" Marking should not be about providing evidence that you are doing your job. If that’s why you are doing it, you are not doing your job "
Thoughts on topical issues of mathematics education from the NCETM’s Director, Charlie Stripp
Marking children’s work is undoubtedly a very important part of effective mathematics teaching, but how should we use marking to have the maximum positive effect on pupils’ learning?
Why do we mark pupils’ work?
When I first started teaching, I did a huge amount of marking. After all, I thought, marking is what good teachers do.
The reasoning I was following was:
- I need to do it, to know whether my pupils have grasped the mathematics I have been trying to teach them and to communicate with them to help resolve any difficulties they are having with their learning.
- Pupils need it, both to praise and reassure them when they are ‘getting it right’ and, when they are ‘getting it wrong,’ to help show them how to put it right.
- My head of department needs it, to see that I have been ‘doing my job’.
- The school's senior management team needs it, to help show them that the maths department is doing its job.
- Parents need it, to help show them that the school is doing its job.
- School Inspectors need it, to help check that the school is doing its job.
The other important thing about marking for me at that time was that it could really make me feel good about myself. I started with a large pile of unmarked books on the left of my desk, and ended (often a highly impressive and virtuous three hours into the evening later) with a pile of marked books on the right hand side of my desk (yes, I am right-handed), full of ticks, crosses and often very detailed comments. What a brilliant and conscientious teacher I am, I thought. I’m spending three hours of my evening marking, and I’ve got a really impressive pile of marked books to show for it! Even better, if they had got the vast majority of their work right, there were loads of ticks - I must be a brilliant teacher!
However, after a couple of years, once I’d got into the job a bit and was able to reflect on what I was trying to achieve with my teaching, I started to seriously question the value of the time I was spending on marking. As teachers of maths, at whatever level, our purpose should be to maximise the mathematical learning of our pupils, and we should organise our working time to that end. In the list above, I’d argue only 1 and 2 are really valid reasons to mark pupils’ books, and there are plenty of other ways to diagnose pupils’ learning difficulties and provide them with formative feedback. Some marking is certainly very valuable, but not the amount of marking I was doing. I wasn’t even sure if the pupils looked at it.
As my teaching career progressed, I still considered marking an important element of my work, but I started to devote significantly less time to it, trying instead to ‘mark smart’, to apply intelligent marking that would maximise the impact on my pupils’ learning, but leave much more time for reflection and lesson planning. I still looked through pupils’ work to get a sense of their progress and gave them quick, simple feedback on things they needed to reflect on, but I stopped marking every question that every pupil had answered. I estimate that I reduced my time spent marking by 50%. I used most of the time I saved to plan lessons in far more detail, including more in-class diagnostic and formative assessment (carefully planned whole class and individual questioning, use of mini whiteboards, peer marking, short individual conversations with pupils, etc.). This enabled me and my pupils to better understand how learning was progressing and enabled me to provide timely, targeted individual feedback. The rest of the time I saved helped to keep me sane!
The business of teachers is to help their pupils learn. Any time they spend ‘working’ that is not maximising the learning for their pupils is time that could have been better spent. Items 3, 4, 5 and 6 in my ‘list of reasons to mark’ above are not valid because they do not support pupils’ learning. Marking should not be about providing evidence that you are doing your job. If that’s why you are doing it, you are not doing your job. The needs of your head of department, parents, your school’s senior management and Ofsted in relation to the assessing the effectiveness of teaching (3, 4, 5 and 6 in the list) can and should only be met by judging the outcomes of pupils’ learning.
This year the NCETM has published two guidance documents on marking mathematics, one for primary school teachers (published in June) and one for secondary school teachers (published earlier this month). Both are informed by the latest educational research. Feedback from teachers about the primary school document has been very positive and to date the document has been downloaded almost 25 000 times. I very much hope the secondary document will have a similar impact.
‘BUT WHAT ABOUT OFSTED!?’ I hear you shout.
Ofsted, quite rightly, won’t say ‘this is how all schools should mark in mathematics’, but they do say that the NCETM’s marking guidance is consistent with their general advice to schools on marking. If you have a clear school policy for marking in mathematics that is based on the NCETM’s marking guidance, and those teaching mathematics in your school are implementing that policy effectively, then your school will be meeting Ofsted’s requirements. More importantly, your school will also be supporting effective mathematics teaching by helping you to focus your working time in ways that maximise the mathematical learning of your pupils.