Pragmatic Marking

workload_4Here are some thoughts on marking, an incredibly time consuming business. The strategy developed is in response to a very time starved teacher: myself. I call it Pragmatic Marking.

Marking has one purpose and one purpose only: to assess progress on a task that requires independent thinking. Marking work where students could potentially simply be mimicking content I’ve taught is pointless, and very time consuming. This includes any scaffolded tasks. Don’t get me wrong; these modelling tasks are essential to learning, as students begin to shape their skill in responding to specific tasks and requirements from syllabi, but marking them in a book won’t really tell me too much. This is important for your students to know also, so as not to expect any unnecessary and unproductive comments or praise for the sake of it.

Talk about a slow learner, but whilst marking my 7000th book I had an epiphany: I should be marking backwards.

Here’s how it works:

I won’t mark everything students do, but a piece of work that is the culmination of a series of lessons that tests independent thinking: an opportunity for me to see whether students have ‘really’ got a particular course objective.

From this, 2 paths are possible:

  1. The student is on track – There are several possibilities here. I could do nothing, as the student has successfully managed the work, or I could apply positive feedback, where I could either tick aspects of the work that are well done, or establish a key with symbols and annotate the work when aspects of the marking criteria are met (my preference).

Do I need to add EBI? The common trend is to do so, but I am beginning to think that this may not be necessary, because if you think about it why would I expect such extension when I am not testing for it; the EBI’s will surely shape the next series of lessons. Also, maybe it is more powerful for the students’ motivation to know that they have (plain and simple) just succeeded in the task, without the constant weight of knowing there ‘could and should’ be more?

    2. Students haven’t made progress – this may be evident at various levels:

  • If a student hasn’t understood the main objective of the task, this will probably be evident fairly quickly. E.g. – analysis technique is not explaining the effect of a word, or is not concise enough. As soon as you see a pattern or consistent error related to the main objective, stop marking. Developmental Feedback is added stating that the objective hasn’t been achieved, yet, and a target is set after I diagnose where the issue lies (see next bullet). There may be secondary errors prevalent, e.g. many SPaG errors in first paragraph, but it is usually not worth identifying them if the first error is significant – better to focus on one thing at a time.
  • Now you need to backtrack, and work out where the issue began to emerge. Is it organisational, or skill?
    • Organisational – Missing work, incomplete tasks, poor organisation – All of these lead to gaps in knowledge, and feedback then would set a target of getting all of these up to date; this would become a valid homework activity. There is little point in doing anything else at this stage, as diagnosing a skill issue would be invalid. If the student couldn’t complete the activities because they didn’t understand how to, then this is skill based – see next bullet.
    • Skill – As you go backwards from the main task through each activity, if well designed, you are likely to see the precise point where misunderstanding occurred. This is where you will add some feedback. If it is not evident, then you will know that some differentiation or bridging task needs to happen between the last activity and the main task, and this then becomes the only feedback written in the book in the form of a target. NB: it is important to consider that skill could be hindered by knowledge, as explained well by Doug Lemov and in another light by Andy Tharby, and AFL should have this in mind before evaluations are made of progress.

An example: Below,  the main task (1) is a piece of work in which students responded to an extract from the novel War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The learning objective was to explain how language techniques are used to create an effect on the reader. In the first lesson in the sequence, students were  introduced to a template for how to respond to such a question with an example modelled on the board, and asked to analyse more examples explicitly using the template. They were then given opportunities to briefly practise independently over the next two lessons after a variety of language techniques were introduced, before finally producing the main task.

1. Main task. Some obvious issues – minor (quote is too long; incorrect technique identified – adverbs;  possible conflation of techniques) and one major issue – no explanation given as to how the language techniques are used to create effect. I would annotate this on the page and stop once I see a pattern occurring.


2. Going backwards in the student’s book, this is the task just before the main. The connection between the language technique and the effect is not secure enough, so I need to go back further. I note the conflation of techniques doesn’t happen here and the student is focusing on a single technique. I may not need to mark this task.


3. Point made but quote and technique not connected to the effect on the reader. Need to go back further.


4. Scaffolded task – student has applied the template successfully and can explain the effect of word choice.


Conclusion: The issue must be that linking the explanation to the point is not secure. The template/scaffold has not been applied in each activity after this first modelled task. I now go back to 3, and add some feedback regarding the need to connect effect of language to the point made. Task 2 doesn’t need to be marked and neither does the scaffolded task (4). The strategy indicated to reach the target added after the main task would include the need to practise several examples that use the template. Sub targets, (which may or may not be added so as not to overload the student), would include being more precise with what words need to be focused on in the quote, sticking to one technique at a time, as well as some work on understanding adjectives and adverbs. The student would be taught how to react to the feedback: going back through his or her book to find the point of issue. The response to the feedback would also become a valid homework exercise.  Note: If this student was not in the minority, then this feedback exercise would be the subject of the next lesson.

The Benefits – Let’s break down some numbers now.

  • using a key to apply positive feedback and not adding EBI saves huge amounts of writing on students’ work, which saves huge amounts of time.
  • usually, the number of students who you will actually need to provide developmental feedback to will be less than a 1/3rd. As I traverse backwards through theses students’ books there will be variation in how much actual traversing I have to do, as some students will have more gaps than others. In the end I may only end up having to apply substantial written feedback to 3 or 4 students out of a class of 30. Now that’s a massive amount of time saving, time that can now be spent on designing tasks to fill the gaps and following up on them.

Another advantage of this technique is that it is fine tuning my diagnosis skills in finding where an issue arises. I can also see if the expected skill jump between tasks is too great.  This then helps me to plan future lessons better as I am more in touch with the strengths and weaknesses of my students’ skill base.

Expected critique – How could a student get to this point before intervention? Shouldn’t I be able to see issues during the lesson, and address them there and then? Yes, I feel guilty when I go through a student’s work and see 2 or even 3 tasks in a row where the objective hasn’t been met. In fact I shudder. But we all know that in large classes it just isn’t possible to get to every student. Of course it is my intention, but sometimes helping 3 or 4 students can take up all of the time allotted to practise an objective. As such, some students will often complete several practice tasks before I can assess for learning. When that happens, I have to become pragmatic in how I go about marking work.


FINAL THOUGHTS – We all know that student progress is imperative, and we all strive to maximise it. We also all know that feedback is imperative to ensure progress, but how often we need to provide it is most definitely not definite. With time being the enemy of a teacher, we need to find ways that eliminate unnecessary marking, marking that actually doesn’t do anything for the student. Pragmatic Marking may just be such a choice.


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