pieces should you in-depth mark then? As said, sensible marking and feedback policies won’t ask for every piece to be marked in detail, so which to choose? Well, here your knowledge and intuition as a teacher comes into play. Sometimes it’s a good idea to in-depth mark at the start of an area of learning so that misconceptions are hammered out, although often this isn’t the best place because the start is often the messy stage with errors all over the place that can be ‘quick ticked’ and fed into the next lesson. The middle part is a good place when children are getting to grips with a concept and right in that zone of proximal development  so some in-depth feedback and marking might drag them across to the that place they would have not otherwise got to. Then again, this might be at the end of unit or area too. Only you can really know the answer to this from the feel you have for the learning that’s going on. One thing is for sure – in-depth marking say ‘every Wednesday’ kind of loses the point – in-depth mark when it’s going to help children go further, not because it’s Wednesday.

Also – remember that writing long messages is a waste of time. Research has shown that children don’t read it all and the time it takes to do that doesn’t match the learning gain. I’d say never write much more than one or two sentences and think about effective marking: focus on the learning intention and don’t fall into the trap of marking every error, less is more. Also think about the range of types of marking: scaffold, inform, prompt etc.

So – I do think teachers can get smarter with marking and there are ways they can help themselves, not just with the colour codes and brightly coloured pens, but also with the physical plate spinning of it all. School leaders should support this too.  I expect some of this is deeply patronising and will cause some teachers to roll their eyes, but some teachers I know need to give themselves permission to get smarter and it will serve them and the children better if they do.