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Stop Marking So Much!

Roberta Tevlin, Editor OAPT Newsletter, teacher Danforth CTI

Marking is important, but it is boring and it takes you away from the more important aspects of teaching and life. Marking numerical problems is not too bad, but questions that require answers in sentences can be really time-consuming. A number of teachers have complained to me about how much time they spend marking and have asked me to pass on some of my techniques for reducing this.

Marking Daily Worksheets
For many of my courses, the students hand in a worksheet each day. This is a lot of marking! I find that I can provide this daily feedback without too much work by doing the following:

  • Don’t mark everything. I scan the work for completeness (3/5 marks) and then select just one question to be examined carefully for how well it is done (2/5 marks). If life becomes too busy and it looks like my marking is going to pile up, I reduce it even further. I hand the work back unmarked or I only mark the work of those students who missed some previous work for a legitimate reason.
  • Don’t give half marks. Half marks can really slow you down because you over-think what the work is worth. It is much simpler if you only need to categorize the work as; not done (0), incomplete (1), poor (2), OK (3), good (4) or excellent (5). Furthermore, half marks require you to make two extra two key strokes when you enter the data and that extra ‘point five’ is meaningless in the long run. Keep to one significant digit.
  • Don’t accept late work. It requires much more time to mark an individual piece of late work than the twenty-eighth example of twenty-eight similar items. To get away with this no-late-work policy you need to do two things. Explain at the start of the course that you will always hand back their marked work the very next class and therefore it will not be fair to accept work after it has been discussed and handed back. Next, let them know that for every eight pieces of marked work, you will drop the lowest mark. That means everyone can miss one out of eight pieces of marked work without penalty. If they miss more than this for a good reason, you can be more flexible but don’t let it become common practice.
  • Don’t write comments. They take too much time to write and the students don’t read them. Students generally make similar errors and rather than writing individual comments, you should use a few minutes at the start of class to have the students answer the question again on a whiteboard in small groups. After this, summarize what was needed for a 5/5. When you hand back the work after you do this, the students will already know what their mark should be and why.
  • Establish Shorthand Symbols for Communication. You can indicate whether a point is Correct or not with check mark or X. If it is not Clear — give just need to give it a question mark. If it is not Concise — you just draw a line through the unnecessary words. If it is not Complete — add “+?”. This shorthand can be developed through exercises that are described in this article.
Marking Longer Written Assignments
When writing anything longer than a short answer, students need to consider what points need to be made, how to group them in topic paragraphs and what order they should be in. I use a writing exercise that I call Scrambled Science to help with this. This improves the work I get and reinforces the need to be Clear, Correct, Complete, Concise and also Convincing.

I find that I can provide feedback much easier if the students submit their assignments electronically. This has many advantages over paper.

  • I can read the work! Student handwriting is getting worse every year and so is my vision. Electronic documents make reading and therefore marking, much easier.
  • I can type legible comments about five times faster using a keyboard than if I try to write by hand and there is always lots of room for comments.
  • The electronic versions provide red and green squiggly lines that point out spelling and grammar errors. Students are required to correct these before submitting work. This means I can focus on higher order problems.
  • I highlight phrases that make a good point in yellow. This provides the same function as the checkmarks used for the daily work sheets. Almost all of the sentences should be highlighted if the students are being Concise. If you count up the number of highlighted phrases, you get a sense of how Complete the work is.
  • I use the comments function to indicate phrases that are not Correct, Clear or Concise. I don’t tell them what to write – I just indicate what the problem is. A common comment is ROL, which stands for Read Out Loud. This means that the student should read this sentence out loud, slowly and word-for-word exactly as it is written. As they read their work, they will find themselves halting and wanting to say something different from what they actually wrote. This helps them become their own editor. The amount of their work that is covered by comments is an indication of how much work they need to do to improve their writing.
Working with Individual Students
Students who really want to improve their writing can make an appointment with me to go over their work individually. These one-on-one sessions can be really helpful. I never had this experience until well after graduating from university. I was fortunate that Carol Gold, the editor at the Ontario Science Centre, was willing to spend many hours going over my writing with me. These sessions were more beneficial than all of my high school English courses.
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