Marking. Optimising the impact:workload ratio.

There have been a few recent waves of twitter discussion about marking books- ranging from the suggestion that teachers might mark all the books every day to the opposite suggestion: that teachers don’t mark the books at all and just give other forms of feedback. As ever the approach any teacher or school takes will vary according to contexts, subjects etc – so it’s folly to preach a specific approach as if it can apply in a universal manner. Here I’m sharing various thoughts I’ve had over the years.

Firstly, some of my most-read blog posts have been about marking. Here are four of them:

I think it’s a mistake to let this become Marking vs No Marking. Clearly, there’s a level of marking volume and frequency that is too high to be useful or sustainable for a full-time teacher. There’s also a level of marking volume and frequency that is so low or patchy that it leaves you out of touch with your students’ work and leaves them feeling that the work they produce doesn’t get seen or doesn’t matter.

There’s going to be a happy medium. My main advice to school leaders on this is to make marking part of a wider feedback policy and, then, to allow each team to devise their own: an approach that is meaningful to them and their students and sustainable in terms of workload. It’s a classic area for a ground-up change process, balancing accountability with autonomy.

My main advice to teachers is to formulate a diet of feedback spanning several weeks. Something like this:

  • Lots of in-class responsive feedback through questioning
  • Lots of whole-class feedback 
  • Lots of self-assessed micro-quizzing 
  • Peer or self-assessed critique and redrafting
  • Deeper marking of one or two selected pieces of work or tests – still requiring student response.
  • Presentation and organisation check. 

Each of these elements has its purpose and allows marking to take its place alongside other means of giving feedback. For any marking you do, it pays to consider the purpose.. what you are you doing it for?

To spot errors and identify areas for improvement✓✓
To evaluate the standard of work.✓?
To generate feedback to you about how well you’ve taught something✓✓✓
To inform students what they need to do next✓?
To ask students questions to extend their thinking✓?
To make sure students keep their books neat and tidy and organised✓?
To provide an audit trail for external partiesX
To validate students’ efforts. X

Amongst the issues here are that you make a rod your back if marking is your main way to validate students’ efforts or if you’re only marking to satisfy an accountability process. Doing retrospective marking – just in time for that scrutiny! – is really a sign that something has gone wrong. Stop!

It’s also worth thinking of marking in different forms for different purposes:

Form of markingPurpose
Tick and flick. ✓ x  V.G.  Affirmation.  Location of Errors – for further student follow-upGeneral maintenance marking 
Marking Codes: sp, ^, //Works if there are clear codes used repeatedly that tell students what to do when they see them. 
GradesOnly useful if there’s a link to success criteria that students can access and understand. (What is a B? What does  13/20 mean? )
CommentsNeed to be positive, specific, actionable.  If you give comment and grade, students only see the grade! (Wiliam and Black 1998) Not too big or too small (Clare Sealy)
Standardised Success Criteria GridMakes clear what expectations are – especially if given in advance.  Can save time writing same thing in each book. Can include content and process elements. 
Actions. Response to student work is to give them a task –(see Five Rs)
Whole Class FeedbackVerbal or written sheet highlighting common areas for improvement. 

The not too big or not too small idea from Clare Sealy could be illustrated with these examples:

  • Too Big: Try to be more strategic in planning the sequence of arguments. 
  • Too Small: Every time you see a pink triangle, put in a full stop.

The Too Big can’t be understood or actioned by the students who need the most help – if anyone. The Too Small take any responsibility away from students to think or self-correct.

Avoid unactionable comments like this:

  • Add more detail. 
  • WAFFLE!!!!
  • Make a more sophisticated argument. 
  • Disappointing conclusion. 
  • Careless!

From week to week, in deciding what to do, consider the following:

  • Can they mark it themselves? 
  • Can I just tell the whole class? 
  • Would it be better to talk to individuals? 
  • Would it be better to give out some general feedback on a sheet? 
  • How much time do I have to spend in the lesson? 
  • How useful will my feedback comments be? 

And finally, take ownership of the workload. Never let it drown you. You always can give yourself permission to reset; draw a line on past work and move on.


  1. Rings true for me and for my previous fine team. Marking was one of the over-burdensome checks that we should have summoned the energy to argue against a few years ago; your strategies here would have helped.


  2. The underlying problem is establishing what is objectively possible. Teachers need to feel effective, have time for personal research and be able to plan their lessons well, in function of class progress. The rest is papering over the cracks.


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