Teachers spend nine hours a week marking – despite lack of evidence that it works

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: iStock

Academics have warned that schools' extensive marking practices are driving teacher workload but yet have no ‘solid evidence to justify them’. Pete Henshaw reports

Teachers spend nine hours marking every week but there is still little evidence to show which strategies have the most positive effect on pupil progress.

This is according to a new research paper published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).
The report, entitled A Marked Improvement, raises concerns about the “significant disparity” between the enormous effort that teachers invest in marking and the research that is available to evidence and justify which approaches are the most effective.

The discussion is important because marking was found to be the single biggest contributor to teachers’ unsustainable workload in the government’s Workload Challenge in 2014.

That survey, which involved 44,000 teachers, found that in primary schools, classroom teachers spent an average of 9.7 hours a week assessing and marking pupils’ work, while in secondary schools, teachers spent 9.4 hours a week on marking. In academy schools the figure was 8.7 hours.

However, the EEF report, which has been written by academics from the University of Oxford’s Department of Education, says that there is “a striking disparity between the enormous amount of effort invested in marking books, and the very small number of robust studies that have been completed to date”.

The report continues: “While the evidence contains useful findings, it is simply not possible to provide definitive answers to all the questions teachers are rightly asking.

“The quality of existing evidence focused specifically on written marking is low. This is surprising and concerning bearing in mind the importance of feedback to pupils’ progress and the time in a teacher’s day taken up by marking. Few large-scale, robust studies, such as randomised controlled trials, have looked at marking.”

The EEF, which is the charity behind the popular Teaching and Learning Toolkit resource, has now put aside £2 million to fund new research into marking strategies in a bid to fill the evidence gap.

A survey carried out to support the report and involving 1,382 teachers adds to concerns about the workload that is being created by schools’ unevidenced marking policies. It finds that teachers are combining a range of different approaches to marking in a bid to cover the multiple ways that marking is used in schools, such as for monitoring progress, future lesson planning, and school reporting.

The report raises concerns that this is adding considerably to teachers’ workload but that these developments in marking practice “have largely taken place without the solid evidence to justify them”.

Overall, the most commonly used marking strategy is writing targets for improvement, used by 72 per cent. However, other approaches include the identification/correction of errors, triple marking, the use of grades, focusing on methods as well as final outcome, and using qualitative/ descriptive comments.

The report does suggest a number of emerging findings that could help teachers.

These include treating careless mistake differently to errors of genuine misunderstanding, relying less on the use of grades, and encouraging pupils to consider and respond to teachers’ feedback. See below for more.

The report also offers discussion around different aspects of marking including grading, corrections, thoroughness, and pupil responses, allowing teachers to reflect on the effectiveness of their own approaches.

Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF, said: “The report should be a real wake-up call for policy-makers and school leaders. Why are we asking our teachers to spend hours and hours each week on time-consuming marking strategies when there is very little evidence to tell us which of these have any impact on pupil attainment? Rather than relentlessly pursuing unproven and unsustainable approaches, a guiding principle might be to mark less, but mark better, informed by what the evidence tells us so far is likely to have the most impact.”

Dr Victoria Elliott, lead author of the report, added: “The key thing is to make sure that time spent marking is not time wasted: we do need to know more about what works, but it’s clear that unless pupils understand and engage with written feedback, it can’t make a difference to them, and grades can distract from that.”

Marking strategies

Some findings do emerge from the evidence that could aid school leaders and teachers aiming to create an effective, sustainable and time-efficient marking policy. These include that:

  • Careless mistakes should be marked differently from errors resulting from misunderstanding. The latter may be addressed by providing hints or questions which lead pupils to underlying principles; the former by simply marking the mistake as incorrect, without giving the right answer.
  • Grading work can reduce the impact of marking, particularly if pupils become preoccupied with grades at the expense of the teachers’ comments.
  • Time spent simply acknowledging that work has been seen is likely to be better spent providing specific information about how to improve, even if it means fewer pieces of work are marked overall; a simple mantra might be to mark less, but mark better.
  • Pupils are unlikely to benefit from marking unless some time is set aside to enable them to consider and respond to feedback.
  • Using targets to make marking as specific as possible is likely to increase pupil progress but teachers should consider the time-benefit balance of their marking strategy.

Further information

The full report can be downloaded via https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/evidence/evidence-on-marking/


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