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Questioning Marking?

Created on 19 October 2016 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 09 January 2017 by ncetm_administrator
" 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 "

Charlie's Angles

Thoughts on topical issues of mathematics education from the NCETM’s Director, Charlie Stripp

Questioning Marking?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. My head of department needs it, to see that I have been ‘doing my job’.
  4. The school's senior management team needs it, to help show them that the maths department is doing its job.
  5. Parents need it, to help show them that the school is doing its job.
  6. 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.

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15 November 2016 21:44
Oh and love this quote which I am going to use again with teachers (and SLTs)

"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. "
15 November 2016 21:41
Lets just replace 'marking' with assessing, reflecting and feeding back. At an even deeper layer - why were the pupils writing the work down in the first place? and therefore it is that purpose that needs reflecting on when assessing, reflecting and feeding back.
15 November 2016 18:12
My view on the regular setting of homework is quite rigid. I believe that its very important quite simply because the students are practising more maths - and maths is no different from anything else - practice makes perfect. Just to be a bit provocative, I'd like to ask if it would make much difference if no feedback was given.

I think the answer to that question is yes, but its importance is overstated - wildly, if the feedback is regularly ignored. In terms of my own practice, I strongly believe in giving a total score - for motivation more than anything else. Underlining/circling careless sign/arithmetic errors, but then leaving the rest for the student to correct seems to be a good idea - whereas misunderstandings I feel are more often best dealt with through one-to-one or class discussion depending on how widespread the misconception was. So its really good to read of so many maths teachers in agreement. Unfortunately, like many other commentors, I am routinely criticised for not writing a target on every book.

Targets? Am I working in a call centre?
By Jon1729
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11 November 2016 06:04
Yes, I welcome this advice too as it gives me as a teacher a bit of 'back-up' when I try to convince SLT about the issues with current policy in school. I still feel frustrated that it takes so long for these messages to filter down to SLT and to change policies in school.
By Misseast
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10 November 2016 20:38
Excellent advice. Pretty much what I was saying to one of our new teachers just a couple of days ago. It's disappointing to read in the comments how many SLTs still seem to regard quantity of marking as evidence of how hard a teacher is working.
By HappyGrecian
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10 November 2016 15:26
Although what I am about to relate is a different issue, however, I know of a sec school where observations are still graded and observers are looking to see progress in 20 minutes - both of which have similarly been disssed by Ofted. I hope my comments do not appear to be getting at SLTs but I do think that the paper produced by NCETM and Charlie's blog are excellent ways of supporting classroom teachers
By mikeollerton
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10 November 2016 14:27
I find some of what I am doing under the heading 'marking' is not really going to beneift the students to any great extent; I am doing things to satisfy whole-school expectations. In regular book scrutinies SLT are looking for evidence of procedures that Ofsted clearly now say are not necessary. I am not asking for marking to be 'banned', but that marking is done in an amount and in a fashion that beneifts the students. Ofsted are looking for progress in lessons, and in pupils' books, judged on the work they have done, not on feedback, stickers, green boxes,. red boxes, etc.
By derekd
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10 November 2016 13:07
At the moment, my school (International School in the Netherlands) is experiementing with different marking styles. The Primary Guidance makes complete sense and backs up the majority of what teachers in my school are thinking and feeling. Thank you! Dank je wel. Really appreciate it!
By cawleyj44
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10 November 2016 12:52
Agreed and a postive professional conversation with SLT than grumbling and getting nowhere.
By mikeollerton
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10 November 2016 12:41
I agree with Mike's comments. Jowalk, I think that the first thing a maths department can do is ask for time with SLT and present them with the evidence - the secondary document mentioned above in Charlie's blog and the paragraphs Mike mentions. Charlie's blog would be a good start. They are also documents you could discuss in a departmental meeting as a team (and hopefully with your school leadership present).

I suppose what I'm taking a long time to say is that the change starts with a conversation.
By DebbieBarker
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10 November 2016 11:59
I think this final comment by jowalk is one that requires the attention of the NCETM, Ofsted and the DfE. My understanding, which may be wrong, is that the Ofted/HMI subject publications such as Made to Measure in 2012 and previous ones in 2008 (Understanding the Score) and 2004 (forgotten the title) are not being continued into 2016 or beyond. If this is correct then I find this a most disappointing decision, especially as the previous ones drew upon 'prime' practice from inspection of mathematics lessons during the previous four year cycle. These publications raised important issues, for example in Made to Measure paras 127-129 referred to diffuclties which can arise if a school's SLT do not have good pedagogical knowledge of T&L mathematics. I agree wholeheartedy that too much time spent marking at the expense of time spent planning lessons is not time well spent. However, if school policies do not support this then teachers are going to be constantly facing dilemmas about what and how effective practice can be achieved. Thank you Mike Ollerton
By mikeollerton
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10 November 2016 10:32
I agree but when it conflicts with whole school policies and marking is regularly checked it is very hard as a teacher to try to get changes made. Particularly when the latest advice from ofsted was ignored when policies were reviewed. Any advice would be appreciated.
By jowalk
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10 November 2016 10:28
Charlie for President. You've got my vote! Excellent advice for young and old. Thank you
By Rapula
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08 November 2016 19:16
I couldn't agree more! Any kind of feedback should have purpose - to facilitate improvement and therefore to result in progress. The most effective kind is face to face with the pupil. It is immediate and can be responded to quickly. That in itself is a strong reason for keeping written feedback to the point and minimal, geared towards making the pupils think/reflect about their Maths.

Thank you for the post Charlie
By klee30
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24 October 2016 16:10
Some really helpful guidance with a hefty dose of common sense - thank you Charlie!
By Sue_Madgwick
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