Tackling over-reliance on marking

30 Aug 2017


Over-reliance: Excessive dependence on or trust in someone or something.

“They just don’t pay any attention”. “Yet again they haven’t understood.” “Why doesn’t anyone listen to me?” These teacher miseries can be heard in every staffroom across the land: how often do we castigate classes for what appears to be their glaring inability to translate lesson time into a quality final output in their books? How often are we left tearing out what remains of our precious teacher hair when we slave away for hours, marking work that bears no resemblance to the glorious masterpieces we had envisioned?

Our teacher frustrations are coupled with the worrying and blind reliance on feedback from young people. The marking obsession has resulted in a culture of expectation from young people, with the ownership for a piece of work passed to a teacher as soon as it is complete. How often are left to pick up the pieces, to provide young people with the streams of written feedback to clarify misconceptions, to ‘fix’ poorly constructed and rushed work?

By making it easy for young people to find out externally how they have done with a task, we also lose the opportunity to build reflection and resilience, essential skills for young people as they move through education. In effect, we drive young people not towards independent thinking but compliance and laziness.


Let’s examine the process that led to these poor final outcomes, perhaps a variant of the following was used: we presented, deconstructed and discussed the task; we created what we thought was a spectacular success criteria; we gave them an elongated plan or checklist then we set them off and meditated in the corner – confident in our assumptions that students had the “passport to success.” In the race to get students going we have neglected what might be the essential final ingredient: the slow approach to modelling the thought process and what the final outcome should look like.

This process of giving time to the discussion and deconstruction of models is what Pep’s Mccrea calls in ‘Memorable Teaching’ the ‘faded transition experience between presentation and practice.’ (pg 95) If we don’t introduce a supportive element between the transition from explanation to activity, we risk cognitive overload and the task becomes just to challenging.

Often this ‘faded transition’ is absorbed by the analysis of assessment criteria. We cursively flick on a PowerPoint that reveals the five vital aspects of the assessment criteria and read them through with students. Then we set them off with the hope that the criteria will magically dissolve into their work, despite the young people having no real conception of how it actually applies in their work. As Daisy Christodoulou makes clear in ‘Making good progress: the future of assessment for leaning’: “As we’ve seen again and again, it’s hard to define quality in prose, and prose descriptors can be interpreted in many different ways.” (pg 182) She goes on to critique this slavish adherence to repeatedly showing assessment criteria in the hope it will provide clarity for young people as to what we are looking for: “not only are absolute judgements based on rubrics unreliable, but the existence of the rubric has damaging consequences for teaching. (183)

Instead of an oblique success criteria, or giving students an extensive check list to implement in their responses: modelling in its many different forms can assist in improving final outcomes. Be it writing our own models in advance, copying a strong example from a student, talking though misconceptions in a poor example, or live modelling alongside students, all are time saving techniques that can remove the reliance from marking and improve the quality of the final piece of work.


Slowing our teaching and actively encouraging students to reflect on their learning will go some way in building their sophistication as learners. In order to achieve this we need to familiarise ourselves with different ways in which we can efficiently train students in metacognitive strategies. It is a word that is often bounded around in educational cycles, one in which a great deal of us (myself included!) nod sagely at while having no real conception of what it is or why it might come in use. The American developmental psychologist, John Flavell, appears to have coined the term in the 1970’s, as a result of research which focused on children’s knowledge and control of their memory processes.

Metacognition is not about making ourselves dissolve and irrelevant, rather it is about sustaining tools to enable young people to learn in the future and assisting them in developing an awareness of the progress they are making. The root meta- means higher level, so meta­cognition involves higher level cognitive reflective functioning: thinking about the thought process itself and integrating it with prior knowledge.

By carefully and explicitly teaching metacognitive strategies through our subjects we also assist in taking young people from their position of novices to experts: in effect, taking control of driving their learning forward. Taking the time to do this from a young age can facilitate their ability to grow life long learning habits, students who understand the connections between different tasks and can apply their thinking in different environments. It also starts to remove the blind allegiance to teacher feedback to clarify understanding. It begins to bridge the gap, creating what Dylan Williams defines as: “students as essential partners in the learning process.”

There are three metacognitive steps we can take to build our students as more confident problem solvers:


The first step in approaching solving a problem and to think metacognitively is the ability to plan out how to approach a task. This is often the process that young people neglect in any subject: they want to dive straight into completing the final product. As Alex Quigley suggests in ‘The Confident Teacher’: “We need to slow them down, breaking the task down, so they can reach a deeper level of understanding of what they need to do”.

What we ideally want is students to develop the skills that enable them to decide which planning method is most effective in enabling a strong final outcome. In order to understand the efficacy of different planning methods they need to be explicitly taught.  Daniel Willingham elaborates in this article: “You can teach students maxims about how they ought to think, but without background knowledge and practice, they probably will not be able to implement the advice they memorize.” Some planning strategies that we might seek to familiarise students with, so that they can automatically apply them in the future in an examination situation:

  1. Mind maps
  2. Venn Diagrams
  3. Listing
  4. Key Events
  5. Checklists
  6. Concept maps

Again modelling is important here: at first we can talk through and perhaps show students how we would plan for the task to scaffold their own planning attempts. Ideally when approaching a new task we then want students to have a series of learned questions that they can apply to support their planning. The more these questions are repeated with students and they are tested on them, the more likely they will be able to implement them independently:

‘What exactly is this task asking me to do?”

“What should I do first?”

“What prior knowledge do I need to complete the task effectively?”

‘Which strategies will I use to help me to complete the task?’

‘Are there any strategies that I have used before that might be useful?’

‘How much time will I need to complete the task effectively?


A plan will arm young people with a strategy and an approach to the work they are completing. Yet as with all aspects of demonstrating a skill, we need to be able to pause, to reflect and to question how effectively we are completing the task.

As students complete a task we need to encourage them to slow down their rate of activity in order to give scope to asking monitoring questions that evaluate their competency:

Am I on the right track?

What am I doing well?

What do I need to do more of?

Do I need to do something differently?

Am I following my plan?

Do I need to speed up or slow down to complete the task in time?

 Again we need strategies that can help build these questions into students thinking while they work: they will need to be repeated and tested over time to ensure retention. Often this can be as simple as a check in, a strategy I have adapted again from reading ‘Memorable Teaching.’ As an English teacher I try to get each class to complete a piece of extended writing every week. Every fifteen minutes or so I will build in a ‘check-in’ point, that ensures that students reflect back on their plan and consider how effectively they are completing the task. Having a timer on the board means that the students can regulate their own progress through the task, knowing when they will need to consider their progress. This teaches students to be concerned with accuracy and refining their work as they complete it.


There should always be an evaluation step in place before we accept work from students. The spaced and frequent repetition of key questions that students can apply can again assist in ensuring that this is process they are attuned to undergoing after they complete a task. At times asking students to write these answers can also help us to inform our future planning:

What have I learned from completing this task?

What are my strengths: what did I do well?

Did I use my plan effectively?

What are my weaknesses: what do I need to prioritise doing next?

When could I use this kind of thinking again?

Does this represent my very best work? If not, what do I need to change?

Culture of Excellence 

I have been reading Mark Enser’s recent posts with much interest, as he explores how he achieved his departments best ever results. There is a range of interesting points on high expectations and expecting quality work from students that he has built into his department.

To facilitate this notion of excellence it is vital that young people take ownership of their work, that they check it carefully and they are proud to hand it in for our scrutiny. This can again all be scaffolded by a simple check-list of excellence approach, something I will be exploring in my lessons at the start of the year:

  1. Does this work represent the very best of your ability?
  2. Have you read over and checked your work?
  3. Does your work showcase good presentation?
  4. Have you reflected on what steps you have taken with the work?
  5. What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses?

We need to develop a keen awareness of our students’ capabilities in order to implement this checklist, an understanding of what their best work is. The start of a year is an excellent time for young people to set these standards at the front of their workbooks. While they  may direct students, the above criteria are merely words and for them to have impact they need to be rigorously applied. Young people need to appreciate that time invested in marking is sacred. If they hand in work that does not reach the best they are capable of they should be asked to repeat it. The moment we accept rushed, poorly planned and thought out work we deliver a message about our own expectations and standards: and we sign our passport to long evenings of mindless marking.

Thanks for reading. Extracts included from ‘Slow Teaching’ which will be published by John Catt Education in 2018


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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