5. How can I mark books without burning out?

Appetising stuff?


Use icons to set targets, save time and help them improve.


Imagine you have five classes of thirty students, who you teach three times a week. Marking their books is the bane of every English teacher’s life. To mark every student’s book each week, it means correcting about 300 pages a week.

One simple solution helps: use icons to set targets. Set aside five hours a week to marking books: that hour each weekday after school is the most powerful time you spend as a teacher. No other teacher marks books this often. If you do, you’ll instantly win every student’s respect. ‘How do you do it?!’ they’ll ask admiringly…

Most marking is high effort, low impact. Teachers spend hours poring over books in the first few weeks, laboriously writing out personal comments. They quickly burn out, and struggle to keep up with even marking every two weeks.

The problem with this for students is that it doesn’t help them improve. Comments take too long to arrive, they’ve forgotten what they wrote two weeks ago, and they can’t act on the advice.

Instead, what would maximum impact, minimum effort marking look like?

Don’t write out comments. You end up writing such similar comments across the class, and they won’t read them anyway.

Instead, get them to write them out. Choose three to five targets or questions before you start marking, then scan their answer, choose the best fit between the student’s work and the group target, and draw an icon. One minute per book maximum. At the start of the next lesson, you write the targets on the board, students write their targets in their books. They get instant feedback and can take action on their target straight away.

Simple. It saves you time and helps them improve.


35 thoughts on “5. How can I mark books without burning out?

    • Ok, so I’m marking 30 books of my Year 10 English class, who have just written a paragraph on ‘How does Arthur Miller present the relationship between John and Elizabeth Proctor in Act Two of The Crucible?’. I’ve asked them to write a PEEL paragraph (Point-Example-Effect-Link).
      I choose one of three targets for each student’s paragraph:
      ? Analyse Miller’s intention in your point
      + Choose a more relevant quotation that shows their relationship
      * Improve your link to the audience’s interpretations

      All I do is write ?, + or * on each student’s book, depending on what they most need to focus on, then they write out their target from the whiteboard next lesson.

      Or, I’m marking 30 books of my Year 7 English class, and I’m getting them to focus on spelling, punctuation and grammar. Any symbols work, for instance:
      & Rewrite your spellings correctly x 5.
      ! Add in all the capital letters and full stops you missed.
      ^ Rewrite the apostrophe words correctly x5: (it’s = it IS).

      I simply scan what a student has written, circle three mistakes they’ve made and write &, ! or ^. They write out (from the board) their target at the start of next lesson and action it.

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  5. That’s a great idea – I agree with ‘pre-scanning’ books. I think this is a great suggestion, but am struggling to apply it in my subject (maths). Typically, the part that takes the most time for me is fixing an incorrectly worked piece (e.g. simplifying and solving a quadratic). I don’t know how to do it in a quicker way than to write in the correctly done version (from where they made their error), or write a comment explaining where the slip was. It also takes quite a while to ‘read’ maths work that has mistakes in it (very quick if it’s all correct:), as it can’t be quickly scanned (a tiny hidden error carries through a whole question). Do you or any of your colleagues know of successful approaches to shortening this marking in maths, in the vein of what you described above?

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  8. Walk around the classroom whilst pupils are working independently and mark the first answers, giving immediate verbal feedback. You’ll know within 10 minutes if there are any common misconceptions, repetitive errors etc. If the whole class seem to have gone down the wrong path, stop them all and explain again.

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  13. Great ideas! Do you get the children to write the chosen target before they do it so that you can look back and see it at a later date?

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  19. I really agree with you. checking and improving the subject understanding of every individual pupil is definitely a huge challenge.

    – I used to spend at least 15 hours a week marking papers and I was really frustrated by what seemed more or less a futile effort. So I’ve tried to do something about it.

    I’ve made a correction program that massively reduces time spent on this task and allows me to give better feedback and combine exercises and movies.

    Would you like to have a look at it? If you’re interested, I’ll give you free access to the correction program.

    You can find a demo of the program here: http://www.langcorr.com/langcorr/

    Kind regards,
    Andreas Molander

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  24. I teach maths but I am not sure your idea will work in any subject. If as a student I had spent 30 mins to an hour on some written work, and all the teacher had written was a large hash sign I’d be disappointed (I am aware of the actual feedback in class). As a parent (of a 10 and 8 yr old).I would also be disappointed. QUOTE[No other teacher marks books this often. If you do, you’ll instantly win every student’s respect. ‘How do you do it?!’ they’ll ask admiringly]. I think the disappointment will outweigh the admiration. For each of my five main school classes, I mark a sheet of hwk each week. (unlike English perhaps, you can’t just focus on one paragraph out of five, everything has to be checked, even if some stuff is self marked). It kills me to keep up with my own marking regime and yes the profession is at breaking pt workload wise, but I would rather an honest debate and the profession simply ditch homework than take the type of short cuts you describe. Thanks

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