An investigation into how effective marking is and how it could be improved

Authors: Richard Riggs and Nick Hudson


Teachers spend a lot of time marking students’ work. We wanted to ensure that marking was productive and helped students to make progress.

The initial problem:

Is marking as productive as it could be? Do the students find the feedback they are given helpful? To what extent does it help the students to make progress? To what extent do the students regard the grade issued as the most important outcome of marking?

The Investigation:

We conducted a series of semi-structured interviews with year 9 and 10 students. This approach was chosen because quantitative data was not felt to be able to drill down into the nuances of this topic; rather an interview meant a nuanced, lively discussion was held in which we could unpack the issues and explore their experiences in detail. However, it was difficult to get a sense of how widespread the students’ experiences were – a different group of students may have yielded different responses. It was also sometimes challenging to get consensus on a single point; the students would debate amongst themselves and argue, which was interesting but sometimes made it difficult to extract an overall principle.

What’s marking like now?

  1. Students are generally positive about the quality of the marking at school.
  2. They acknowledge that different subjects mark differently. This is seen positively.
  3. Grades are seen as more significant than progress.
  4. Peer and self assessment are not taken seriously.

What do students find helpful in a piece of marked work?

Students appreciate the time spent marking their work. They enjoyed a sense of dialogue over the course of the work, and the feeling that their work is developing over the year.

‘A lot of the time you’re going to get something wrong once and then fix it in the next essay. But if you keep getting it wrong then that means that the teacher really needs to step in either in the marking, or,
probably better in class by giving you a master class in one particular thing because clearly trying again isn’t solving the issue.’

‘I quite like when you write alongside and say this thing is good and you should keep doing this in future essays. And by saying that you could improve this by developing your analysis of the quote more. I think it reinforces your understanding of what you’ve done well and what more you need to do.’

What’s marking for?

Students appear to see marking as integral to their self-esteem. They want praise for good work and are concerned with how their work compares with their peers’ work.

‘I guess marking is just there to show you how you’ve done and how much effort is
put in’

‘If it’s a good essay it’s nice to be told it’s a good essay as it gives you motivation for
the future’.

Academic literature about this topic is clear:

‘One of the most important features of feedback is whether it is ego involving or task-involving—in other words, whether it directs attention to the self, or to the task […] for feedback to be effective, it must be focused on what the individual student needs to do to improve (i.e. it must be task-involving) rather than focusing attention on to the learner and her or his self-esteem (i.e. ego-involving).’ (Wiliam, 1998)

This can be seen to cause problems for some students:

‘It’s sort of a double-edged sword, so if you do well in a homework then you feel motivated to keep up the standard but if you do badly in a homework then you can’t really be bothered to do well in the next one.’

What changes might improve the effectiveness of marking?

  1. More work should be done to embed feedback at the heart learning. We are often in too much
    of a hurry to give the books back and get onto the next piece of work, as one pupil put it: “we’re constantly moving on to something else so if they give you a target to improve it’s too late because you’ve moved onto the next thing.” Pupils should be given time (or even follow-up tasks) to enable them to master key skills. This does not necessarily mean more targets, but if a target is to have relevance the
    pupils must be given time and encouragement to act upon it.
  2. We should recognise that there are various ways in which feedback can be given and – from the evidence here – the pupils do find value in whole-class feedback sessions where appropriate. This could mean that certain tasks (particularly fairly closed ones) could be considered in a follow-up lesson rather than hours being spent marking.
  3. The department – and school – needs to embed peer and self assessment far more firmly in its culture of learning. At the moment, boys are expected to take part in these activities (which they have learned to perform superficially and insincerely) without really understanding or recognising their value.
  4. More work should be done to investigate and change the pupils’ mindset – from this project there seems ample qualitative evidence that a fixed mindset is common, in which grades are accumulated to shore up self-esteem and a performative approach to work leads to an I’ll try-for-exams-and-tests mentality.


Wiliam, D. (1998). Enculturating Learners into Communities of Practice: Raising Achievement through Classroom Assessment. Paper presented at the European Conference for Educational Research, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, 17–20 September, 1998.

Featured image: Pixabay

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