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Teaching & Learning

Marking – Effective, Developmental & Time-Saving

A teacher marking a exam paper

Finally, in a time of what appears to feel like the ‘shackles’ are starting to come off in terms of a less OFSTED driven, prescriptive evaluation for teachers across the country, it seems that creativity, innovation and risk-taking are all starting to blossom in schools.  This is fantastic, music to my ears, and as a teacher of Technology this really does support my day-to-day practice and in my opinion that of all subjects, and of course, by default encourages a more explicit emphasis on ‘typically’ which again, is common place in all good/outstanding schools.

As leader of Teaching and Learning in our school, I’m currently working with teachers to explore the move to ungraded lesson observations (I’ll be posting a separate blog on this very soon). If, as I anticipate, this becomes an adopted approach then there’s a necessity more so than ever for me/us as a school to triangulate all aspects of Teaching and Learning, looking particularly in-depth at progress over-time in order to establish the ‘big picture’.

I’m sure we’re all aware, one of these key elements within this triangulation process is effective feedback to students and in particular, marking. In my opinion, the purpose of marking needs to be underpinned by the principle of making a difference in securing progress which all students make as a result of your input and if not, why bother wasting your time spending hours dutifully doing it at all? My personal view is that effective marking has been and always will be, one of the most powerful ways to aid pupil progress. This blog focusses primarily on the marking of exercise books/physical pieces of work, however, the underlying principles which underpin this are absolutely applicable to work conducted in a digital context as well.

Back to basics – whole School

I’ve been fortunate to have worked with fantastic and highly skilled colleagues within our own school and from many schools over the last couple of years. I’ve even had the privilege of working as part of the Challenge Partners review process, visiting numerous schools across London. So, coupling this experience with my current leadership role, I consider myself to be in the lucky position of a what I can only describe as a ‘Teaching and Learning magpie’, and over time I have picked up some highly effective and time-saving marking strategies.

This may seem a somewhat obvious point to make; in schools where marking is making a difference and not a just a ‘doing it for the sake of it’ exercise, consistency is most certainly the key. During the last academic year I recognised a growing problem, partly fueled by the impending visit from OFSTED (which resulted in a ‘GOOD’ judgement, moving us from Special measures in two years), which was that marking was ‘being done’ and I feel perhaps with the mentality of that’s that ‘box ticked’. This was however, sprinkled with pockets of outstanding marking, and this was dotted around our vast college site, here marking was making a difference and securing progress for all pupils in their learning and I’m sure it comes as no surprise that overall, the outcomes of these students were extremely high.

So why not seek the support and guidance of these outstanding practitioners and form a School Improvement Team? so that’s what I did. Here’s their recommendations following evidence based, action research:

  • Strip back various/numerous and somewhat contradictory strategies from previous leadership and instead offer more autonomy for staff  = adopt a proven blueprint (WWW/EBI).
  • Dispel the myth that all marked work needs detailed feedback – it doesn’t.
  • Create consistency for students – all teachers mark in the same colour and students also do the same (The Purple Pen of Power).
  • Revisit the school marking policy and create one together.
  • Create a bank of good practice and deliver CPD windows throughout the year to upskill all staff by sharing the current outstanding practice within the school.

Raise the profile – Power to the Students!

Put the students in the driving seat, after all, we love to recognise their hard work so why shouldn’t this become a reciprocal arrangement? Hence the ‘Purple Pen of Power’ A simple, yet effective way to engage and empower students to secure progress. I’m not saying this is unique in our school, because it’s not, however, offering frequent opportunities for all pupils to ‘have their say’ in making progress is proving highly successful.

Purple pen of progress

Pen-holders-e1415964255340The strategy of dedicated improvement and reflection time (DiRT) is a much talked about and covered topic which is proven to be highly effective in encouraging students to play a more active role in your marking of their work and the work of their peers. In essence, it creates an element of accountability for all parties involved in the process. In fact, the purple pen is so loved it’s created quite a stir, as enterprising students have taken it upon themselves to create ‘purple pen holders’ and sell them to teachers, with great success I might add – who would’ve thought DiRT could generate such a buzz!?

I’ve been inspired by the insightful work of David Didau ‘The Learning Spy’ and this is where I came across this very useful feedback flowchart, I recommend reading his blog on this topic. if you haven’t done so already:


Developmental and effective = Progress

What does marking look like when it’s effective and secures progress for all learners and of course, how do we achieve the marking nirvana that is; Demonstrating progress over time? or to rephrase the question: how often do you set aside time in your lesson for DiRT and what is the ratio between the time you have taken to mark a students work in comparison to the time they have taken to formulate a response?

DIRT - CPD (1)

Time, workload and having a life!

Talking to staff informally, nationally (usually on twitter), locally (usually at various teachmeets) and of course in my own school context, I’m sure it will come as no surprise that time and work life balance always features highly in the topic of conversation. Marking can be a beast, soaking up hour upon hour and if you’re not careful, one that will catch up with you if you take your finger off the pulse. My opinion is that working smart, and not necessarily hard with your marking will go some way to managing your workload.

So with this in mind, what can we do to ensure that marking remains a high-profile element of the teaching and learning backbone? Firstly, we don’t make excuses for not doing it, instead we work together in an open, supportive forum to develop time-saving and effective strategies which will hopefully reinvigorate that love of marking. Here are a couple of quick snaps I’ve taken to try to capture effective teacher feedback where I feel it strikes the balanced ratio of teacher:student workload. What becomes obvious is that the myth that every piece of work needs to be marked, has been dispelled; yes work has been acknowledged but not necessarily in receipt of feedback which is a token gesture. The reason? because it wasn’t relevant for this particular piece of work, and I think this is the fundamental error that some teachers make – remember it’s okay to simply tick certain pieces of work where feedback isn’t appropriate, don’t make up feedback for the sake of it!

Marking blog

Here is evidence of our staff recommendations in action; teacher marking is in green and student response in purple. Consider when detailed feedback is needed, and ask yourself; does it always have to be you that does it?

In summary:

In an educational landscape where teachers workloads are ever-expanding, we mustn’t lose sight of what’s really important in our role, ensuring all students make progress and marking is a crucial aspect in this process. I think that opening up a creative whole school dialogue, in a non-judgemental and supportive culture is essential in ensuring that marking doesn’t become the elephant in the room. And don’t forget, peer and self-assessment are every bit as important as ‘traditional’ marking.

I’d also like to thank Ross McGill (aka @teachertoolkit) for his relentless and quite profound blogging on this topic, offering such practical resources such as this, the ‘5 Minute Marking Plan’ – helping claw back valuable time with our ever-increasing workloads.


Be sure to read my next blog on work scrutiny’s (book looks), exploring how to strike the balance of accountability and quality assurance built on an understanding of work/life balance for all.


About garysking

Deputy Headteacher - leader of Teaching & Learning. Change maker and believer in quality first teaching.


10 thoughts on “Marking – Effective, Developmental & Time-Saving

  1. Gary,

    Thank you for this – I’ve spent two years developing ‘Peer Review’ marking strategies in an independent school that is deeply suspicious of this sort of thing. The student feedback is overwhelmingly positive, the student outcomes improved and it’s also reduced my marking load. What’s not to like?

    It is frustrating that so few of my colleagues can see the merit in it.

    Posted by Graham | December 1, 2014, 7:39 pm


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