Marking and Workload

November 9, 2013

I’ve written before  about the ridiculous size of the teacher’s workload and my views on workload will colour completely what I am about to say about marking.

While I haven’t looked into the empirical evidence for this, there appears to be something of a consensus about marking, based on the following points.

  1. Marking is more effective if it provides useful feedback for improvement.
  2. Marking is even more effective, if students can be made to pay attention to this feedback; for instance, by giving them time in lessons in which they have to respond to it in writing.

Now, I am not going to try to make a case for this, it just seems to be the settled consensus and I don’t know of an argument against it (although I’d be fascinated to hear one). What I am about to say, the heresy I am about to commit, does not involve denying any of the above. However, despite accepting both claims I would like to make a case for “flick and tick”; for brief marking based on a half-arsed skimming of what is in a student’s book. Yes, that’s right. I am going to argue that the teacher who just puts a tick on every page and occasionally writes “well done” or “not enough work” is not actually a monster.

Workload is the issue. It is not necessarily helpful to tell a teacher a way to be more effective if it will add to their workload. If you work a full time table, and quite possibly if you don’t, there are dozens of things you could do if only you had more time. It is easy to find more ways to be more effective.

You could:

  • create the perfect resource for your next lesson;
  • differentiate more;
  • eat healthily and exercise;
  • phone home to (or invite in) the parents of that one particularly difficult kid
  • ask for your union’s help in stopping SMT obstructing you
  • put that thing you were going to write on the board onto a powerpoint;
  • tidy your classroom;
  • perfect your seating plans;
  • observe highly effective colleagues;
  • get enough sleep;
  • chase up that kid who owes you a detention.

There is always something extra to do. Knowing the most effective way of marking is only of limited help. What teachers actually need is the most efficient way of marking: the method of marking that will do the most good in the least time. And if you have anything other than the most committed and motivated students, or classes so small you can check classwork in the lesson, the biggest pay-off from every minute spent marking is going to be from the time spent simply checking that the kids have been working in the lesson and identifying and warning the kids who aren’t, and the time spent making it clear to the hard-working kids that you have looked in their books and you are aware of, and appreciate, all they’ve done.

Now, I am making no claim that this alone is particularly effective when compared with other types of marking. I am simply claiming that for many classes it has more effect per minute of marking that any other form of marking. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aspire to do more, or to find efficient ways to do more (like here and here), but that it would be best to do this minimum level of marking for all our classes as often as possible, before we do anything else. Moreover, I would claim that detailed marking policies that lay out how to do effective marking, not to mention OFSTED descriptions of what marking should be like, actually prove to be counter-productive because of this. Teachers end up marking less often; neglecting particular classes; putting off marking until they have more time and generally failing to check often enough in books that kids are doing work because they feel that they don’t have enough time to mark properly. The more elaborate the marking policy, the less motivated any teacher will be to open a book and mark.

Ultimately, this is a case of the excellent driving out the good. Teachers should know the best type of marking. They should do the best type of marking when they have the time. But the more important thing is that they do mark and do mark everything, not just the class where they are going to be observed next or have a book scrutiny soon. That should be the priority, getting it done rather than getting it done perfectly. Marking policies, and efforts to enforce them, are a hindrance, not a help.

When I was a part-timer I believe I marked more work in more detail, at least in certain key stages, than anyone in my department and it appeared to be effective. When I was full time, I might go through bursts of marking effectiveness, but ultimately it got like this:

When I worked at places with big classes (like an FE college or a grammar school) it was simply assumed that no full-time teacher would ever mark classwork, only tests and homework.

I would add to this that marking policies are also often arbitrary. They are are often either too general and cannot be applied to every subject effectively or, when they have been delegated to Heads of Department, too specific and cannot be applied to every teacher effectively. They are unnecessary paperwork, designed to deal with the lesser evil (the teacher who marks all their books but ineffectively) by ignoring bigger evils (the teacher who does not mark all their books, or the workload that means the teacher cannot mark all their books). If your policy assumes that the same sort of marking fits maths and English, or that the same practices suit those who see 500 kids once a week as those who see 80 kids 5 times a week, then your policy is worthless. If your review of marking finds that only those with a reduced teaching load (be they part timers, managers, NQTs or people teaching small groups or lessons in a subject of key stage with less marking) are following the marking policy then the problem is not your teachers, the problem is your policy. Frankly, you might as well bin any marking policy other than this one:

Mark as much as you can, as well as you can, in whichever way you find most effective and, remember, don’t make yourself ill in the process.

Everything else is just arse-covering and delusion.


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Your marking policy sounds like the best one. I find marking policies per se to be insulting. I feel like im not being trusted to do my job.

  3. shared on FB. Great post.

  4. Yes, you’re absolutely right. This present rabid obsession with marking is another manifestation of the zero-sum view of education. It’s also more evidence of how decoupled policy is becoming from the actuality of delivering it.

  5. Reblogged this on Do Less, But Better and commented:
    Andrew Old’s advice on organising marking policies to make it both effective and manageable.

  6. In many ways I agree with you, but I am quite pleased that the importance of marking is finally being recognised, The biggest problem with it as you say is when there is an insistence on all the extra rubbish eg different coloured pens ‘catch phrases’ and nit picking book scrutinies written by middle managers covering their backsides, I know we are not the only school to suffer the ‘now verbal feedback must be written down’ nonsense.

    When I was a girl … teachers marked all the time – we did our corrections frequently. As they gave the books out they told you what they thought of the work and indicated whether your effort was enough. They didn’t write it down. When people talk about building positive relationships I used to think that’s what they meant. My teachers didn’t have to mark coursework. Personally I think that when coursework/CA finally goes that will do more to alleviate our workload than anything. ‘Gove drastically reduces teachers’ workload.’ That’s an interesting headline.

    But I think marking is important and I would prioritise it before many things. It saves on planning, it directs your planning and it helps with behaviour because the children know you are on their case – always.

  7. Totally agree. I’m retweeting this. I think the teacher’s humanity needs to come across to the pupil when marking – not just some clinical formula. Too much work is done on mini whiteboards now so that the teacher does not feel obligated to do any marking. Fine when it’s truly fit-for-purpose but not fine as a marking cop-out. It’s overdue that teachers constantly ask managers for the ‘time management studies’ as more and more gets placed on the list of detailed things the teacher must do. X

  8. At the start of last year we had an INSET where SLT presented the following argument:

    1) According to Hattie “feedback” is the thing teachers do that has the most impact on pupil progress.
    2) This incredibly impractical and virtually unmanageable way of marking results in “feedback”.
    3) Therefore we must all follow this new marking policy

    I agreed with 1) up to a point. By this I mean that I agree that Hattie said that the effect size of diagnostic marking and feedback are high. I don’t particularly agree that feedback is more important than other things. 2) is indisputably correct. Where I had the problem was the assumption that 3) logically follows from 1) and 2).

    Unfortunately my tendency to be irreverent and facetious kicked in and I had to point out that giving any pupil who gets anything wrong a hefty kick up the arse would also be “feedback” and therefore by the same reasoning and application of logic we should all buy some steel toe capped boots…

  9. As a full timer struggling to improve the effectiveness of marking I must admit that getting a regular view of work done is valuable both to assess achievement and to help with planning. Finding marking for literacy as a science teacher has added a lot to workload though, I want to focus on the science!

  10. I hate marking books. I like marking tests and independent work. I just have to remember to stick tests and marked pieces in students books at appropriate intervals…

  11. […] stories of schools forcing teachers to mark in completely impractical ways (the inspiration behind my last blogpost) because the OFSTED handbook talks about “Consistently high quality marking and constructive […]

  12. […] A thought provoking and well argued post here on from Andrew Old on marking and workload. […]

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