Meaningful, manageable and motivating: 5 tips for marking written maths work

|6 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post published on August 21, 2018.

Assessment in maths should be clear and purposeful. It needs to help children identify misconceptions, help them improve and move forward, inform any ‘next steps’ and support their overall progress.

Crucially, it should encourage active information processing on the part of pupils.

In their 2007 article ‘The Power of Feedback’ Professor John Hattie and Helen Timperely wrote:

“feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative”.

But there’s another assessment argument to be made.

In 2016, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) report from the Marking Policy Review Group set out recommendations to reduce the workload burden on teachers. It looked at the role marking plays in teaching and identified the three principles of effective marking: meaningful, manageable and motivating.

Indeed, a common-sense approach to assessment tells us that it should be high quality, constructive, accurate, develop diagnostic feedback — and importantly — work for both teachers and pupils. But in reality, marking is time consuming. The EEF report identified marking as:

“the single biggest contributor to unsustainable workload in the Department for Education’s 2014 Workload Challenge – a consultation which gathered more than 44,000 responses from teachers, support staff and others.”

So how do we achieve a happy balance? How can we reduce teacher workload without diminishing the value of quality written feedback for pupils?

Having spent several years in the classroom these are my tips for getting the best of both worlds in the classroom:

1. Don’t rely on verbal feedback

It’s rare for any teacher to provide instant, ‘live’ written feedback which is why quick, precise and verbal feedback packs a formative punch. Verbal feedback is a priority for a lot of teachers because dialogic conversations help children get to where they are going in double-quick time.

Written feedback might be something that is given to a pupil a week or two after the event, when things can be long forgotten. For this reason, verbal feedback seems to make far more sense. It’s immediate and children are right there in front of you.

However, immediate feedback can be a crutch for learning. Soderstrom and Bjork in their review ‘Learning Vs Performance’ (2015) found that regular, immediate feedback can cause learners to become overly dependent upon it.

2. Stop marking altogether?

Lately it has become fashionable for some schools to not mark books in order to improve teacher workload and well-being. By not marking books at all, do we rely on verbal feedback only and hope that will do the job?

Sceptics believe if children’s work is left unmarked then misunderstandings, mistakes and misconceptions will be left unchallenged. They believe children need specific, accurate and clear feedback on paper so they can refer to it, go back to it and use it for growth.

Many believe that written feedback is necessary when assessing written maths because it allows us to correct work, make useful comments, ask questions, set targets, award grades, and provide advice and guidance.

Focused marking that pinpoints misconceptions and addresses gaps can be a key part of our maths dialogue with children. Meaningful marking also feeds into the next lesson because any areas of confusion can be flagged up, discussed together and dissected as a class.

When you assess written work and encounter elements that children struggle with, then this becomes your new lesson plan for re-teaching or explicitly instructing and giving worked examples that include mistakes and misconceptions.

Giving written feedback is valuable, but at the same time, it shouldn’t mean we do all the work and give pupils everything on a plate.

3. Turn Your Pupils Into Maths Detectives

In ‘The Secret of Effective Feedback’ (2016), Dylan Wiliam encourages us to make feedback into detective work. He says that if we’re going to provide feedback on 20 answered questions then rather than just marking a pupil’s work, we can instead enable deeper learning by making them look further. For example, by saying: “Five of these are incorrect. Find them and fix them.”

The Education Endowment Report Improving Mathematics at Key Stage 2&3 also encourages us to give feedback sparingly so that it is meaningful and provides a similar example: “One of the angles you calculated in this problem is incorrect—can you find which one and correct it?”

By encouraging pupils to be maths detectives we ensure that as the recipients of feedback, pupils do as much work as the teacher. Asking children to revisit their work encourages them to press pause and study what they’ve done more thoroughly. It gets them to think about their original work in a more analytic way.

At first, written feedback like this doesn’t seem that helpful. But it’s the first step in getting children to be more meticulous in their maths. It allows us to redirect and point children to what they have done without being obvious. They have to work harder, come back to us and prove they have looked.

If they still haven’t detected their mistakes then that’s the time to step in with more proactive support.

4. Use self and peer feedback responsibly

Providing opportunities for children to give feedback to each other is essential. Although, when it comes to marking their own work and that of their peers it can start to create problems. I’ve often found mistakes in the marking which, instead of easing my workload, doubled it. If the majority of the feedback a pupil gets on their work is from peers, and the majority of it is wrong then we have a problem.

Self assessment and peer-assessment requires very careful design and implementation for it to be an effective tool for formative assessment purposes. The development of pupils’ capacities for giving feedback, and the continuous and timely involvement of the teacher, are fundamental aspects for positive self and peer-assessment.

5. Make your mark

Here’s where I come back to the conclusion that marking is a necessary and worthwhile part of teaching. Marking matters but it does depend on which type. For example, I believe acknowledgement marking is a waste of time but focused marking isn’t.

Marking has to be as specific and actionable as possible. It has to be compatible with pupils’ prior knowledge in order for them to have a good chance of understanding and acting on it.

New technologies open up some efficient feedback opportunities and we should consider feedback in different media or formats, like audio-feedback.

Marking every piece of maths work isn’t most teachers’ idea of a good time, but prioritising and being strategically selective about what you mark is important. Marking smarter is all about marking less but using better marking strategies while still dedicating time for children to respond to our comments.

And the key to finding balance between high workload and effective assessment? It comes down to one thing: efficiency.

This blog was originally published on Aug. 21, 2018 and updated on Dec. 6, 2021.

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John Dabell