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Teaching & Learning

The Marking Treadmill…… is it time to get off?


There appears to have been a resurgence in anxieties and pressures around teacher workload, and the marking burden seems to be at the forefront of discussions for a vast majority of teachers. Without any doubt, marking and feedback is a non-negotiable, an essential element of teaching and learning and one that if done effectively can have a significant impact upon student progress. However,  I believe there have been some misconceptions and consequently bad press that have over inflated and perhaps distorted the truth around marking, raising the stakes and creating a culture of ‘over marking’ of students’ work. One may even suggest this could have been brought about by the shifting sands of accountability measures, and not fully understanding the changing frameworks for teaching and learning. Recently I conducted a straw poll on twitter, I know the coverage wasn’t comprehensive but nevertheless I wanted to test the water:

Twitter Poll

The other day I was having a discussion with a colleague around marking, their response was:

“Marking every last shred of work with developmental and next step marking is exhausting. Checking students have responded to my marking and then getting them to respond to previous marking as well as today’s marking, and then marking that they have read my marking and so on”


The other major contributing factor to workload centered around pointless meetings and unnecessary paperwork (administrative tasks) you can read more about my personal views on workload here. Recently I met with out NQT’s and trainee teachers, we discussed marking and the general consensus was that in general this is an area where further support is needed with the suggestion that the ITT programme from certain HE providers needed to cover this in more depth as part of their training course. The Education Endowment Foundation suggests that quality feedback can add up to eight months of extra learning for a student who is in receipt of it. And John Hattie’s research indicates that feedback has an effect size of 0.73, putting this into perspective the average effect size is 0.4 and the highest is 1.2. However, on the flip side and if done badly or superficially, research has also shown that in 38% of well-designed studies, feedback actually made performance worse—one of the most counterintuitive results in all of psychology (Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. 1996). So then, how do we avoid getting swept up the vast array of marking and feedback strategies that provide quirky mechanisms to capture and deliver feedback and drill down to what underpins it all in the first place? I like to call it ‘Prime Time’ that golden and magical moment for both teacher and student to really work in harmony and truly accelerate learning, it’s a simple formula, however the temptation can be to assume that once diagnosed, progress will be made by default, this is most certainly not the case, hence the importance of ‘Prime Time’:

DiRT Blog

Marking needn’t be the workload ‘beast’ you may perceive it to be, if the formula is applied, one approach to managing workload and effectiveness of feedback is ‘Big and Small’ marking. Let me explain more. Research has shown teachers tend to predominantly give written feedback on four main elements of a student’s work:

  • Presentation
  • Quantity
  • Accuracy of spelling, punctuation and grammar
  • Effort
“sharpen our diagnostic written feedback to focus on achievable targets to stretch and challenge”


With this in mind and with the exception of  SPAG, it’s worth considering if what is written is no more than what could be delivered verbally during learning time (which of course doesn’t need to be evidenced) if this is the case, why waste time and effort doing it? Ultimately this is only increasing your workload. However, this is not to say that we should place a lower emphasis on presentation and effort, but instead sharpen our diagnostic written feedback to focus on achievable targets to stretch and challenge knowledge and understanding supported by verbal feedback. This week I spent time working with our new Headteacher on her vision for effective marking and feedback. We discussed the intricacies and principles of Big and Small marking and the concept is quite straight forward, and one that is often quite evident in practical subjects;

Big & Small marking

Stepping stones (lessons or learning episodes) lead up to an end point, and this could be for example in the form of an examination, a practical outcome, an extended piece of writing, or a focused project. There are of course many other formats of which this could be undertaken. In essence this is the light at the end of the tunnel for students, they see a purpose in what they are learning leading up to this point and therefore can contextualise the relevance of the ‘stepping stones’ instead of viewing them as disjointed pieces of learning. Indeed, this end point task can then go onto inform further learning, building further upon this knowledge gained.

Small marking


Largely formative, small marking can take place with students, during lessons and be used effectively to manage misconceptions that will inevitably occur. The principle behind this is not only to address your marking workload, but to ensure feedback is succinct and developmental. It is not essential to write an essay, or even add complimentary comments, unless of course you want to. Be blunt, for example “you need to….”,  “Name three”  “Explain why you think this” pose short questions that require a direct response from your students. This week I popped into various classrooms in our school to try to capture this in action and help exemplify small marking in practice (apologies for the image quality!) Also please bear in mind that this is obviously a work in progress so some further teacher follow-up that is required may not yet be evident. At this stage, the wealth of small marking/feedback strategies out there can be utilised to keep engagement, interest and excitement in learning high. @MrsHumanities  has written a fantastic blog exploring lots of practical examples that can achieve this.

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Big marking


Consider this as the opportunity to undertake summative assessment, although this doesn’t have to be exclusively reserved for this in isolation from formative assessment. The ‘end point task’ whether it be a performance in Drama, a practical outcome in Technology, an examination question in Mathematics to name just a few examples is the culmination of the ‘stepping stones’ the learning leading up to this point. Obviously this will demand a more in-depth and time-consuming input from the teacher, however this can be scheduled into a scheme of learning and therefore distributed throughout the term or academic year, therefore helping to spread and manage the marking workload. I came across a really good example of Big Marking in action, coupled with effective and differentiated DiRT, this allowed the diagnostic marking from the teacher to be followed up by the student in the form of a reworked piece using the grade criteria. This clearly demonstrating progress for progress sake and not for any other particular ‘audience’. In this case moving a student from a D grade (point a) to a B grade (point b).



“For assessment to be formative, the feedback information has to be used. In other words, students need to be
accorded the time and opportunity required to act on the feedback.” 


A thought to leave you with prior to your next marking frenzy;  Has my feedback encouraged and ultimately forced my student(s) to work harder than I have, leading to sustained progress? and am I using ‘Small’ and Big marking to manage my workload effectively by scheduling ‘Big’ summative marking and utilising the principle of ‘Small’ marking in and out of class to accelerate the progress of my students?


*Update – On Tuesday 24th November 2015 I led a session at the Growing Excellence in Teaching and Learning conference in London on effective marking and feedback. Here’s a copy of my presentation:




About garysking

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


2 thoughts on “The Marking Treadmill…… is it time to get off?

  1. Thanks for sharing my blog post on the topic, I use the idea of small and big marking but have never thought of it quite like you discuss. Something to think about and further develop.

    Posted by mrshumanities | November 19, 2015, 6:07 pm
  2. Yes! Stop the marking treadmill, I want to get off. In a distance learning setting, ours is done electronically. It can be quite disheartening when you check back a month later and find that it never got read, never mind acted upon.

    Posted by Richard Farr | November 23, 2015, 9:09 pm

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