A colleague of mine was leading our TSST (Teacher Subject Specialism Training – for non-specialists who find themselves teaching maths) course this afternoon and was brave enough to mention feedback.  We were chatting at the end of the day and he couldn’t believe the stories he’d just heard.  Mentioning marking and feedback in a room full of teachers from different schools is something I’ve learnt to avoid now, it’s one of the most agonising discussions I encounter.

Let’s make this clear from the start: the evidence of the efficacy of marking is scant (EEF).  Marking is not the same as feedback (Toby French) and the time it takes a teacher to mark a set of books is, most often, disproportionate to the effect that marking actually has on students’ progress (Michael Tidd).  Ofsted does not demand a particular type or frequency of marking (Alex Quigley), so no-one can say they are implementing an insane marking policy thanks to the inspectorate.

Here are some of the worst atrocities my colleague and I have heard:

1. Every piece of work should be marked by the teacher.  If we don’t bother to mark it, why should they bother to do it?

They should bother to do it because that’s what school is for – working hard and learning new things.  If it’s taught well and they work hard at it, then ticks and comments across the work really aren’t necessary.  A lack of written marking does not suggest you are an uncaring or lazy teacher, it means you are disinclined to waste your precious evenings on something that will get a cursory glance from the students before being forgotten forever.

Now, of course the teacher checks students’ work and tells them where they’re going wrong because this is good teaching, which can be achieved perfectly well without marking.  You can walk round the room while they’re working and tell them there and then what’s going wrong, you can use mini-whiteboards and clever, targeted questions to see where everyone’s at.  We’re lucky in maths because it’s easy to make sure practically every piece of work is marked – read out the answers, get the students to mark theirs, then go round and look at the mistakes.

2.  Books should be marked fortnightly and the subsequent lesson should start with DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time) where students respond to your comments.

In this instance the teacher took in the books, wrote the same pointers (not corrections, because “you can’t tell them the answer”) up to 30 times on each individual book, handed them back, then students had to spend 5-10 mins of precious lesson time writing their responses to the corrections, or trying to figure out where they went wrong.  They normally ended up putting their hands up to ask, because they didn’t know how to correct it (they got it wrong because they didn’t quite understand what they were doing and 24 hours with no input isn’t going to make them suddenly understand) and the teacher ended up running round explaining to pupils their mistakes while the lucky ones who got it all right waited, perhaps writing a sentence like, “Next time I will try to get it all right again”.

Not only did this mean the teacher was marking up to 200 books a fortnight, it meant lesson time was lost with students trying to figure out what was going on, so the whole marking process was neutered by poor responses and little-to-no improvement.

3.  WWW/EBI (or variants thereof)

The whole-school policy was that every piece of marked work should end with a “What Went Well” comment and an “Even Better If” comment.  The dedicated teacher found herself trying to think of different ways to express “WWW: You have learnt how to solve an equation with an unknown on both sides” and “EBI: You showed each stage of your working clearly”, or something along those lines.  She then had to write a challenge or next steps question for them to try during DIRT.  Students then had to write their response to these comments and questions in the next lesson.

Why on earth should she have to write the same question 32 times?  Why couldn’t she just read out the answers, get the students to mark the work, take the books in to look over the mistakes (or go round and look while they’re working), feed back the common errors to the students next lesson and then get them all to try another similar or harder question then?  Everyone gets their work marked, the teacher sees what everyone has got right and wrong at a glance, everyone gets to think about common mistakes and how to avoid them, and everyone gets to try another question to check their understanding.  This takes about 15 minutes as opposed to the alternative 90.

One teacher who worked in a school with this kind of policy was close to tears as he recounted the stress of his crazy workload, all brought on by marking expectations.

4.  Four different coloured pens

All marking was colour-coded with four pens.  This got me wondering what the other two were: pink and purple perhaps?  I don’t think I need to comment on this one.

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So is there a better way?  We’re looking for one in our department.  Our current iteration is the exit ticket.  At the end of every other lesson we set a question or two on a piece of A5 paper, students spend 5 mins answering them in silence – it’s them showing what they can do on their own – and they hand them in.  We tick, cross and circle, making a separate note of what we want to emphasise when we go through them next lesson: common mistakes, unusual mistakes, matters of presentation, alternatives.  In the next lesson the students stick them into their books and we spend as long as is necessary addressing the points of feedback as a whole class, students annotating with their red pens.  This looks different in each lesson.  Sometimes the teacher goes through it all and sets another question to try.  Sometimes he asks students to share their different approaches.

The exit tickets are designed to give us as teachers important information and their purpose is twofold:

  1.  To inform my immediate planning.  Very often I will put a serious of increasingly difficult questions based on this lesson on the ticket.  That way I know where students are starting to get lost, so I can spend more lesson time where it is needed.
  2. To see what students can remember.  Sometimes I will set an exit ticket on previously-studied material.  This has the double effect of showing me what they can remember and forcing them to remember, helping them to retain the information for a longer period (retrieval practice is shown to be an effective way of improving long-term retention (Learning Scientists)).

A set of 32 exit tickets takes anywhere from 5-15 mins to mark, depending on the complexity, so we get lots of valuable information and can give useful feedback with minimal time cost.

In addition to the exit tickets we walk round the room, pen in hand, and correct spelling mistakes or write on students’ work while they’re working, if we think we need to.  What we don’t do is take books in and pore over pages of numbers, writing the same things over and over again.  We stop the class if we know we need to address mistakes that lots of people are making and we talk to our students about their maths lots and lots.  We set and mark assessments for each group once a half term, and students fill in analysis sheets for each test to help them see where they gained and lost marks.  All this is feedback, and we do it with little traditional marking.

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I thought that in recent years the triple-marking, whole-school, insane policies had stopped, but I have seen time and time again that this is absolutely not the case.  Leaders around the country are still asking the ridiculous because of an unfounded fear of Ofsted, or because someone has told them it’s good practice.

So here’s my plea: if you are a Head of Maths and you have no diktat on marking from your SLT, please don’t make your teachers do unnecessary, burdensome marking.  If you are SLT and you are making your maths teachers mark in the same way as your English and Art teachers, please stop.  These subjects are completely different and are successfully assessed in different ways.  If you are SLT and you are making anyone mark for hours and hours, in their own evenings, every week, please stop.  You may have a duty to provide the best for your students, but that does not come at the expense of the lives of your staff, especially not with something as lacking in evidence as copious volumes of marking.

There are better ways to give feedback.  Find them and do them.

UPDATE: April 2017.  The NCETM published its (Ofsted-ratified) Guidance on Marking and Feedback for Secondary Mathematics Teaching in October 2016 which concludes with the following:

The most important activities for teachers are the designing and teaching of the lessons. Marking and feedback strategies should be efficient, so that they do not steal time that would be better spent on lesson design and preparation. Neither should they result in an excessive workload for teachers.

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