Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati
Week 1: Why?
As a PGCE Student going through two school placements in North Wales back in 2005, I found it hard to keep up with daily admin. Just planning lessons and trying to deliver stimulating content and keeping the students engaged throughout, was challenging enough. Marking: I dreaded it, and found it almost impossible to fit it into my weekly regimen of teaching, planning and completing assignments for university.
Fast forward to today, and marking has become an enjoyable part of my job. I find it relaxing and I enjoy the thought of the motivational effect it will have when I write “Excellent effort. Well done for…..” on a student’s assignment.
Marking is an essential part of a teacher’s job. Get it right, and you’ll have a massive impact on the success and emotional well being of your students. Neglect to do it, and students will become lethargic and lack-luster, and may even resent you personally (or, at the very least, dislike the subject).
Why should we mark our students’ work?
First and foremost: marking provides acknowledgement for work completed. This is essential, as all students need to know that their time and effort has been noticed, is being monitored and has been recognised.
Whilst working in a previous school some years back I was immediately hit with the reality of this truth.
At the start of the academic year, students handed in reams and reams of homework that they had been assigned over the summer. Thankfully, none of it fell on my shoulders, as it was my first year there.
Stacks and stacks of Physics booklets, Maths past-paper questions and English assignments were handed in and piled on a large table in a special room. It was quite a sight to see. Lots of marking for many teachers and they hadn’t even taught their first lessons of the year yet!
Three months later and I remember walking in to that room just out of curiosity. I was shocked to see that many (but not all) of the student work was still there and hadn’t been marked at all. One student confided to the Head of Department that she would “Never do summer homework again. Teachers don’t even look at it!”. This was then passed on to us in a departmental meeting. Needless to say, there were some very sad-looking faces sat around the table that day.
Students have to know that their teachers care about the work that they do. They need to know that it matters, and that their time and effort is appreciated.
If you’re finding it hard to get your marking done quickly because of other commitments, then at least give your students some specific verbal acknowledgement before they get their work back. “I was looking through your Chemistry homework on Acids and Bases, Jonathan, and I have to say that I was very impressed with your Kc calculations. Well done for learning the correct formulae. I appreciate your time and effort in doing this work. You’ll get it back at some point next week.”
Every human being responds positively to sincere praise. It motivates us, keeps us working hard and provides us with a sense of validation.
A nice personal story I experienced some years back illustrates this point.
I had just started as a Science teacher at a school in the U.K. and I was given a Year 9 bottom set class to teach, and they were quite a challenge both behaviorally and academically.
Conversations about this class, and individuals in it, were overwhelmingly negative whenever it was raised in the staff-room coffee break. This negativity became quite infectious, and many teachers saw little hope for many of the kids in this class.
I decided on a different tactic. I had learnt on my PGCE that praise always works better than sanctions (NB. Excellent article from Trinity College London here.). I decided to find anything I could to praise these students for. I decided that for two weeks I would not reprimand them for anything unless it was serious. I would ignore low level disruption and just focus on praise.
Quite a bold move some would say, but the effect was dramatic.
If a student drew a half-neat diagram, I would notice the straight lines and colors. If a kid underlined the date I would acknowledge that and say “Brilliant! I’m so pleased that you’re taking great care to present your notes properly”. Handing in homework – instant praise for being organised and responsible.
The result was that by the end of two weeks my students were literally running down the corridor to get to Science class (a little too excited!). They all worked well and behavior management became rather easy. There were marked changes in student attitude, and many confided in me to say that Science was their favorite subject.
This was a good start, but it wasn’t enough to be sustainable.
Overwhelming praise is great in the initial stages of getting to know a class, but eventually errors in work must be addressed.
So how do you do this in a way that isn’t confrontational or demotivating?
The best way I’ve found is to mention one improvement area first, before addressing a number of praiseworthy acts. This improvement area can be phrased as a ‘target’. This can be done verbally, one-to-one or can be written as a comment:
“Target: Your handwriting a little unclear. Try to make this neater next time. I love your description of solids, liquids and gases. Well done for making your particle diagrams so neat and clear!”
Assessment for Learning pedagogy, which has been active for around 15 years now, identifies student self-reflection and a mindset of “taking responsibility for my own learning” as key impact areas for marking to be successful.
In short, it means that students should be encouraged to go back over their work, correct it, and formulate targets for improvement and growth.
It can be time-consuming to get the kids used to this and trained up, but once embedded it can be used throughout a child’s schooling as a very powerful way to catalyse improvement and encourage a ‘growth mindset’.
Try writing questions on pieces of student work (see below). “Whats the name of this part”. “How did the Montague’s react to this?”, “Well done for mentioning the word “deforestation’. How could this be a contributing factor in localised flooding”
Especially important for exam-level classes is repeated past-paper practice. Get your students familiar with the language of official mark schemes. Encourage them to correct the papers they’ve done by being very strict with themselves when following the mark scheme.
Recommended Book: Mark, Plan, Teach
This is a great book that puts the importance of marking in it’s full context as a means to enhance teaching and learning. Full of great examples and practical advice. Highly recommended. By Ross Morrison McGill (Twitter: @teachertoolkit).
Available at Amazon.