How I (Want To) Mark

After joining (read: barging in on) a Twitter discussion on marking between @HThompson1982 and others, I thought it might be worth blogging a little. I wanted to think through what marking should be, what it is, and how I personally try to bridge the gap between them. Basically, you see, blogging is my chance to reflect on what I’m doing, what’s working and what isn’t; that you people also read my wittering is just a bonus.

thanks to @mrgpg for making me aware of this stamp

What it should be

There are many purposes and many ways to mark, but in the end it should come down to just two reasons.

  • To help students get better at what they do.
  • To check that they’re actually doing what we expect of them.

I suppose you could add a third reason – because my HoD tells me to – which is fairly depressing, when you think about it. It’s more likely that department or school policy will influence how you mark, which is not always according to best practice. Like most of us, I don’t enjoy marking but try not to get too behind.

What it should do

A lot of research – familiar to anyone who’s read work by Black, Marzano, Hattie – has shown that students respond best to comments that don’t include a grade. I found the discussion in Alfie Kohn’s article The Case Against Grades particularly interesting. A grade distracts students from the comment – which is where the formative assessment lies.

This doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t consider the level of a students’ work. It just means that giving that level at the time is counterproductive. That grade is only a snapshot anyway, of what students achieved on one task, perhaps with help, perhaps rushed over breakfast. What is much more useful is to give students an overall assessment, regularly, but emphasizing that this is an overview. I dislike the word holistic, but I gues that’s what I mean. Grades for individual pieces may be recorded, but should be detached from the comments.

The point of marking is almost always formative assessment. It should tell us how they’re doing, add to our overview of how the class is doing (and by implication, how well we have taught a particular aspect), and guide the next steps for student and teacher. far too often we note what is wrong with work, students skim it, then make exactly the same mistakes next time. Because there are no consequences.

Different settings have different rules on what we should look for while marking. You will have your own opinions on what matters most. In general, I would see five categories of mistake that will need some kind of feedback:

  • Content – where students show by their answers that they have failed to understand the science
  • Maths – equations, arithmetic, standard form, graphs…
  • Literacy – misplaced apostrophes are my personal obsession, but spelling can also be a never-ending task
  • Presentation – yes, it does matter, if students are to read their notes and learn/revise from them
  • Effort – missing, incomplete, rushed or plagiarised work may reflect misunderstanding, but is still a choice by the student

You may find it challenging when ‘expected practice’ in your setting is not the same as the best evidence-based practice around. Ideally, raising the evidence within your department or during INSET – perhaps offering to lead some CPD – might have a positive effect. Be wary of subverting accepted policies if you are not in a position of responsibility/power. Or start looking elsewhere.


When work is marked in class, using ideas from the students and as a chance for students to see each other’s work and wording, part of the activity should always be to make it better. Too often, this doesn’t happen when we mark folders or books. Students should understand the expectation that they will learn from what we have written down. We should not have to repeat ourselves, any more than we would in class when telling them something. Feedback is the start of a conversation, where students show by word or action that they have taken on board what we suggest.

Ideally, we could identify the problem, perhaps provide a hint and let them figure out the remedy. This might be by reminding them of a page reference, formula or agreed layout (“working?” for example). We could refer them to a board display, or a checklist they (should) have to hand. Giving them a direct instruction may not be as effective, as it means they can be obedient without understanding why. This means there’s a higher chance of repeat offending. If we need to make the same comment the next time their work is marked, something hasn’t worked. If they make progress, then as well as getting better at our subject they’ve learned how to improve how they learn.

I try to include a time limit on actions; this may be implicit, for example by the next time work is marked. I’m experimenting with a feedback page at the back of folders, where students add a summary of what they need to do, change or remember based on my comments. The aim is for them to refer to this, a personal checklist of past errors, before attempting future work.

Making it easier

This is yet another one of those areas which work much better if there is a unified, consistent approach. Students need to know from you – and from your colleagues, in your department and others – will expect them to act on feedback. The progress they make, or fail to make, should result in appropriate consequences. How you work this is up to you, but notes home for positive progress – even a line in a HW diary – can have a huge impact. You wouldn’t make a kid wait until parents’ evening to pass on the bad stuff, so why fail to recognise the good promptly? Like most teachers, I need to be better at this. It all takes so much time, doesn’t it?

Save time by getting kids into good habits early. Give time in lessons for them to act on feedback, proofread work, transfer comments into reminders in a personal checklist, refer to a dictionary or borrow a ruler for that table. Make sure they know that the changes will help them, that they are not for the teacher’s benefit. There’s a lot going round at the moment about marginal gains, and this is a good example.

Comments that you need to write a lot – about graphs, perhaps, underlining titles, or praising good use of detail – can be printed on stickers (or stamped, see above) for speed. This saves longer comments being abbreviated when you’re rushing, or being completely illegible. Each time you mark work, write yourself a prompt in your planner to speak to a couple of kids, in detail, individually – different ones each time. Each half term this will give you a mini-tutorial with every child in the class.


So, this is your chance to practise what you preach. Choose one aspect of your marking that could be better. Spend a few minutes figuring out a way to make it better – perhaps steal some ideas from a colleague, at your school or online. Ask if you can flick through someone else’s marked books for tips. Then focus on that every time you mark work for the next month. Tell me what I’ve missed in the comments below!

This is what I’m doing at the moment; my October target was to improve my marking so that students got more out of what I did. I’m setting myself a different aspect of my work every month to improve, looking at evidence and tweaking what I do. Which, after all, is what formative assessment is all about…


9 thoughts on “How I (Want To) Mark”

  1. i found that creating a ‘diy’ marking stamp on very helpful!!! saves time writing out the phrases: What went well, What you need to do to improve – in one stamp and colourful too!!!

  2. One of the best things I ever had the (somewhat accidental) pleasure to be involved in was a ‘marking check’ with pupils instituted in my last school. Five students would randomly be selected from the year group, go round up their books, and then discuss the marking they had received back – how often it was done, why it was useful, why it wasn’t useful, etc. It was RIDICULOUSLY eye-opening. By chance, one of the sharpest students selected to talk about our class’s marking (I was pleased she felt there would be no punishment for her honesty but also a little concerned as I’ve often tried really hard with my marking and though I liked my processes I was never certain it was useful to the students). She explained in detail what was useful and what wasn’t, and it was SO HELPFUL to hear what she had to say. Kids might not know the content, but they do know what they pay attention to and it was interesting to note what things she didn’t feel they had had feedback on (even though they had!) and which minor things I thought had gone unnoticed, and yet hadn’t.

    Hence, this is a plea to say that before you start improving the one thing….do check with students about what makes the difference for them, they do know what they pay attention to (which is the actual aim of this type of feedback) and it may even give you some really good ideas.

    1. My thoughts about choosing one thing a month to consider is more about general practice than marking – that’s just one area. These little tweaks are partly based on my own performance (informal rather than through my line manager) and partly by looking at the data on effect sizes. Complicated by having to work within my setting!

  3. Interesting post. Lots of things that would not have necessarily occurred to me – though, I have to confess, I’ve never given this issue much thought. While I couldn’t agree more about providing feedback on grammar, spelling, punctuation, and presentation, it should perhaps be noted that, in the case of dyslexic students, feedback *alone* is unlikely to produce results. If you are already spelling the same word three different ways on the same page, being told that another way is the correct way is not going to help.

    1. Absolutely – with some students, we add subject specific words to a central list, which they can then use during study support. The focus can still be on the kids choosing, with guidance, the actions that will allow them to make progress.

  4. Great post Ian. I can see CSci Teach approaching fast. Could the student feedback> or even feedforward sheets be at the front? Then they are there every time they open their folders. Many things get stuffed at the back, hiding? Thanks for a good read. Like the idea of changing one thing at a time

  5. My marking is awful – as an exhausted NQT it’s the ‘ball’ that I can’t quite juggle. During my GTP year my training school was having a BIG focus on marking & feedback. Once books were marked, including praise and at least one question, pupils had to use a different colour pen to answer any questions /comments and then write out any spellings correctly. Then they had to sign & date it. Great idea but I now have 8 classes at KS3&4 and 3 a-level classes! How am I supposed to find the time to mark all of that?!?

  6. Thanks for this!
    I’ve just started getting pupils to write on a post it note what their next step is, for example following a test that I marked, and then featuring that into my next lot of marking. It’s a lot quicker to put “I agree with…have you thought about…?” For me, and I’m hoping the fact that they’ve had to work it out for themselves might make them actually do it.

    Another vote for free stamps from Vista print – mine has “peer assessed, self assessed, verbal feedback” on which is helping me keep a balance of marking methods.

  7. One way you can make the process quicker…having students highlight the things you will be looking for when you collect and assess their work.

    For example, I ask that student personal narratives contain a balance of action, setting, dialogue, and thoughts/feelings. I ask students to read their work with their writing buddies and highlight their best example of action in blue.

    When I ask them to highlight, I can see the shock on some faces (“She was _serious_ in that mini-lesson.”) Some students add action at that point – which is okay. The grade is not the goal. The learning is the goal.

    The conversations that ensue are valuable. Writing partners suggest places where action can be added. I do the same with setting (green), dialogue (pink), and thoughts/feelings (yellow).

    When I collect the work, I only need to look at the highlighted parts – at least for this round of assessment. Then, I can separate papers/notebooks into piles for small group re-teaching.

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