Marking, a vital tool or an endless chore? For a while now I have been thinking about how I mark, how I give meaningful feedback and how to ensure I support all the learners in my classroom. I am convinced that how I mark my student’s work and how I give them feedback makes a difference not only to their progress but to their attitude towards their learning journey.

Take maths for example. I cannot see how it can possibly help any student for me to take in a math’s book and cover it with coloured ink to indicate errors. What self respecting ten year old is going to look at such a page and do more than close the book? So I ensure that all mathematical marking is done daily by getting my students to correct and check their own work. Obviously a more formal assessment needs my marking however I still prefer to write comments such as ‘does this look correct to you?’ or ‘please check your calculations here’ rather than distribute a sea of crosses.

Written work though is harder. As I mentioned last week, I recently attended a two day course on Habits of Mind. I really connected with a scaffolded approach to marking that was mentioned by the presenter James Anderson. While talking about the Habit of ‘Striving for Accuracy’, he raised the important point that for marking to be useful we must stop correcting our students work, we must direct them not correct them and teach them to find their own mistakes. For example when correcting spelling, in stage one teachers might write out the correct spelling word on a student’s written work. Moving to stage two where teachers should circle or underline mistakes. And finally to stage three where a teacher should just tell a student they have have X number of errors in any given section of work. He argued that if we continue to correct all their grammar, spelling and punctuation we are robbing them of the opportunity to become better at self-editing.

This approach really rang true with me. After several weeks of instruction and practice my students have recently written a descriptive piece of writing. It was an assessment task and they spent an hour writing it. In that time they were encouraged to plan, write, edit and correct. They were given dictionaries and allowed to correct their work as they wrote using a different coloured pen. I was thrilled with their efforts and their results. I could see effort in writing and effort in editing throughout. I have now spent much of my weekend marking it. Their pages are covered in little pink ticks indicating where I have spotted great use of figurative language. Stars have been placed in the margin to indicate spelling errors and an extensive comment has been written for each student.

It remains now for me to award them a tick in a box. Outstanding, High, Sound, Basic or Limited are my choices. Yet I cannot do it. And this is what I hate about marking. How can I tell one student that her response is sound when I know that for her this is an outstanding response? How can I say to another that her writing is outstanding when even though it is, I know she is capable of even more? I find that I cannot. So tomorrow I plan to give my students back their written tasks. I will allow them to share them with each other. I will encourage them to read them with their friends, to talk through the writing and editing process with each other. I want them to acknowledge and discuss their mistakes. I will encourage them to listen while others read sections out loud. I want them to realise that I value all of their efforts and I want to praise all of them, since I know they all tried their hardest. After this I will ask them to assign their own grades. From experience I know they will not let me down. They will reflect and if anything they will mark themselves harshly.

What I am really interested in though is how do you grade? How do you mark? How do you encourage and how do you teach all your students to strive for accuracy in everything they do?


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  1. Anthony


    Great post … I really like reading your reflections on teaching.

    Just flicked over to my Reader and saw your post. I totally get your approach and as you know so does the work of real researchers. I never had an employee in my corporate days that genuinely assessed themselves better than I did … people who put any real effort into anything always mark themselves hard … that’s why they’re putting in the effort.

    Another thing that hit home to me is “How can I tell one student that her response is sound when I know that for her this is an outstanding response? How can I say to another that her writing is outstanding when even though it is, I know she is capable of even more?”

    It always irks me when schools publish students and their ATAR scores (or whatever they are called) and make a song and dance about those who made the published lists and quote “X above this and Y in this band, yada yada yada”. In my view the administrators and marketers significantly devalue the genuine effort and often amazing results (relatively) and progress achieved by the majority of hard working kids who just did not pick the right set of genes … how do these other kids feel when they see those lauded in the school publications, web site and wherever and they know in their hearts they rung every last mark out of their time at school … pretty disenfranchised I reckon.

    Keep up the great work.

  2. RDudgeon

    Henrietta, I remember giving a very similar pd session to staff 2 yrs ago on the value of marks, grades and testing… The wheel keeps turning !!!! I am a fan of Dylan William as you know.. Would love to create a wholistic student feedback system that really eliminated the need for marks in 7-12. I see marks are back on the agenda in the SS.

  3. Thank you for your kind words Anthony. I think it is so important for educators to reflect and remind ourselves of the real world. ATAR scores may help with false league tables and perpetuate myths about the greatness or otherwise of a school but in the end our students need real world skills that will last them for life not just school.

  4. Anthony

    Henrietta, excuse my even longer response … which really is not related directly to Marking

    FWIW: my observations (unscientific as they are) ring true to a quote I got from a educator one day about high school, so less relevant to your k-6 context … “for many kids, high school is about survival (of school). It’s finding that one thing they can hang their hat on just to get through”.

    I took that to mean, at least from a parents perspective, it is my responsibility to help my kids find that one thing – maths, english, sport, drama, music, design, metalwork, woodwork, writing, whatever … but just one thing – because without something to get out of bed for in the morning what’s the motivation.

    To me we are losing the “Why” or in many places it perhaps wasn’t there to start with. Our schools are becoming like our universities … morphed into something to produce workers … not thinkers (or learners). I fondly (and with much gratitude) remember the privilege I had to go to university on the public purse, the privilege to try different subjects, to change course and find what worked for me, find my way … now its all about knowing “stuff” while you run up a big bill, but honestly knowing “stuff” is easy with a few of the right skills + motivation i.e. the big WHY, a purpose, something with inherent value … ask a kid who can land a backside 360 why he was skating instead of doing his English homework – the answer is obvious (i think), although not easy to resolve – IT REALLY IS BORING AND UNRELATED TO HIS WORLD, SO WHY BOTHER [emphasis added for the voice in the student head]

    I relate this somewhat to a roughly translated quote from my Accounting 101 lecturer in 1987, a guy called Peter Kirby who I thought was mad at the time, but with hindsight I am now so grateful for his disdain of just learning stuff. He said (something like) “in my course you won’t learn how to do your job (this was an Accounting course for Commerce students!), you will learn how to think, how to solve problems, how to research, how to ask questions and when you do get a job, as most of you will, you will have to get your text book out on day one and make your way to the toilet with it under you arm and work out what the hell you boss is asking you to do … but with what you learn here that will not be a problem and you will be able to apply those same skills to all sorts of problems in the future that I can’t even imagine today.”

    Thanks again for posing such thoughtful questions and allowing inviting comments.