Pitch perfect: How to get the most out of your marking

We all have to mark to some degree. Some schools have quite labour-intensive systems with fixed frequency, others favour a more whole-class feedback model, but we all mark. I’m not talking about the marking of summative assessments to judge the students, like end of topic/term/year tests, but the day-to-day formative marking.

But do we make the most out of the time we spend doing it?

For me it’s all about pitching the right question or activity. If you get that  right then marking is both vital and even something you look forward to.

It took me years to figure out how to pose the right question. I have Matthew Newberry to thank mainly. Over our time working together he showed me how to pose questions to get the best out of a student.

I’m going to try to break down:

  1. Why we should only mark certain types of work
  2. How to figure out what work to mark
  3. How to pose the question to allow for a broad response
  4. The different ways I have gone about marking in the past
  5. How to pose feedback to get the most improvement from the students.

I’ll try to illustrate my thoughts with an example I did recently with a Year 9 low ability class.

Why we should only mark certain types of work

If I were a maths teacher I think I would only do self-marking (maybe with a splash of oversight on the wrong answers with live marking in lessons). This is because 10.5 is either right or wrong. It’s not an effective use of my time and the hyper-correction effect is wasted. I’m sure maths teachers will disagree, but I think the time would be much better spent planning explicit instructions, SLOP and working with small groups of students than endless ticking of 10.5.

In science I think teachers should mark, but too often teachers mark work that is too easy to mark. This is a waste of time. The work needs to be complex enough that each student’s response demands your attention. It needs to be diagnostic enough that you can’t give the exact same feedback to each student. It needs to have an extended response (which in science can include multi-step calculations) as these are the best way to find the misconceptions. A lot of students know the concepts in isolation but it is the application that stretches them. So we need students to be applying concepts in the work we mark. We also need to mark for literacy as often as possible.

With all these aspects considered, this is why I only mark extended responses. By that I mean something that requires a written paragraph. Everything else should be self-marked, show called, verbally discussed etc.

This can create a problem though, as without considered planning this can be quite hard to do. Trust me, I have been caught short often, especially in the times when my school required a fortnightly marking cycle. I remember sitting at home marking the same three sentences bored out of my mind and resenting every second.

How to figure out what work to mark

My answer to this is surprisingly simple. Mark the work that you are curious about. If you are planning a question or task correctly you should be honestly curious about the answers the students provide. I think all teachers have that curiosity inside them and love to get a window into the students’ understanding. In each topic there are certain areas which are key to understand. These threshold concepts need to be a big part of any activity you do, and ideally students need to apply them in a context. Essentially whatever we are assessing, we will always be checking the students’ understanding of the main threshold concepts, from as broad as energy conservation to as precise as the ‘lock and key’ model. It is our moral responsibility to ensure students leave our care with a core understanding of all the important models covered in the syllabus, so that they can be successful adults in a modern world.

In my example I have decided to use the topic of photosynthesis and especially the idea of limiting factors, which I covered with my Year 9 bottom set a few weeks ago.

The ideas I really need to check they understand and can write about are mainly the idea of limiting factors and the reaction of photosynthesis. I also want to make sure they understand the conservation of energy and elements/compounds/molecules.

How to pose the question for a broad response

This is the crux of the issue. Posing the right question is everything. It needs to be both content- and context-specific. We need to assess the right content at the right time and also at the right level to put the students in our class in the struggle zone. 

In the summer term I spent some time looking through the topics taught in KS3 +4 and thinking about the best questions to pose. It’s hard to find a question which can be adjusted to challenge a wide range of abilities and cover important aspects of the science being taught. I’ll upload the questions I came up with below.

So I am going to pose a scenario of 3 identical plants in my house. One growing on the kitchen window sill, one growing in the airing cupboard and one growing outside on the patio. It’s autumn and colder now so that gives me a range for each limiting factor. The question I will pose is, “Explain which plant will grow best using the idea of limiting factors”.

They are a low ability group, so will need some scaffolding through the thinking frame and some sentence starters. We will work through those early steps together, sharing ideas and drawing diagrams that they will label. They will then write their answer in silence.

A quick note on exam questions: Personally I don’t use them verbatim. They are a good place to start but often by their nature they are too narrow at KS3. The extended response questions at GCSE are a really good source of questions for science, if you can find one that covers what you want. The bonus is you get a mark scheme which really helps build the criteria marking sheet.

The different ways I have marked

I have followed nearly every fad in marking over the years, from VLE, highlighters, codes, turbomarking etc..

Personally I prefer to actually write the comment, I like its immediacy and its flexibility. But I also find value in the efficiency of a ‘success criteria’ slip which can be highlighted for areas covered and areas missing from the answer. A real strength of this is it forces me to reflect on ‘what a good one looks like’ (WAGOLL).  WAGOLL really helps check you’ve posed a decent question and I find this the most common method of feedback in my dept. I can add comments if I feel the need to.

I have never used ‘whole class feedback’, but I can see its value. I worry that some students find it hard to know if they are the ones making that mistake. While the reflection must be valuable meta-cognitively, I worry that the general delusion/cognitive bias of teenagers will mean the ones that really need it will ignore it

In this case I didn’t do a criteria sheet and this was a mistake. The criteria sheet would have been a great scaffold for their writing and probably helped them produce better responses. Here is a quick mock up…

photo criteria

How to pose feedback to get the most improvement from the students

If you have managed to pose a decent question you should have a variety of responses that you are curious to read.

This is how I mark it. I tick bits that are good, annotate the work or highlight the criteria, highlight any literacy issues (including misuse of scientific terminology) in orange and then finish up with a simple question/instruction.

This final feedback is the hardest. if you have done WAGOLL then you should have a clear idea of what is missing and can pose a question to lead them onto the next steps or just circle them on the criteria sheet. If not then you need to think about which mistake or aspect is missing that focuses on the key ideas involved. It has to be specific enough so it can be answered in a few lines and add value to the student’s understanding.

When the students receive the work back. if there are any common mistakes then it might be worth a small re-teach before they get started. Then they need to ‘squash the orange’ and correct any literacy issues before acting on their feedback. As all they have is a word highlighted they need to investigate why it is wrong and consider other options. This is harder than just mindlessly acting but will reduce the chances of them making the same mistake again.

If the question was decent then the final feedback instruction should make itself apparent to you as you read it. To avoid getting the student to spend ages re-inventing science or guessing what you have in your mind, it’s worth correcting some broad mistakes directly and then posing a question which requires them to use it. Learning to ensure that every comment or question has to require action from the student was a transformational aspect of my development as a teacher. Students with whole-scale problems in their work might need to re-draft, others might have not completed and need to finish their answers.

So in our example I focused my questions on extending their response (now explain why less light slows the growth of the plant) or correcting a misconception (why is it wrong to say a plant breathed out oxygen? write the correct version underneath along with your reason)

So to summarise,

  • Put your time into marking challenging questions, not simple ones
  • Do consider carefully the question you set. Make it tailored to the threshold concepts you need to cover.
  • Prioritise feedback on things that will change the students’ thinking and get them to act on it.

A list of questions for the KS3 United Learning curriculum can be found here

How to use the thinking frame 


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