Getting on top of marking

For the first time in my 10 years of teaching, I don’t feel the stress of marking and I hope to explain how in this post.

I’ll start by saying there are no quick fixes when it comes to marking.  You can’t cut corners.  There are some methods to reduce the time spent doing it, but the ways to get on top are more about how to increase the impact of marking.  Mainly, it’s about establishing a different relationship between you and marking.  Instead of seeing your marking as that horrible thing that you have to do on top of all the real teaching, see it as the most important aspect of that teaching.

Regular, high quality marking will:

  • Help students to get better
  • Build positive relationships (they see that you care)
  • Improve presentation
  • Allow you to evaluate teaching
  • Make students value what they do (they know you’ll read it)
  • Improve behaviour (you are a teacher with high expectations)

You can read my detailed post about the specifics of making written feedback more effective here.  Here are my views on how to get on top of marking:

Mark for the students

Forget the book scrutinies and the Ofsted inspections.*  Just focus on making your feedback work for you and your students.  This means high quality feedback which the students act upon.  It means giving them opportunities to meet the targets you set and to use your feedback to develop.  Get that right and then you don’t really have to worry about what ‘they’ want to see because your books are going to show that students are learning. You can spend your life trying to second guess what people are looking for but the fact is that no one can argue when students are clearly improving.

I have been involved in looking at colleagues’ exercise books and, trust me, there’s nothing worse than seeing lots and lots of red pen (or green or whatever) which is never read.  I’d rather see less of it but the feedback being used effectively.  If you ever find yourself having to take home 3 boxes of books because you have received ‘the call’ then I think you have your priorities all wrong.

Marking is planning

I always used to prioritise lesson planning over marking.  Now, I prioritise both by ensuring the students act on the feedback.  They either complete an activity or redraft-or both.  The rest of the lesson is built around any other misconceptions evident in students work. The next few lessons are sorted too because you know what to teach based on the work produced by the whole class.  You are saving time because the next lesson is planned and you are making your lessons more efficient because they are truly tailored to what students need to learn.  David Didau writes about his ‘marking is planning’ mantra here.

Without marking students’ work, how do you really know what to plan anyway?

Mark regularly but selectively

Be selective in what you mark. There is no point in marking a spelling test that they self marked.  I would generally give good quality feedback every 2-3 weeks.  Usually that would be for extended writing which is the culmination of planning, drafting, editing, peer marking etc.  This isn’t a hard and fast rule by the way- just an estimate. I would also add that you should read everything-it doesn’t take that long.  You might find something out that helps build the relationship with that student or you may identify something that you think they need to work on.

Save time on writing out comments

I have written a post on how to use mailmerge here.  I honestly think this is the greatest discovery I have made to make my written feedback more efficient.

I often find that I am writing similar targets for several children.  If it is an essay on poetry, for example, then there are a finite amount of targets for improvement.  This will be especially common if there is a misconception owing to your teaching.  Writing these targets again and again- plus an activity to help them improve takes forever.  Using mailmerge means you can type comments, use copy and paste, and print individual target sheets.  Have a look at the post for more details.

Being able to print out all of my students’ targets like this just saves a lot of faffing in class too.  Print them out and glue them on the front of books.


Remember that you are never behind marking

Although I am pretty much on top of my marking, if I were to get behind I wouldn’t waste my time going back in the book and marking work from the past.  Unless the students will read it and do something about it then what’s the point?  Pick up from where you are with the students and give them feedback based on their most recent work.  Of course, you will sometimes have key assignments that you need to mark- controlled assessment is a real pain.

There isn’t going to be a massive negative impact if you haven’t marked some work.  There will be a negative impact on your sanity if you try to catch up on everything once you have fallen behind.

Regular marking makes the experience of marking a pleasure

Bear with me!  Marking is a chore and I won’t go so far as to say I actually enjoy it.  However, I do like when I read a piece of work and the student has ‘got it’.  I like the coming together of our efforts over a year and comparing work at the start of the book with work at the end.  When marking is like this- and it will be if you get it right- then it makes the time burden slightly more bearable.


*I’m not naive and understand that there are some pressures to conform to school policies etc.  There’s nothing wrong with doing those things, especially as some of them are not particularly hard to do e.g. sticking marking policies in books.  I have often received helpful feedback on work scrutinies too so we can’t dismiss them entirely.



Written feedback using Mail Merge

I have been placing written feedback at the top of my priority list, particularly getting students to engage with the feedback.  The holy grail is to find something with high impact but which doesn’t take up an excessive amount of time.  And I think I have an answer.

My usual marking process:  I write a comment and a target for improvement (medal and mission), together with an activity to make sure the student acts on the feedback.  Since I have used this method, I can see real improvements in the students’ work and this is generally continued into the next written task.  This does seem to have a high impact. I have an Excel spreadsheet as my markbook and, as I mark, I record targets.

However, it is quite time consuming to create a task for each individual student.  Even when I write the same task for a similar target, it takes a while.  I needed a way to reduce the time I was taking on that part of the process.  So I spoke to our data guru, and he showed me the wonders of mailmerge.

Here is how it works.  I read the work as carefully as before.  I write ‘see feedback sheet’ in students’ exercise books.  I type the strength and target for improvement into my spreadsheet.  If two students have the same comment/ target- as often happens- then I can copy and paste.  Then the wonders of mailmerge create individual feedback sheets for each student.  Students use the sheets and work on their targets then glue next to the work in their books.  You can see two examples below.

The first example is a generic writing target sheet.  We were reading The Monkey’s Paw.  It is really straightforward but highly effective.  All I need to do is highlight the section of their work I want them to improve  and- voila.  The second is one of my early attempts and is on reading targets.  This took a little longer as I had to create a few more activities but once I did I had models for future reading activities.  In total, this didn’t take longer than marking in the ‘usual’ fashion anyway.  On both sheets, I have also added the ‘time travel’ element which a) reminds students that this is ongoing and b) allows me a clear opportunity to check progress over time.

Another brilliant aspect of this which is equally timesaving is that I can collect all the targets of a particular student together like this to stick on the front of their book:

Here are a few more examples of target sheets:

Spoken Language Targets




Mail merge step by step

1)      Record your targets in the spreadsheet.






2)      Create the template.







3)      Use the mailmerge wizard>choose ‘letters’.










4)      Click Next>’use current document’>Next.

5)      Choose ‘Browse’ to find your spreadsheet.

6)      Then click OK a lot!

7)      Insert the fields you want on each target sheet.





8)      Then click through ‘Next’ until you create your target sheets.  You can choose ‘edit individual letters’ to then adapt them and insert tasks etc.


More effective written feedback

When it comes to marking, I am with Phil Beadle who states, in ‘How to Teach’, “Make no mistake: this is the most important thing you do as a teacher.”

I recently looked at some of my exercise books from last year to look at the progress pupils had made over time.  Overall, the class had improved but there were a handful of students who had not made the leaps that others had.   They were marked regularly with good formative comments.  Yet there were a few pupils who didn’t really improve the things that I had set for them as individual targets.  They got better over time but the impact of my feedback was not particularly evident.  I spent a great deal of my time on marking those books and I don’t want any of that time wasted!  I don’t mark because I might get in trouble for not doing so- I mark because it will help my students.  Therefore, one of my developmental targets this year has been to ensure that there is greater impact from my written feedback.

Sue Swaffield writes, in ‘Unlocking Assessment’ that the best practice in marking has the following common features:

  • “Teachers are selective in their marking – deciding which pieces of work to give particular attention and which aspects of the work to focus on.
  • Teachers identify successes related to the learning intention, pointing out particular parts of the work or making specific comments about it as a whole.
  • They use comments only, not a grade or a mark, nor anything else that could be interpreted as such, for example a ‘sticker’, a ‘smiley face’ or a merit.
  • Teachers indicate progress by referring to the pupil’s previous work.
  • They specify something that could be improved, or the next steps to take, and give guidance on how to do so.
  • Pupils understand the feedback, are clear about what it means and what they have to do.
  • Time is routinely made available for pupils to work on their improvement points.
  • Teachers work together to improve the quality of the feedback, and value quality above quantity.
  • Pupils contribute to, and sometimes initiate, commentary and reflection on their work.”

I have tried to develop methods to ensure that my written feedback has the maximum possible impact.  That includes many elements of the process: before, during and after.

BEFORE:Pupils’ work must be worth marking

This means getting the quality right to ensure that all that time spent marking is worthwhile.

I know that this seems painfully straightforward but it is important to share the success criteria for the piece of work.  I have just marked a piece of work where I didn’t do this and had to write the phrase ‘remember to use spoken language terminology’ an awful lot.  Using style models and analysing them before embarking on a new piece of work is also a useful way of making it explicit what success will look like.

Pupils also need to link the work that they are doing now with work that they have done in the past and, in particular, the feedback they have already received.  There is nothing worse than writing exactly the same target for two pieces of work.  I will often ask pupils to write their individual target at the top of the work so it is at the forefront of their thoughts.  Pupils could answer a question at the end of their work as a nice bookend: ‘how has your writing improved since your last task?’ or ‘how have you met your target?’

When I send work emails or even when I tweet, I check them several times.  (I have reread the final version of this blog 6 times)  This is probably too much but I know that I will inevitably make some errors or just have some bits which don’t quite read right.  Having a bit of time for pupils to check their work before handing in saves me a great deal of time and helps make my marking much more focussed.

Building in self/peer assessment and a little more time for redrafting makes it more likely that it is the best piece of work.  (Pupils need to be taught how to do all these things effectively.)

Another excellent way of ensuring that pupils make it their best work is having a ‘real’ audience for their work.  If they know others are going to read their work, they do not want to make any sloppy mistakes.

I’d also say at this point that I don’t formally mark every piece of work that the students produce.  I read everything but I ensure pupils are aware when there is a task I will mark in detail.  I find that marking in this way reduces my workload but increases the impact.

(I also nag nag nag about presentation. For me, it is important and makes clear that this is a piece of work to be proud of.)

DURING: Marking identifies progress/ Marking informs my/their next steps

Lots has been written on what good quality written feedback should look like.  I will not go into too much detail here. I like Geoff Petty’s simple  medal and mission idea.  Comments only, no grades.  Below is Dylan Wiliam speaking about feedback.

As I mark, I record targets on my marking spreadsheet.  It helps me to build up a profile of pupils targets and I RAG whether they have met previous targets.  It informs my teaching as well and I can see the bigger picture of the patterns in the class.  (The colour coded markbook is a nice thing to show lesson observers to evidence progress over time too)

I reflect on the impact of my teaching.  If the whole class are receiving the same target, is this because my teaching wasn’t quite up to it?

We have a ‘no red pen’ policy and are encouraged to use green.  I use pink as a protest.

AFTER: Pupils engage with their feedback [Edit 28/11/15: I now feel that many of these ideas are awful as they a) take too much time and b) may take students away from actually concentrating on their feedback.]

Pupils need to be given time to process their feedback.  At the very minimum they should be given explicit time to read their comments.  Even better if lots of time is given to working with feedback.  There is nothing wrong with spending a whole lesson engaging with feedback.  Here are some ideas about how this could be done in notional order of complexity:

I like this simple idea from Kristian Still– feedback is written sideways in books so they have to turn books to read it.

Write a question after the feedback that they must answer.

Hide the feedback: Write the pupils’ comments in another page in the book. They have to find them. This might look strange in a book scrutiny however!

Correct the first half of a pupils’ work. They correct the second half.

Give pupils an activity immediately to develop their target. I have done this above with my year 7 class. Interestingly, the pupil on the right has not used the homophones appropriately so it is instant feedback on my feedback and real evidence that the feedback wasn’t as effective as I had hoped.  (That is pink pen by the way!)

Self assessment 2.0: Pupils hand in a piece of work to be marked.  The teacher photocopies it then marks as usual.  In the feedback lesson, students mark their own then compare their version with the teacher’s.  They then reflect on this.

Cartoon feedback: My colleague made this.  She used photoshop but there are a number of cartoon making sites such as ReadWriteThink and Witty Comics  There are any number of ways that this could be used such as making a stock of blank ones.  Teachers could leave the last bubble blank for pupils to comment.

Coded Feedback: Feedback is written in such a way that it has to be ‘translated’ e.g. in another language, an anagram etc.

Late night marking (from The Lazy Teacher): Give pupils the wrong feedback and ask them to explain why it is the wrong feedback.  I have developed this further by handing pupils their feedback on slips but to the wrong pupils.  They have to find their own feedback.

Pupils must prepare a starter activity to teach the rest of the class on the subject of their target.

Arrange your seating plan to seat pupils with the same targets together.  They can support each other and you can help them together.  Alternatively, you could pair a pupil with a particular target with someone who is strong in that area.

A couple of acronyms: STAR: Strength, Target, Activity, Response; STEP: Strength, Target, Evaluation, Progress

I have tried to maintain a serious tone but I will add here that I have something called ‘Feedback Friday’ with its own theme tune and a call and response: ‘when I say feedback, you say Friday.’  I met a parent who told me in front of their embarrassed son that he sings it at home.