What if you marked every book, every lesson?

‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!

From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—

Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow

I shot the Albatross.


Ah! well a-day! what evil looks

Had I from old and young!

Instead of the cross, the Albatross

About my neck was hung.


‘Is it he?’ quoth one, ‘Is this the man?

By him who died on cross,

With his cruel bow he laid full low

The harmless Albatross.


The self-same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off, and sank

Like lead into the sea.


Marking is an albatross


What makes education different in the age of digital reproduction? One of the success stories is blogsync. This month, it has focused education bloggers nationwide on the challenge of marking.

The marking paradox

So here is the marking paradox: although it’s one of the most important things for pupils, it’s one of the most difficult things for teachers. Education blogs testify to this paradox:

Marking kills teachers. I don’t know anyone that looks at a massive pile of books and thinks way-hey! … but teachers that don’t mark frequently, often have books full of dross… Students think, why bother if no one is looking?

Headteacher Tom Sherrington calls it: the “albatross” effect: I have had countless teachers come to see me over the years, stressed out and close to tears because they feel crushed by it.

Head of English Alex Quigley says: ‘We have all been in that position where we are marking each book and like Groundhog Day we are repeating ourselves ad nauseum!’

Ofsted inspector Mary Myatt says that in inspections, she sees: Lots of books have lots of ticks, the odd comment and no expectation that any thing should be done as a result of that comment.’

Guilt is a predominant feeling among teachers about marking: ‘I’ve always felt guilty about marking. There’s always something to mark and when you’re tired and stressed it’s often the first thing to go.’ Half-term is where the guilt trip most often sinks in for teachers. Most of my colleagues take home stacks of marking in a desperate attempt to catch up. For those that teach subjects with one lesson per class per week, like R.E., the workload is heavy. One colleague in R.E. has 350 pupils and is expected to mark all books intensively every two weeks. It begins to look unmanageable.

There are other ways of looking at the marking paradox. Here is Tom Sherrington’s take on it:

‘A fundamental paradox of marking is this: the students who need the most help and the most feedback, are those who are least able to engage with written comments in order to secure improvement; the students who need the least help are those best able to engage with written comments.’

And here is Stephen Lockyer’s:

‘Parents LOVE marking. SLT LOVE marking. Inspectors LOVE marking. No teacher LOVES marking. Pupils rarely read the comments. Why is it that the two most vital people in marking get the least from it?’

The big questions

Tom Bennett asks, ‘How much of what you’re writing is actually sinking in to the student?’

Shaun Allison says, ‘I spend, on average, an hour a day marking… or in other words over 8 full days an academic year. Could I claw back precious time, yet have an even greater impact on student progress?’


Some potential solutions

So what are some of the best solutions from the blogosphere?

Mark Miller reminds us: ‘There are no quick fixes when it comes to marking.  You can’t cut corners.’

Tom Sherrington suggests marking should be ‘selective, formative, effective and reflective’ andclose the gap between the work they have done originally and a higher level of work suggested by the feedback they receive: acting on feedback.’

Alex Quigley suggests marking should be focused, modelled, targeted, actioned’, and that time should be dedicated by pupils in lessons to improving their work: Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time (DIRT).

David Didau suggests thatmarking is planning’; ‘marking is differentiation’; ‘marking is an act of love’: with DIRT, ‘what was once an endless, dreaded millstone hanging around my guilty neck has been transformed from chore to, if not a pleasure, certainly a highlight of my working routine.’ This strikes me as the big question: How can we get more teachers on David’s trajectory: from guilt-ridden chore to highlight-of-the-week?


How can we improve our marking? 

Here are my three principles of effective marking: it must be timely, regular and actionable.

1. Feedback must be timely, because otherwise by the time they get it back, pupils will have forgotten all about it. Marking must be given back by the next lesson after the work was done.

2. Feedback must be regular, because the more often pupils get quality feedback, the more they’ll understand how to improve. For instance, pupils who get effective feedback once a week are likely to learn more than those who only get feedback once every two weeks. So what about pupils who get feedback every lesson…?

3. Feedback must be actionable, so that pupils can immediately put into practice the advice and guidance they are given on how to improve, and because otherwise, the feedback can get ignored.

That’s it: three simple litmus tests to ask of your marking. Is it timely? Is it regular? Is it actionable?


The rationale behind closing the feedback loop comes from Doug Lemov’s Practice Perfect, which is well worth a read.


But how can we make timely, regular feedback work? Isn’t it too time-consuming? I want to share an example of how a few of us are applying this approach.

Every Book Every Lesson: The Ultimate Marking Strategy

What about this question: what if we marked every book, every lesson? What would be the resultant impact on learning, motivation and effort? It seems impossible – a pipe dream. But it’s within our reach. In fact, Katie Ashford has been marking like this for the last half-term. Hannah Cusworth, Katie and I are teaching Oliver Twist next term, and we’re piloting this approach. My hypothesis is that its effectiveness will depend on this:

Minimise Labour-Intensitivity, Maximise Visibility

To mark every kid’s book every lesson, you need a strategy that reduces the typical 60 minutes or more that it takes to mark 30  books. Icons (or numbers) is that strategy. I’ve explained how to use them in a previous blogpost, and other teachers are starting to use them (another example here). With icons, 30 books can be marked in 30 minutes or less. But there’s an even faster way, a way devised by Katie Ashford.

Katie came up with the idea of marking each lesson’s exit ticket (Lemov’s technique 20), paragraph or piece of work with the colour code of traffic lights. Green is if the objective has been mastered; Amber is if the objective has been tackled, but not yet mastered; and Red is if the pupil has misunderstood, confused something or not yet got it. Katie’s idea was then to display three questions on the board at the start of the next lesson as the ‘Do Now’ (Lemov’s technique 29). Pupils see their colour in their books and answer the colour-coded question. Here’s an example:


This only takes a teacher 15 minutes to mark 30 books. All you have to do is scan the piece of work and choose a colour: green, amber or red. Then display the three questions next lesson: simple.

Maximum Visibility

This minimises labour-intensitivity: what about visibility? Katie and I decided to combine her traffic light approach with my approach to tracking. I have posted on this before, but the basic idea is to use the power of peer pressure and show all pupils how much effort they’re making. It’s hugely motivating.

For visibility, use a spreadsheet as a tracker. Each week, add a colour for each pupil: red if they have any reds unresolved, green if they have all greens, and amber if they have any anything else. You can share this with pupils online via googledocs or a blog, or just keep it to yourself for your own visibility of your pupils. But it works best when shared with your class, so that the power of peer pressure to achieve and succeed kicks in.


Every Book, Every Lesson and a Visual Online Tracker

Hannah, Katie and I are piloting this approach in the next few months. We will evaluate it together by Christmas and I’ll post again on the effects on learning, motivation and effort. If anyone has any ideas as to how to make this evaluation more meaningful, let me know.

It’s time to cast off the albatross.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to What if you marked every book, every lesson?

  1. @mrnickhart says:

    The idea of displaying questions for children to respond does seem appealing. As I’m sure you’re aware, the three questions which are colour coded may be a little restrictive. In any set of children’s work, there will be a significant group that this will work for but there will be others who need more nuanced feedback. They may need something remodelled to them, or explained in a different way.

    If there is a large group that all require similar questioning, I’ve tried printing questions on stickers – then it’s clearer in books, particularly if you’d like them to revisit again at some point.

    I’d add another icon, one that means ‘I need to show you something’. What you will have showed them will be clear from their responses. While other children are busy responding to questions, you have a group to work with. Anyone who finishes early can work on ‘practising the 20%’ – trained to work on one of a number of high value, independent tasks that simply must be internalised.

    Thanks for writing.

  2. mrbenney says:

    Thank you for sharing the idea. I must say that I admire you for trialling it and being willing to share it with a wider audience. Just a quick question, looking at your traffic light question example, do the red and amber questions directly relate to success criteria/learning outcomes from the previous lesson?
    Also could you please re-blog at later date to update on the progress of the class. Again, thanks for sharing this.

  3. mrbenney says:

    One more question, when would you check that they had resolved their ambers and reds from the previous lesson? I just want to have a clear understanding of how this (very ambitious) project works.

  4. LukePollard says:

    A quick tip when using spreadsheets to track. Rather than colouring, use conditional formatting and assign a colour to a number of letter (e.g. r = red, g = green, a = amber/orange).

    There are two benefits:
    – its a heck of a lot quicker than selecting the colour from the fill button
    – if you want to analyse choices/results/levels or grades you can quickly and easily using Count/sum/average formulas. Google conditional formatting – its simple to pick up.

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  7. Abi King says:

    I did something similar which I started a few years ago with my GCSE & A Level classes but for me the aim was to accomplish my never ending quest or providing timely feedback, that didn’t take 4 hours for a set of books, that students could respond to and act on independently. Towards the end of each lesson I would ask my students to traffic light their own understanding against the learning objectives, having done this for a few years now I had found a number of students assessing as green / amber to indicate they felt they had achieved most but were not secure in every aspect and so they did not feel either green nor amber fully reflected their position and so I incorporated ‘white’ which was improving understanding. When students had traffic lighted I would then scan each of their books to check I agreed / disagreed with their judgements and I would stamp their books with the following:

    Self support – revision guide or research
    Peer support
    Teacher support
    Challenge task

    Or I have seen primary schools I have worked with adopt the following:


    Students would then tick the action they would take to move their understanding to green or white before the beginning of the next lesson. I explained the importance of achieving a good understanding each lesson and the need for them to take some responsibility in identifying and acting on their areas of weakness. As you can imagine this was significantly more successful with A Level students and I have continued with this process since, although it is not a quick fix, with some stern perseverance it helps to build responsibility, independence and resilience in learners and I have been so pleased with the number of students actively seeking support from their notes, peers or myself before the next lesson. I also kept a spreadsheet of the traffic lights each lesson to inform my planning for individual student needs.
    Upon reflection now maybe my expectations as an NQT were unrealistic assuming my GCSE classes would demonstrate the same level of commitment required and as you can imagine those conscientious students relished the opportunity to demonstrate independence but the others resented I was asking even more of them outside of lessons! I then moved to designing my starter activity to coordinate with the traffic lights and embed DIRT time (dedicated improvement and reflection time or do it right time) and I haven’t looked back. My starter activities revolve around a range of independent or paired and group tasks where students on the same colour can team up and work through the activity together, I make sure I support those on red, whilst those on green or white with a secure understanding can work together on a more challenging task. An alternative method I also use is pairing up students on green with red and those on white with amber for peer support which is also an effective strategy.
    I find the accuracy of student self assessment and their motivation to achieve a secure understanding each lesson by reflecting back on previous work and developing it incredibly encouraging which in turn has a positive impact on their skills as learners and attainment. I’m always looking for ways of developing this practice so I’m really interested and eagerly anticipate your reflections of this.

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  21. Rhys Baker says:

    Have you evaluated RAG Exit Ticket method yet? How did it go? I’m going to add your technique to my own marking policy. Have you come across any caveats to the system?

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  24. Sara says:

    I second Rhys’ question!

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