Little evidence to show which types of marking improve pupil progress

The typical teacher spends nine hours marking pupils’ work each week,[1] but there is little evidence to show which strategies will have a positive effect on their pupils’ progress and which will not, according to a new report published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) today.

For A Marked Improvement, researchers at the Department of Education at the University of Oxford reviewed existing research to find out how teachers can use their time more effectively to improve their pupil’s learning. They found a significant disparity between the enormous amount of effort teachers invest in marking and the research available to tell them which marking approaches are the most effective.

Marking was found to be the single biggest contributor to teachers’ unsustainable workload in the Department for Education’s 2014 Workload Challenge. Over half of the 44,000 respondents said the reform of marking policies was the highest priority for decreasing their workloads. More recently, the 2016 report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group noted that written marking had become unnecessarily burdensome for teachers.

Although today’s report highlights a critical lack of evidence on written marking, a number of findings emerge that could help teachers to create a more effective marking strategy:

  • 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.

To inform today’s report, the EEF commissioned a national survey of 1,382 teachers’ marking practices through the National Foundation for Educational Research’s Teacher Voice Omnibus. The teachers were asked about ten marking strategies of which the most commonly used was writing targets for improvement. Almost three-quarters (72%) of those surveyed reported that they did this on all or most pieces of work they mark. However this approach hasn’t replaced the more traditional approach to marking, identifying and correcting errors, which over 50% of teachers said they did on all or most pieces of work they mark.

The polling shows that teachers combine a number of different approaches to cover the multiple purposes of marking pupils’ work, including monitoring progress, planning future lessons and school reporting and suggest that teachers are not replacing new strategies with old, but simply adding to the workload of marking.

Today’s report profiles a number of schools that have adopted innovative approaches to their marking strategies. St Margaret’s CE Primary School in Withern uses tablet computers to record verbal feedback over videos of annotations of pupils’ work; and Huntington School in York has completely removed grading from their marking to encourage teachers to think more deeply about what their feedback to pupils needs to say.

Given the amount of time teachers spend marking, there is an urgent need for more research into the most effective marking strategies. As part of the publication of this review, the EEF is calling on the research community to join forces with schools to fill these gaps and is ear-marking £2m to fund new trials which will lead to practical and useful knowledge for teachers in such a critical area of teaching practice.

Sir Kevan Collins, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“Today’s report should be a real wake-up call for policymakers 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.

“Instead of looking to ideological debates to find a solution, we need to be guided by robust research. This is why we’ve committed £2m to fund research to find out what the most time-effective marking strategies are.”

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation, added: “Smarter marking could save valuable teachers’ time while improving standards. This can make a real difference to how pupils learn and to teachers’ workload.”

Dr Victoria Elliott, lead author of the report and Associate Professor at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, said:

“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. “