I’ve been reading a few things recently about marking and thought I would consolidate these into how I am going to tweak things next term in my classes.
Marking is often cited as one of the biggest causes of workload pressure and thus dissatisfaction with teaching. Probing deeper, I think it is the time taken and the monotony of marking that is the problem, not the actual activity itself. Most teachers would agree that personalised feedback is a crucial aspect of learning. I often feel a stronger personal connection with my students on marking their work. And I think they usually like to see comments in their book. But how many times have you spent maybe 2 hours wading through a class set of books and at the end asked yourself the question, “Was that really worth it?” or “What else could I have done in that time?”
In my experience, there are two types of marking:
Marking tests and assignments
It is impossible to avoid the first one. The department head or KS coordinator sets these, they have to be done at the same time by all classes and once they are marked the data has to be entered on a spreadsheet usually within a week or so. At least that has been my experience. I find this work usually gets bumped to the weekend. It’s fairly mundane, but takes longer if tired, so it usually ends up being a Saturday or Sunday morning job. The outcome of this effort is useful as it gives us insight into individual student’s progress and can (although often doesn’t) highlight specific topics which need to be retaught across the whole class. I try to be ruthlessly efficient when doing this type of marking: no comments, just marks, but it can be helpful to scribble down some notes as you go on how to plan the next lesson. I’ve written before about ideas for how this can be done in Giving the Tests Back. It’s the type of marking you get quicker at with practice, but it is still a fairly significant workload. In my view we shouldn’t be doing more than 3 per year per class and they should be spread out evenly. I’d be interested to hear comments on that number by the way!
Final point on tests – how effective are you at enforcing exam conditions in a classroom of 30+ students? Especially if you want to use the time to get on with something else. Eyes wander, you might read them all the riot act at the start and that might have some impact, but make sure you take all those test results with a pinch of salt.
So, on to book marking. The fact that marking tests and assignments is non-optional and book marking is, let’s say, less non-optional, means that book marking invariably gets squeezed. A typical school or department policy might state that books should be marked every two weeks. In reality that often doesn’t happen and for good reason – there are better things to do! Personally I wouldn’t go so far as Giving feedback the ‘Michaela’ way which espouses simply browsing books frequently and making separate notes, so not putting any mark on a child’s work. It’s an interesting post (written from the perspective of an English teacher but equally valid for Maths) but I feel that pupils expect something in their book from their teacher. Personally, I have no interest in providing evidence to Ofsted or anyone else (if you want to provide useful feedback on my teaching that will help me improve, I’ll listen, but if you don’t trust me as a professional to do what I need to do, then I’ll go do this somewhere else!). But, rightly or wrongly the students I teach have come to expect teachers to mark their books and it damages my relationship with them if it doesn’t happen.
A desire I have often heard expressed is to establish a “marking dialogue” in books. The student writes a response next to each of your scribblings. So, as a teacher, you try to phrase a question to elicit a response. e.g. “What have you forgotten to do here?” But the risk here is that the question is too hard and the response is “I don’t know” – pointless. Alternatively, you may trigger a valid question back from the student, but that question is likely to go unanswered. Are you really going to go back over all of the previous comments next time you take the books in? It gets somewhat unwieldy and falls squarely into the bucket of “I could be doing something better with this time!”
So I felt enlightened when I saw this recently on @reflectivemaths blog:
Instead of writing the same thing in 10 exercise books, you have a key. I mean, it’s not rocket science, but I like the use of symbols. There are 2 brilliant reasons why this works:
1, You are marking with purpose. Obviously it saves you time writing, but more than that, you can probably anticipate what the comments will be before you start marking based on the work you did in class. If you have a go at writing these down first you are looking to use them and I can just see that process being more purposeful and quicker. I would want to include specific positive comments too, e.g. “You have mastered cancelling down fractions”. I would also use this for additional questions for students to have a go at.
2, It provides a structure for student engagement with your marking. There is nothing worse than spending two hours marking a set of books to then watch students spent 30 seconds looking at it followed by the conclusion, “meh”. For our own sanity (!), we should be spending 10 minutes of the following lesson making sure that students are properly engaging with the feedback and, more importantly, self-reflecting on their learning. So you put your key on the board and they copy down the comment next to the symbol. I would also ask them to write a statement saying whether or not they agree. Realistically, I’m never going to look at that statement but the point is that it has got them to engage.
It is completely flexible and specific to the work you have been doing. And you can always add new symbols as you go, there are plenty to chose from!
So, that’s my plan for next term. What’s yours?