Missing the mark

This week I’ve been pondering the fact that we teachers don’t always make the best markers. I mentioned this in passing to a Year 11 tutee a couple of days ago and he expressed such incredulity that I decided to unpick my thoughts a little. Why do teachers struggle to mark accurately and disapassionately?

First of all, marking is incredibly difficult. Even shorter-answer questions take an enormous amount of concentration and classroom teachers are under intolerable time-pressure most of the time. Marking is rarely something that teachers enjoy and prioritise (I’ve met the odd bizarre teacher who claims to “love” marking but if I’m honest I always assumed they were pretending). Longer-answer questions require even greater concentration (English teachers, I feel your pain) and they also require training; if a teacher has not acted as a professional marker and/or attended a training course run by the examining body which addresses those questions and the mark scheme in detail, they may be making false assumptions about how those question will be assessed.

Secondly, teachers develop their marking as a professional tool to aid the teaching process, not as an end goal in itself. When I was training “assessment for learning” – something which its pioneers, Black and Wiliam, now say they wished they had called “responsive teaching” – was the new focus in education, and to a large extent it still dominates. Responsive teaching (I shall call it by its preferred name) requires teachers to mark in a manner that informs their planning – in other words, teachers should base their next lesson on the information that has arisen out of the last time they looked at their students’ work. From the outset, both Black and Wiliam campaigned for teachers to mark in a manner that reduced their workload – I heard Professor Black deliver a session at The Latymer School where I used to work, and he was without a doubt the first educationalist to stand up and tell me to spend less time marking. Black and Wiliam’s vision was that teachers should mark in a smarter way that genuinely informed their teaching – all outstanding advice.

What it means, however, is that teachers are trained to use marking as a diagnostic tool. Every time we mark, we are acquiring and encoding information about how that student is doing and – let’s be frank – whether they are following instructions and/or approaching their learning as we have taught them to. This all feeds into our overall impression of how a student is performing and will shape our next approaches. This is of course jolly difficult in the mainstream classroom, where a class of 30 may present a myriad of responses to what they have been taught so far. Happily, schools are learning to adapt more effectively to this, with leading proponents of whole-class feedback such as Daisy Christodoulou, the brains behind the “no more marking” campaign, driving schools towards a more effective way to share feedback to larger groups. Schools who have not fully adapted in this direction (mine was one of them) are overloading teachers with unnecessary work, since all the research points towards whole-class feedback as by far the most effective use of teachers’ time. Asking teachers to write individual, personalised feedback to every student in a large class is insane and remains one of the things that drives people out of the profession.

So let us come back to the original comment which so surprised my tutee, which was the suggestion that teachers don’t always make the best markers. I told him that I worked as part of a group of 6 professional markers who were assigned the A level literature components a few years ago. Most of us were working classroom teachers, but one member of the group was a subject expert but not a teacher. If I’m honest I was surprised she was there and expected her to struggle with the process. How wrong I was. In fact, she rapidly became the best out of all of us. You see, she was arriving without all the baggage. We teachers look at a script and immediately start thinking about the individual that wrote it. How if only they had done this or that then their answer would have been better. I found it hard not to feel frustrated by the ones who had clearly not learnt the text – again, a symptom of years at the chalkface. I rejoiced for the ones who had excelled. I ached for the ones who had misunderstood the question. But the non-teaching subject expert had no emotional baggage to bring to the table, no classroom-weary experience of working with a myriad of teenagers, who can be frustrating at the best of times; she approached the process entirely disapassionately. Teachers tend to pick up a script and think “how can I help this student to improve?”, or sometimes – let’s be honest – “what on earth are they doing?!”. Examiners must pick up a script and think nothing other than “where precisely does this response fit in the mark scheme?” That’s actually incredibly difficult to do if your brain is used to marking for the classroom – marking for the purpose of helping students to develop and improve.

One of the things we had to develop as part of the examining process was the ability to judge when an answer had hit the threshold for full marks. The teachers in the group took far longer to understand this than the non-teacher. This – I believe – is because we were so used to looking for reasons and ideas to help the students in front of us. The schools I have worked in were all obsessed with “even better if” comments – what tweaks could even the most outstanding of students make to their answer in order to make it better? Much as I applaud the notion that there is always room for improvement, this was sometimes exhausting and at times felt cruel. Sometimes I blatantly ignored school policy and said “you know what? This was perfect. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. Keep up the brilliant work.” Sometimes students need to hear that. But marking for the exam board isn’t about perfection – marking for the exam board will require you to give full marks to an answer that is decidely less than perfect. The exam board does not require perfection – it requires students to show their knowledge in a way that fits the mark scheme (and yes, it is a somewhat mechanical and artificial process). Giving full marks to an answer that could be improved was something that the teachers in the group – myself included – had to be trained into doing; it still felt weird every time we did it.

Exam boards are struggling more and more to recruit markers, a symptom of the fact that teachers are already under intolerable strain much of the time as well as an indicator of just how appalling the rates of pay are. I have always advocated that working as a professional marker is excellent CPD and that teachers should mark for the board they teach to if they can; however, I completely understand why so many of them simply cannot find the time or the energy to do so.

Photo by Mauro Gigli on Unsplash

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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