All that marking you do? Waste of time.

Embed from Getty Images

One of the worst myths we have in education is not learning styles or that we only use 10% of ours brains, it is the myth that feedback is the same thing as marking.

John Hattie has done much to popularise the idea that feedback is highly effective but this conclusion highlights one of the problems with Hattie’s kind of meta-analysis – there’s a whole bag of quite different things sitting under that label.

Hattie himself acknowledges that of all forms of feedback, feedback to the teacher is one of the most powerful kinds. Yet we continually think of feedback as something that teachers supply to students, in writing. And Dylan Wiliam points out that, while the effects of feedback are large, a worrying proportion of them are negative. It seems that telling a student that she has done something right or wrong can have unpredictable consequences.

Imagine a classic physics question. Students are presented with a diagram of a book on a desk complete with an arrow to show the weight of the book and an arrow to show the push of the desk back up on the book. The question is: what is the Newton’s third law pair of the weight of the book?


I’ll give you two options for answering this question:

1. The students write the answer in an exercise book, perhaps at home. You then collect in the books and mark them.

2. The students write their answers on a mini whiteboard and hold them up during the lesson.

From experience, a lot of students will get this question wrong, even after correct instruction. The right answer is ‘the gravitational pull of the book on the Earth’ but this feels weird. The students’ eyes are drawn to the other arrow and they choose the push of the desk on the book.

So if you follow option 1, you’ll get a load of exercise books full of the same error which you will need to explain and correct, in writing. These explanations will have to be brief if you’re ever going to get to bed. Moreover, if this question was set as homework then some students who had help with their homework won’t get your written feedback, even though they probably need it.

Teaching has been reduced to the teacher corresponding individually and in writing with different members of the class.

But if you choose option 2 then you, the teacher, gain instant feedback. Students are present in front of you so you can ask them why they gave the answers that they gave. You can then tailor a more extensive explanation to address the issues that the students raise, and you can monitor and adjust for the emotional impact at the same time. All of this is feedback but none of it is marking.

English teachers are probably thinking that this is all very well but it won’t work in English. It’s not as straightforward, no. But the same principles apply: Correct what you can with the students in front of you. It helps if you can break things down rather than always relying on assessing whole pieces of writing. The traditional approach where a teacher circles and highlights parts of a written response before writing a paragraph at the end, is likely to be ineffective because there is too much for the student to take on.

Although there is plenty of evidence for feedback, there is a general lack of evidence for simply marking. This is why the English schools inspectorate have now issued new guidance to inspectors to stop asking for ever more detailed marking.

So feedback is potentially very powerful. But if you’re spending loads of your time marking then you might want to have a think about what you’re trying to achieve and if there is a better way of achieving it.


16 thoughts on “All that marking you do? Waste of time.

  1. Indeed. But marking policies are often school-issued and not down to the individual teacher. It will also be interesting to see if the Ofsted ‘clarification’ has much of an effect.

  2. I sometimes wonder if the obsession with feedback is because a lot of people in the education world would rather that ordinary teachers concentrate on that, rather than look too closely at the fact that direct instruction was also highlighted as being extremely effective…

    • Direct Instruction evidence *does* make it into schools but usually in the form of sharing the purpose of the lesson, which then mutates into writing learning objectives on the board, which further mutates into writing learning objectives, learning outcomes and success criteria. A good idea about orally sharing the intention of the lesson gets turned into paperwork.

    • Tempe says:

      I agree fish62, schools seem to have taken on feedback (in some guise) but ignore Hattie’s really glaringly obvious impact re: Direct Instruction. This always seemed odd to me too but I think Greg as nailed it with his explanation below. The schools seem to have taken explicit instruction and reinterpreted it so it doesn’t interfere to much in the progressive ideals they are beholden.

      When I was scouting around for schools for my daughter the idea seemed to be that explicit instruction meant making learning goals explicit, not actually teaching the content in an explicit way. Looking over my daughters books she seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time writing out these goals and success criteria which were never referred to again. When you looked to see where the content for the lesson was it didn’t exist because it was generally done via a white board video or asking students to Google it. I’m not sure where the teacher was in all of this.

  3. So true. In the Netherlands lots of excessive marking (high stakes assessment) are done because that would be fair to pupils. In exit exams (secondary education) standard procedure is for TWO teachers to independently mark all papers. The costs are enormous, the benefits nil except for the assessments being ‘fair’. But what is fair about stealing so much time that could have been used to teach pupils, after all the core business of education?

    • Mitch says:

      I don’t think this post is about high stakes assessment marking or for that matter, ‘assessment of learning’. This type of assessment is not about improving learning, it is about judgements against standards or other studets. Of course this type of assessment needs to be done in a fair and equitable way for students. I fail to see how you think students should be judged or compared.

  4. Mike says:

    An interesting topic.

    On a related note, I’ve found over the years that, when tests/exams are given back, there seems to be a divergence of opinion among even experienced teachers over whether it’s better to “go over” them in some detail orally, or provide enough feedback on the individual papers to help the kids to avoid the common errors in the future. I’m firmly in favour of the first option (and not only for time-saving reasons, although that obviously comes into it!). It’s actually sometimes a good chance to think of a different analogy/example to use to explain an important principle, if the stock one(s) didn’t sink in this time around.

  5. I think this post highlights one of the reasons why Mazur’s Peer Instruction strategy seems to work so well in tertiary science classes (the in class part. Especially this line “Hattie himself acknowledges that of all forms of feedback, feedback to the teacher is one of the most powerful kinds.” The Peer instruction inclass workflow is basically built around feedback to the teacher through the ConcepTest informing instructional decisions, without any book marking in sight!

    I guess the same point also supports Dylan Wiliam’s hinge questions which work in a similar fashion to ConcepTests.

  6. I think this post illustrates a form of argument that I see increasingly frequently in all parts of the education debate, which goes “because we do x badly, there is no point in doing it well”. We are often led into this form of argument by over-simplistic use of research evidence. If “x isn’t working”, then we conclude “don’t do x”, instead of “do x better”. It illustrates why we need to develop more sophisticated models of what is happening instead of being blown one way and then another by successive correlations (research x shows y).

    Why the dichotomy between direct instruction and feedback, for starters? By DI, do you just mean lecturing? If so, are you limiting the role of the teacher to the handing out of propositional knowledge? There seems to me to a danger that the new-traditionalists (among whom I count myself) become too wedded to propositional knowledge, ignoring the importance of how that knowledge is applied (what we mean, most of the time, by intellectual skills). If, on the other hand, you are going to teach skills (in association with appropriate propositional knowledge), then how are you going to do it other than by giving feedback?

    Timeliness of feedback is of course important. But the ability to give appropriate verbal feedback is limited by the amount of contact time, which is small. Track a student through a school day and see how much productive verbal conversation they engage in with their teachers. I think you will find it is pitifully small. It is not because teachers are lazy: they simply do not have enough time.

    It is true that many errors are of a common type, so the human marker will end up repeating the same annotation hundreds of times (see my recent This is just a case of inefficient methodology, not unsound pedagogy. Why are teachers writing the same comments out many times in longhand?

    A third problem, which you do not mention, is that written feedback is rarely given as part of an iterative feedback loop in which the student is required to do something with the comments, like re-drafting. Good teachers might require this, but it is time-consuming and hard work. The comments are consequently ignored.

    Why then, are expensive human graduates doing this sort of repetitive, mechanical, logistically demanding work that computers could do so much better, more quickly, more often and more cheaply (and without boring the human teacher to tears?) Why, in short, are our education systems not taking seriously the potential of computers to solve these intractible problems? Because previous attempts to apply hopelessly simplistic forms of edtech, based on a model of independent learning online, were a disaster? QED: because we do x badly, lets not bother to do it well.

    I agree with Ryan Campbell that Mazur’s peer instruction is one very plausible way of scaling feedback. This is itself dependent on the intelligent use of IT and its adaptation for use in secondary schools (where it will be used without the presence of a top-flight-subject-expert) requires, in my view, quite sophisticated IT systems to do well. The major difficulty (apart from administering electronic polls in real time, which is fairly simple) is the selection of appropriate questions that demand that the class apply their knowledge in interesting ways, which will split the class approximately down the middle (50% getting it right and 50% getting it wrong). I also wrote about this at At secondary level, it is also a technique that needs to be combined with other pedagogies, pre-supposing good digital sequencing tools.

    In the end, I think you are pointing out problems to teachers that they do not themselves have the means to solve. We need systematic solutions that can only be devised by governments and commercial publishers and technology suppliers.

  7. Pingback: Reducing Workload Part 2: Policy vs. Autonomy | mrbunkeredu

  8. Pingback: Marking and misbehaviour in Australian classrooms – TALIS 2018 – Filling the pail

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.