Mark Smarter, Not Harder


As teachers, we’ve all been there: spending hours after school marking papers and assignments, or correcting tests over the weekend. There’s been more than one occasion, in order to meet an end of term deadline, that I’ve taken marking with me on family vacations. There are a number of fun events or get-togethers with friends that have gone by the wayside in order that I put a dent in that constantly growing pile of papers.

When I was younger, I used to complain about all the marking. Sure, it’s probably the least fun part of the job, but it’s important for me to realize it’s a job I signed up for. I’ve come to view this common teaching task less as a burden and more as a way to gain insight into my students as learners and myself as an educator. In order to do this effectively, I decided it was vital my marking be smarter, not harder.

When I first entered the teaching profession, I believed that the more assessments I created, the more students would engage with course material and the more I marked, the better picture I would get of student learning. This was a recipe for disaster as I not only spent long nights marking, but an even greater amount of my time was dedicated to creating more assignments to fulfill what I thought was a worthwhile cause.

The solution I’ve found (at least to date) that helps address some of these concerns is to mark unit pieces in the following categories and ways:

  • Unit tests: tests are standard in most education systems and should function as a summative piece of work to illustrate what students can achieve after investigation, instruction, practice, and learning has already occurred. I prefer to keep the value of testing as low as possible to allow more emphasis on the learning and inquiry processes – I acknowledge this isn’t always up to the teacher and more and more I find evaluation schemes are dictated at the district level.
  • Unit assignment: A single assignment per unit, or one for two short units, is enough to allow students time to use inquiry and process skills together to apply what they’ve learned in class already. Assignments should allow students to connect concepts, consolidate information, or apply learning to novel situations. I’m a fan of using small group work (pairs) for these assessments, as they provide the opportunity to problem solve and research together, building communication and analytical skills through collaboration. I’ve also been applying analytical scoring scales with feedback as the primary method of marking.
  • Unit portfolio: A folder containing in-class activities students have worked on throughout the unit is vital to initial student exposure and engagement with new ideas and concepts, as it provides regular practice with specific sets of skills (not to mention it helps some students stay organized). As smaller pieces of work, these are quicker and easier to check for understanding (I may ask that 3 or 4 pieces be ready on a particular date, which I will check for level of detail, conceptual understanding, and analytical skills). I do not provide a mark for these individual pieces, but use them as formal assessment to inform my teaching and allow students to get into the material (I will provide written feedback, however, about the student’s general approach to the task or any significant issues with understanding). Folders are quick to assess and include a large amount and variety of student products. These may be completed  individually, but I prefer students to work together in groups of two or three.

Portfolio box to keep work from my 6 classes.

I used to give multiple assignments per unit and mark every in-class activity like it was an assignment or item from a test. By reducing the number of assignments and ensuring that each is well-designed, covering a range of skills and competencies, I’ve reduced the amount of correcting I do per unit. By using portfolios of work and focusing on feedback rather than numerical marks, I make every day activities relevant and informative (for myself and students) as pieces of assessment.

Smart marking is a great way to make this part of the job easier, more effective, and interesting. I’ve come to view correcting as a useful tool in my work, rather than a dreadful task. It can still be challenging to balance this with other work tasks and parts of my life, but it’s far less stressful than it used to be.