Marking: A discussion document for Maths departments

By Cordelia Myers (March 2019)

A group of maths HoDs asked me for some thoughts on marking. The NCETM already have an excellent marking policy in place. Surprisingly, there has been very little research into the impact of marking on teaching and learning so my comments are based only on experience and professional judgement.   This is a sensitive subject for me but here goes…

About the time that marking became a major issue in schools, I had two shocks:

  • My year 11 were a fabulous class. On one occasion I knew marking their tests would take a few hours that I didn’t have and explained they may have to wait a few days. They replied they would much rather mark tests themselves (by swapping papers). This gave immediate feedback and errors could be sorted as they arose. I thought the weaker students would feel embarrassed, but their opinions were just as strong. The hours I have wasted…
  • At a previous school we had a “Mocksted”. After my observation a member of SMT said to me casually in the corridor: “The inspector thought your lesson was outstanding. In fact she said it was the best maths lesson she ever saw.” (Maybe she hadn’t seen many.) Then he looked at me and said “I noticed some of your students are using coloured pens in their books. And there isn’t a lot of written feedback. I’m giving you a “good”.”

At that moment I had the troubling realisation: My SMT colleague has lost sight of our priorities. I think over the years quite a lot of us have lost our way about marking.

These two shocks helped clarify my thinking.

  • We are teachers. Preparing thought-provoking and engaging lessons is our greatest priority. If this goes wrong, even if we spent all night marking, students are short-changed. We need to balance marking against preparing, reflecting and refining lessons. “There is now widespread agreement that of all the factors inside a school that affect children’s learning and achievement, the most important is the teacher – not standards, assessments, resources or even leadership, but the quality of the teacher” Hargreaves & Fullan 2012. We must invest time in improving our teaching above all else.
  • Marking books is valuable if it supports learning. However, other uses of finite teacher time are likely to have greater impact. I think this is where there may be a tension between teachers and SMT. For SMT, books are hard evidence of what happens in a classroom. Books will be scrutinised if data/teaching is not all they hope. I would argue that planning, reflecting on and refining lessons must always be our top priority and take up most of a teacher’s out-of-class time despite it being more complicated to monitor.
  • Marking should be for and by the students. I feel most work should be marked but not always by us. If the work isn’t marked neither we nor the students know whether they are learning effectively. We can mark their books. Or we can go round the class, each student giving an explanation and answer. They can write annotations explaining their errors. This takes time but it is immediate, effective and ensures all students contribute. Incorrect answers are particularly powerful; misconceptions are addressed and learning continues.

Having a department policy on marking is helpful and aids consistency. Some questions:

  • How much time should we spend on one set of books? On one book?
  • How can we use that time with each book most effectively? “Tick and flick” with all work? Ticking and crossing an exercise? Making comments? Putting in missing boxes to scaffold where errors have occurred? Something else?
  • Can we collect group data and provide collective feedback on common errors? How?

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