The visit was not only fleeting, but awkward; not least because, before our guest waxed lyrical, she more or less swiped – or so it looked from where I was standing – my student’s exercise book from her with little or no warning. That coupled with the fact that this particular student is a hay-fever sufferer and was at that moment busy blowing her nose meant that she was a little wrong-footed by the brief encounter. When I spoke to my student at the end of the lesson, she told me about the question, and told me that her answer had been that I mark all extended/substantial pieces of work.
Then she said she hoped she’d said the right thing.
What she said was fine, of course; in a sense, she couldn't have said the "wrong" thing. It’s the question – “how often does your book get marked?” – that is wrong. Wrong if what one is trying to gauge is, firstly, how often students are assessed and/or offered feedback; secondly, what sort of impact such assessment and feedback has on student progress. Which is what we should be interested in.
Marking is not the same as assessment and feedback. It's possible that over-emphasis on mere marking is detrimental to worthwhile assessment and feedback. Marking alone can often be little more than “marking up”; and simply keeping to a school marking policy will not necessarily lead to improvements in students’ work. Often it will have a neutral effect; sometimes, it will have a negative effect (such as when marks and/or grades “tell” students they are stagnating). The only thing marking guarantees, the only it truly evidences, is that work is being marked.
Of course, it is vital that students are regularly assessed, and that they regularly receive feedback. But, as Dylan Wiliam has said again and again (most recently in the TES), the quality and type of feedback is what matters. We should be wary of the sounder principles of AFL being forgotten in the rush to count the number of ticks and targets in exercise books. I for one am not convinced that my written feedback alone has much if any positive impact on my students’ work. Spoken feedback, in class and one-to-one contexts, is, generally, a far more effective, though slow-going, process. This is not a new claim. Indeed, it seems to me to have widespread acceptance among many teachers I work with. But it also seems that the agencies to which schools are accountable are either unable or unwilling to recognize such modes of feedback and assessment as valid.
I am not suggesting that teachers no longer set pen to students’ papers; of course not. But I am suggesting that schools could, in these times of austerity, be more economical with their stores of red ink without compromising students’ progress. It is easy enough to record forms and occurrences of non-written feedback and assessment (student assessment/feedback logs; coloured pen policies for self-/peer-assessment and/or recording of verbal feedback/assessment; verbal feedback stamps…). But beyond this, let’s stop asking students how often their teachers “mark” their books, and start asking such questions as: does your teacher talk to you about ways of improving your work?; are you given opportunities to discuss ways of improving your work?; do you know what you need to do to improve your work?; does your teacher offer you clear guidance on strengths/weaknesses in your work?; in what ways does your teacher offer assessment and feedback? Notice that such questions imply (though implication alone is not much to get excited about) that students are active agents in their own learning.
Progress – whatever that might mean and in whatever form it might come – does need to be monitored; and of course teachers need to be accountable when it comes to the monitoring of their students. But “how often does your teacher mark your book?” offers no way into gauging how effective a teacher’s, department’s, or school’s marking, assessment, and feedback processes are; and the answers to such questions will yield no meaningful correlation between marking and/or assessment and student performance.
Incidentally, neither that question nor its answers will offer any sort of picture of student experience or perspective, and these will have significant but still largely untold effects on student progress.