Marking. Less is more?

DHS maths Deputy Leader Emma McCann has decided to dip her toes into the world of blogging, with this great article on marking. Yet another bright spot!

dipping toes

I just want to start by warning you: I have read loads but never written a blog. I have never been a blogger or a tweeter. Partly because I think I’ll just be stating the obvious and partly because twitter looks like a foreign language to me. This was up until a few weeks ago when I read a friend’s blog – Andy Tharby. He didn’t say anything brand new (can any idea really be brand new?). But he did say things with insight and empathy for both students and teachers. He made me think about that topic from a new perspective and he reignited in me the passion to reflect and experiment. His blog led me to another by @chocotzar which was about the fact that women are not blogging or tweeting and are getting left behind…so I thought ‘If I do it, what’s the worst that can happen?

Mine are simple points but sometimes it is the simple things that are forgotten in the whirlwind that is a teacher’s day and it is sometimes these simple things which are the most effective.

stack of paper

At the beginning of this academic year, my department were drowning in marking. Booklet after booklet of exam questions for every single student. Not only did I want to poke my own eyes out, I also knew it wasn’t really very helpful. I would spend hours marking, giving each student a target which they dutifully copied on their progress sticker, and then we’d move on, never having to look at that nasty booklet again!

I realised this had to change. I started with KS3.

We slimmed the booklets down to two sides of A4. We made them skills based, focusing on just a couple of essential skills. What’s the point of assessing everything? The first benefit this had was that teachers could breathe again. Second benefit was that we had time to formatively mark the homework rather tick, flick and target.

People have different ideas of what formative feedback actually is. My interpretation is that it is showing students HOW to get better, not just WHAT to get better at. Providing prompts is equally as important, so that students are able to spot and correct their own mistakes. This sounds so obvious and simple…so why wasn’t I doing it? Who knows, but I am now. And I’m amazed how quick this is for me and how effective it is for my students.

Following the DIRT example, shared by our DHT Shaun Allison, I have planned DIRT into my lessons, every time I give students back their homework. It’s incredible how beneficial such a simple, common sense idea is and even more incredible that I had let this slip (probably due to my pure hatred of the masses of marking I used to have). Students learn so much from their own mistakes especially when it’s not all corrected for them. Students get a second chance at success. It’s their success. It’s confidence restoring. An ok homework can be made really good with a little guidance. Miraculous!

Take a look at my students work…It’s not rocket science… It’s not new … But it is very effective.

The formative feedback/modelling are in red and their responses to this are in green. My new marking motto is “less is more”. I have changed my marking job description: ‘to set up the environment in which the students can learn from their mistakes’ (not to spend longer on their homework than they do!)


So I was feeling very pleased with myself. Less time, bigger impact! Whoo hoo! Then I had this conversation with a student of mine.

Me: What are you good at within maths Darcy?

Darcy: I got a green on my ratio homework so I think I’m pretty good at that.

Me: What could you improve on in maths?

Darcy:  Recognising prime numbers, solving equations with unknowns on both sides, rounding to 1 decimal place, adding and subtracting negative numbers, index laws, proportion…. (she didn’t memorise these, she has them written on a progress sticker)

Me: How do you think you can you improve in maths?

Darcy: Try harder?

Me: When will you improve your negative number skills?

Darcy: When we do it again.

It was the “when we do it again” that filled me with dread. This conversation told me that she has a long list of things to improve on and not a clue on how to start….thus meaning she probably never will. Especially as she seems to be waiting for me to teach it to her…AGAIN! So I need to install some independence in my students, some responsibility. They need to know HOW to catch up as well as WHAT to catch up on. And they need to be given TIME to do this. Having a list of topics to improve on that only grows is not only pointless, it’s also soul destroying.


Chloe in my year 10 class (who will be getting A’s next year) believes she’s “not very good at maths” and, scarily, I can picture this very bright and able young lady, 20 years down the line transforming into one of those frustratingly common ‘I-was-never-very-good-at-maths-either-parent’ even though it’s so untrue. The under-confidence in maths, especially in girls (and mums) is so frustrating but more so because I think I have probably been helping it along its merry way by adding to the list of ‘topics to improve on’ and letting it grow and grow and grow.

Ticking things off the ‘to improve’ list is more important than adding to it.


So, they need time to improve. When?

Some teachers in my department give students class time to make revision mind map posters which has proved very useful. I have started setting ‘rewind homeworks’ to be interspersed with their standard homeworks. Students choose a topic from their ‘to improve’ list, research it, and write a revision guide on that topic. They write an explanation; model how to answer typical questions; and end with a question they would still like answered.


It is proving difficult with some students as they are not used to arranging their thoughts in this way. Some students have not yet grasped the concept of research. But they are getting there and I feel it’s important to give them time to improve before throwing the idea out as a failure.


By doing this sort of homework they get to visit that topic twice, they get to think about that topic independently; they get to challenge their own misconceptions; they get to be creative. And I get to read more interesting homework; I get a deeper insight into their understanding of the topic; and I don’t have to print or prepare the homework that week! Win win!

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6 Responses to Marking. Less is more?

  1. mrbenney says:

    An excellent first blog and a worthy addition to the many useful blogs on marking. I really like the rewind homeworks, and the fact that they are not just more questions but pupils constructing revision posters. This means they have to think through the mathematical process. Should lead to better long term memory retention. Thank you, I really enjoyed
    Damian (@Benneypenyrheol)

  2. Sue marooney says:

    Excellent Emma, the first of many I hope!

  3. angie white says:

    Thanks, Emma… I will be setting rewind homeworks tomorrow….what a fantastic idea

  4. Thanks Damian – yes really useful for reinforcing learning and addressing learning gaps.
    Ang – let me know how it goes and share with the department.

  5. Rosie says:

    Liked the blog Emma. My school do DIRTy time and whilst I often set homework on past topics, especially on MyMaths, I will set an open ended revision project like you have.
    Thanks for the idea.

  6. Pingback: Planning for Progress over Time – Mastery Learning | The View From the Maths Bunker

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