Marking

I don’t enjoy marking. No, scrub that, I hate it. It’s tedious, takes time, is largely uncreative, and just generally meh. I used to mark papers for an exam board back in the day, and nothing filled me with dread more than a sheaf of writing exams, even for the princely sum of 50p a paper, or whatever it was. Marking is like cleaning out the fridge: you know it’s important (have you seen your fridge lately?), and when it’s done it feels like you’ve done something valuable and useful, but ultimately it’s still a chore. There’s no quick fix, either, you just have to bite the bullet and get on it. 

Ok, so there are some workarounds. Take reading and listening comprehension work, for example. I don’t think I’ve personally marked an in-class reading or listening activity for literally years, because I get the students to discuss their answers and compare before sharing any answers and getting students to self check. If it’s a case of right or wrong, or one word answer, and you’ve been checking the students while they compare answers to make sure everything is ok, then teacher marking after the fact is overkill, unless you have a more than usually psychopathic audit process requiring the teacher’s pen on everything.  The benefit for students is minimal in this particular context, particularly when measured against the learning benefits of the peer discussion itself.

That’s not to say that all marking is unnecessary, or bad, or pointless. Far from it. It will, of course, be an entirely pointless exercise if you just hand it back and it disappears into student folders or bags, never to be seen again. But if you set up routines that ensure the work is reviewed then useful, productive feedback on any work is useful for students, highlighting what they can do well, and what to do about any language areas they need to work on. (And no, that doesn’t mean setting targets in terms of use present perfect correctly in five sentences: much more useful and meaningful than abstract language goals would be actions for students, for example, saying things like “read page X of a grammar book”).

All of which is why I make sure students have time to review marked work in class. Making time in class also shows the students that reviewing marked work is a valuable process and part of learning. It’s perhaps optimistic of me to hope that this encourages students to review their work outside of class as well, but it’s a nice I do make a bit of a rod for my own back sometimes, mind you. I start marking a piece of writing for one student with all sorts of detailed comments. By the time I get to the sixth this complexity has faded off considerably. Certainly deciding in advance on the nature and quantity of feedback would make a lot of sense: just a marking code? Marking code and comments? Action points? Areas for personal improvement? There’s got to be a bit of a payoff here between time available, personal stamina and an honest evaluation of what, if anything the students are going to do with the feedback. 

Marking work, particularly productive written work, be it a couple of sentences or a couple of pages, is useful. It’s useful because it’s probably the main way as a language teacher you get to see students producing language that is combination of  their instinctive language produced without thought, and of the language forms that they have consciously been thinking about, perhaps even checking. Spoken language, for the most part, tends to rely on the “automatic” language, because it is produced on the fly. So a piece of writing gives you a lot of information about a student, and what language areas they are struggling with: marking forces you to analyse and categorise these errors, and this, in turn, should influence your teaching. Marking work constructively like this also helps students know what is wrong and what they could do about it, and making time for enforced error correction and review in class absolutely encourages students to engage with thinking about their personal weaknesses, and taking action to address them (even if it is just for that lesson). Hopefully it also encourages students to draft and review work before handing it in, although I suspect this is wishful thinking. 

However good all this is, mind you,  makes not a jot of difference to how I feel when faced with a heap of marking to do. But I still can’t stand doing it. Sorry, and all that, but I’m just not that noble. 

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