Effective marking: what do we really know?

Teachers spend much of their time marking, but do we really know what makes an impact on pupil progress? We summarise the research evidence

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Owen is interested in all things teaching. A former content lead at Optimus Education, he now works as a project manager for The Brilliant Club, an award-winning charity that exists to increase the number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds...

Marking: it consumes enormous amounts of teachers' time, but we know surprisingly little about what makes it effective.

That at least was the conclusion of the Education Endowment Foundation's review on written marking.

Here I'll summarise what we do know about marking, what we don't, and what teachers and school leaders need to bear in mind.

Tread carefully

The researchers behind the report have said 'we would be very happy if people took the current lack of evidence on marking as the key finding.'

While it's commonly assumed that forms of marking like DIRT, triple impact, red pen / green pen are effective, there are as yet no specific studies to support this. 

Though the EEF has dedicated £2 million to research into specific marking approaches, it will take some time for the results of these trials to appear. In the meantime it would be wise not to assume that any given type of marking is inherently effective. 

Marking isn't the same as feedback

We know from the EEF studies and others that feedback to learners about their performance and how to improve it is hugely important, adding an average of eight months progress.

But marking is only one aspect of feedback, and one of the most under-studied parts. 

As the EEF review notes, there are many cases where verbal feedback to pupils will do the same thing as marking, but much more quickly and much more efficiently.

The DfE marking policy review group recommended that schools avoid privileging marking over other forms of feedback by making it part of an assessment policy alongside other practices, rather than having a dedicated marking policy. An excellent example of this sort of feedback policy has been shared by Michael Tidd.

The takeaway: feedback is definitely important, but written marking is only one aspect of this. Think of marking as one strand of assessment and feedback.

Just grading probably isn't worth it

No evidence was found that awarding a grade without comments had a positive impact on pupil progress: it may in fact have a negative effect.

The evidence on awarding grades alongside comments is a bit more mixed: the majority of studies suggest that this takes away from the impact of the comments, but one study did find a different outcome, and there is evidence to indicate that grades alongside comments may affect different groups of pupils differently.

The takeaway: if you want the effect of marking a piece of work to be purely formative, consider leaving out or minimising the use of grades.

Meaningful, manageable and motivating

The DfE workload review suggests three principles for effective marking. It should be:

  • meaningful
  • manageable
  • motivating.

Meaningful: marking should serve a single purpose, advancing pupil progress and outcomes. Different forms of feedback will be appropriate in different situations, and the teacher can judge this. Each subject and phase should be able to determine marking policy in their own area.

Manageable: the time taken to mark is not the same as effective marking. Don't adopt particular marking practices for Ofsted: they don't expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback, provided marking is consistent with the school assessment policy and promotes pupil progress. Pupils should be encouraged to check and proofread their own work before handing it in.

Motivating: marking should help motivate pupils to progress. This doesn't mean always writing in-depth comments or being universally positive. Pupils should be expected to check their work before they hand it in, and should be taught to understand the success criteria for a task (in an age appropriate way).

The takeaway: marking needs to be meaningful, manageable and motivating, and your school should come to an agreement about what reasonable marking constitutes, and where you could make efficiencies.

Frequent marking isn't the same as effective marking

There are no studies focusing on the impact of acknowledgement marking i.e. 'tick and flick' marking to show that work has been seen.

Marking studies from EFL and higher education suggest that in general more focused marking, concentrating on a particular type of error or theme, can be effective in addressing errors. 'Acknowledgement' marking is almost certainly not as effective.

Although the evidence base is still pretty thin, schools might want to consider 'marking less, but better' - especially given workload considerations.

The DfE marking workload review is really useful here: 'the quality of the feedback, however given, will be seen in how a pupil is able to tackle subsequent work'.

The takeaway: make your measure of effectiveness how pupils learn as a result of marking, not the frequency with which marking is done.

Deep marking isn't always a requirement

Deep marking was defined by the workload review group as: a process where 'teachers provide written feedback to pupils offering guidance with a view to improving or enhancing the future performance of pupils. Pupils are then expected to respond in writing to the guidance which in turn is verified by the teacher'. This includes dialogic marking and triple marking.

No Government or Ofsted policy has ever set this form of marking as a standard, and no research studies have focused on these specific techniques.

While in general we want learners to have to respond to and think about feedback they receive, written marking may not always be the best way to achieve this, and verbal feedback may often be easier and quicker.

The takeaway: pupils responding to feedback is often a good thing, but this doesn't have to be written, nor should teachers always need to respond.

Last Updated: 
02 Jun 2016