Thoughts on marking

Photo of different coloured pens

Red is my favourite colour – it has been as long as I can remember.  So, you’d think that my departmental policy of using only red ink to mark in student’s books would come naturally to me.  But, I tend to flow around the class, using whatever pen or pencil is nearby to write in students’ books to aid them with their learning; and it’s not always in red.  Reflecting on this got me wondering more about marking, marking policies and their impact.

Does colour matter?

Photo of markbook with coloured pens

The colour of marking may affect the emotions of the student, but teachers could use this to their advantage.

The classic colour for a teacher to use is red, but at one point this was considered too aggressive and liable to damage students’ self-esteem, so many schools opted for green ink instead. But if teachers consistently mark in any other colour, surely that new colour will come to have the same connotations as red pen? It can also be argued that students need to have an emotional response in order for learning to take place, so noting mistakes in red could motivate a student to improve, while green could be used to give positive comments and praise.

Rainbow marking, as it can affectionately be called, is a development of Assessment for Learning techniques where students are encouraged to reply to the initial marking by the teacher.

Example of rainbow marking

An example of students going back over their work and making changes as directed by the teacher.  This means that the same work is marked twice by a teacher.

In many schools DIRT (Directed/dedicated Improvement/Independent Reflection Time) marking happens using a class set of purple pens, and is followed by the teacher looking back at the work a third time.

The rainbow of colours allows easy identification of each marking stage – but who is this for?  Knowledge gained from noting initial misconceptions shown in the work can be useful for teachers and if these misconceptions persist after student review it can inform planning, but this process does not need three colours!

When ‘Book Looks’ and observations take place, using three distinct colours can help observers to appreciate the progress a student has made during the learning cycle with ease.

Example of coloured sticker

Coloured stickers can be used to flag up tasks and pupil responses.  This makes the marking pop out of the exercise book, allowing students to quickly find the tasks they need to do and observers to quickly assess the quality of marking in a ‘Book Look’.

Some schools use coloured stickers in exercise books to further draw attention to clear targets and student responses. This has been really useful for finding patterns in the learning of a student when writing reports and it also makes it easy for observers to find the marking quickly to make their assessment of it as part of the management of the school.

How should we mark?

After graduating from my PGCE course, I continued to be interested in pedagogy and have completed in situ research regarding Assessment for Learning based on King College’s ‘The Black box’, supervised by Wolverhampton University.  This involved taking two identical year 7 classes from a single-gender grammar school cohort and changing their marking each half term.  I investigated three systems:

  1. Grades only: students were very interested in the grades and were happy if they got high grades and marks that were around 90%. There was no difference in their happiness at success between getting high marks on a recall test like knowing the names of organelles in cells, compared to a more complex test where they were explaining and evaluating the different organelles between specialised cells.  Parents were puzzled as to what the numbers meant, as they were confused between the school marking policy and the National Curriculum Levels.
  2. Comments only: students felt like they were never good enough. They seemed to ignore the positive comments and focus only on the areas that they could improve or areas to stretch themselves further.  Interestingly, although they felt that they were not doing a good job, their actual attainment improved.
  3. Grades and comments: students and parents only focused on the grades as they wanted to achieve well. The comments were usually not acted upon and the attainment was in-line with grades only marking.

Good marking

Marking must be manageable in the ever-busy workload of a teacher.  It should aim to boost student’s confidence so that they can complete tasks and develop in the subject whilst tackling misconceptions.

With the advent of the internet, students can get robust notes to revise from at the click of a button and their exercise book no longer needs to be their main learning resource for exams.  The exercise book represents the learning journey of the student, to help them achieve in the subject.  So, to make my marking more manageable, I focus on key skills in the exercise books, ensuring tables are correctly recorded, graphs are drawn correctly, and definitions are in line with those of the exam board.  I sprinkle a few grades – usually from topic tests or exam questions – to help students feel good about themselves but stick to mainly comments backed up by conversations in class so that the lines of communication are open.  It’s difficult to document these learning chats though, so some of my colleagues have a stamp to show verbal feedback was given. The debate about what makes good marking continues!

By Sam Holyman, with thanks to Kat Stuart for discussion and examples of different types of marking.

Sam Holyman is Second in Science at Aylesford School in Warwick, and formerly West Midlands ASE President. She is also author of a number of best-selling science textbooks for KS3 and GCSE, and a keen advocate of innovative teaching and learning. She was nominated in the Teacher Scientist category for the Science Council’s 100 leading practising scientists, a Chartered Science Teacher and has recently been awarded a CPD Quality mark.

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