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24 January 2022
By Zoe Enser

English Network Meeting: Easing the Marking Load

Marking has for a long time been an area which often directly conflicts with workload. This was always especially the case in English and other literacy-based subjects, where a day of even 4 classes could easily equate to 120 books, all with substantial pieces of work to be marked. Multiply that by 5 days and we are easily talking about 600 books which even the niftiest marker is going to find hard to be able to cover.

This difficulty is why Heads of English decided to explore this topic in our regular network meeting on 18th January to see if through sharing different practices we could continue to make the most of the time we devote to this to improve pupil outcomes, without watching teachers drown under a pile of paper and marking pens.

The first thing we considered was the purpose of marking. Who was it for and what did they gain from this? Historically marking policies have been directed from on-high, with a focus on what leaders might need to look at, visitors and parents. Amongst this was a vague nod to the benefits to pupils, and finally a possible reference to the purpose for teachers. This has led us down the path of triple marking, weekly or fortnightly marking policies and tick list cultures where, as long as there is a bit of pen in the book, the outcomes of the marking don’t really matter.

I have long been a proponent of switching this whole process on its head and starting with what it is that teachers and pupils need to know, and then maybe turning attention to the other groups. Ultimately teachers are the ones who need to know what pupils do and don’t know and what they have the ability to do as they are the ones who are going to be planning the next steps and providing the feedback to pupils which will allow them to progress in their learning. The DfE’s 2016 document ‘Eliminating Excessive Marking, states:

'marking should serve a single purpose – to advance pupil progress and outcomes. Teachers should be clear about what they are trying to achieve and the best way of achieving it. Crucially, the most important person in deciding what is appropriate is the teacher. Oral feedback, working with pupils in class, reading their work – all help teachers understand what pupils can do and understand. Every teacher will know whether they are getting useful information from their marking and whether pupils are progressing.'

This focus on purpose for me is key if we are to get marking and feedback right.

With this idea of purpose in mind we went on to explore what some of the evidence suggests for our contexts, reflecting on current practices in relation to feedback not marking. The EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit focuses closely on this idea of feedback, stating:

  1. Providing feedback is a well-evidenced and has a high impact on learning outcomes. Effective feedback tends to focus on the task, subject and self-regulation strategies: it provides specific information on how to improve.
  2. Feedback can be effective during, immediately after and some time after learning. Feedback policies should not over specify the frequency of feedback
  3. Feedback can come from a variety of sources ¬– studies have shown positive effects of feedback from teachers and peers. Feedback delivered by digital technology also has positive effects (albeit slightly lower than the overall average).
  4. Different methods of feedback delivery can be effective and feedback should not be limited exclusively to written marking. Studies of verbal feedback show slightly higher impacts overall (+7 months). Written marking may play one part of an effective feedback strategy – but it is crucial to monitor impacts on staff workload.
  5. It is important to give feedback when things are correct ¬– not just when they are incorrect. High-quality feedback may focus on a task, subject, and self-regulation strategies.

It is important teachers are aware of what pupils know/can do and making use of formative assessments as part of our day-to-day teaching allows us to make quick decisions and provide timely feedback to avoid misconceptions and guide pupils’ practise and understanding. However, we still have lessons where pupils complete longer tasks and assessments and deciding how to best mark and feedback around this is important.

Some of the strategies which are being used across schools in Kent (and elsewhere I am sure) are listed here:

  • Prioritise formative assessment not summative (summative assessments are most useful in English at the end of a key stage or as a temperature check throughout a course and to look at the bigger picture). High quality formative assessment allows for responsive teaching which works to close gaps.
  • Verbal individual feedback which can be acted upon in the next stage and is immediate.
  • Live marking in class. Visualisers can also be a good way to mark pieces together and for pupils to act on advice in real time.
  • Whole Class Feedback (WCF). Some have made good use of marking codes which again make this process much quicker.
  • Comparative Judgement. This won’t necessarily save loads of time, but it will be more accurate and meaningful ensuring the time spent can have greater impact.
  • Self-marking (using technology as well as traditional methods)
  • Multiple choice questions or short responses instead of longer assessment pieces.
  • Focused marking/ focused writing where pupils work on one particular element or identify an area they want feedback on.

We spent quite some time exploring each of these methods, especially comparative judgement, with a number of schools making effective use of non-more marking, which is proving to not only lead to more precise judgement, but also to CPD for teams who are seeing how others are approaching the questions.
However, importantly we returned to the key point in the EEF Guidance on Feedback which says

'not all feedback has positive effects. Done badly, feedback can even harm progress. Nor is feedback ‘free’. Large amounts of time are spent providing pupils with feedback, perhaps not always productively. So how can we ensure that the feedback provided by teachers to pupils is useful and moves learning forward?'

Just as we need to be selective with our marking and mindful of its consequences, so we need to be selective and thoughtful with our approaches to feedback. One department leader has been having success with delayed feedback, ensuring that pupils reflect on their work right at the point that they will be using it next. Feeding forward into their work and ensuring the change happens in the pupil not the work. This is also a good way to utilize metacognitive thinking as they have to return to a piece and reflect before moving forward.

As with anything we do in our classes we really do want to ensure it is of maximum benefit to our pupils. Deep marking is a huge investment of time, so we really need to know it is going to have an impact where it is needed most.

However, when you have a pile of essays to mark, thinking about how you might make use of impression marking, peer and self-assessment and whole class feedback certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing.

In the second half of the session, we explored uptake at Key Stage 5 and what approaches people have used to continue to encourage pupils to want to engage with our subject beyond the compulsory stage. But that is a story for another day.

Resources and Further Reading

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