All I Do Is Mark….

I remember those days of taking home baskets and baskets of marking.  Of feeling like I was drowning under a sea of paper.  Of looking at the stack and figuring out….ok, so if each one of these takes me ten minutes to mark then I’m about to lost ten hours of my life….

And then I would put in all that effort, hand back whatever it is I had just marked….and watch as they would get shoved into binders (unread except for the mark), lost on the floor, jammed into lockers…..or someone would utter my favorite line, “Do we have to keep this?”

And all I wanted to do was crawl into a deep dark hole and cry.

Dylan Wiliam talks about three different types of assessing and how it relates to improvement.  Typically there are three basic forms:  Feedback Only, Grade Only, Feedback with Grade.  When it came to what gained student improvement, Wiliam and his colleagues discovered that giving just a grade or giving a grade with feedback had the same result on student learning – which was basically nothing.  Very little improvement was seen.  Providing feedback with a grade served little purpose since the student didn’t look beyond the grade to the feedback.  Giving feedback only seem to have the most impact on raising student achievement because there was no grade to distract the student.

Recently I came across the slides from one of Dylan Wiliam’s presentations.  The summary of this series of slides really summed up what we have come to conclude about really improving student achievement….and that is that it’s directly related to improving teacher quality.  Which makes sense when you think about it.  What does this look like?

1.  Improving teacher quality means improving teacher professional development.

2.  Teacher professional development must address a) what teachers do in the classroom and b) how teachers CHANGE what they do in the classroom.

3.  There must be a combination of Assessment For Learning practices (AFL) as well as Teacher Learning Communities (TLCs).

– Dylan Wiliam, OECD CERI 40th anniversary conference

When I think about effective teachers and effective teaching, I think back to the days of the endless marking pile and a few key phrases that pop up now and again.

We shouldn’t be working harder than our student.

Amen!  I’m sure most teachers would say.  So what about those teachers who spend hours and hours marking, or three hours planning for a lesson that will only take 40 minutes to perform?

Anyone who walks into my classroom these days will find that I spend very little time invested in “traditional” teaching of the stand and deliver quality.  I don’t spend hours planning lessons because I strive to inspire THNK….or what I like to call….The Human Need to Know (which almost spells the word “think”….I know, I’m so clever).

I try to put questions in from of my kids that will drive them to find the answers themselves.  This equates into very little effort on my part because the kids do all the work!  They do all the learning!  I simply support and assist their learning.

Colleagues will come into my classroom and see the kids working at computers, or talking in small groups, or doing other various activities and say to me, “Don’t you ever teach?”  And my usual response is, “I try not to.”

The Human Need to Know is a powerful force……

I say less, but the students learn more.

Mark Less but Mark Better

For me, this loosely translates into, don’t mark it unless it’s of value.  I was recently explaining to a parent, who said she hasn’t seen any assignments or test scores come back yet, that I do very little traditional marking in my class.  Most of what I do are learning activities, which I don’t mark.  What I do is make sure that these learning activities ultimately lead up to a culminating project or task that will show me if they have been learning along the way.

So no, I don’t take it worksheets of twenty math questions, I don’t give quizzes every week, and I don’t take in essays and stories after every paragraph so I can edit and hand back.  That’s not my job!  Training my students how to self-monitor their own learning….THAT’S my job.  I refuse to stand at their shoulder and make sure they are doing what they should be doing.

If you ask good questions and put forth relevant tasks that are worth doing, your students will make sure they they come up with a list of what they need to learn to do.  And that’s where I come in.  “Hey teacher, how do I set up a google doc spreadsheet?”  “Yo, Mrs. O!  How do I figure out the percent of something?”  “Um, ya….so what’s a good way to hook a reader at the start of a story?”

Get the kids to ask the questions.  Then you don’t need to mark it because the learning is meaningful to them.  Why ask questions unless you want to know the answers?

Dealing with Teacher Isolation

How many of us feel like an island?  We spend hours upon hours planning lessons that someone else has probably already planned along the way.   For these teacher’s I say….for goodness sake, join Twitter already!

I can’t harp on this enough.  You can spend hours researching websites on Google or you can send out one tweet, go make supper for your family, and come back to at least a dozen responses of websites that other teachers have already used.  Twitter is smarter and more effective teaching, plain and simple.  Trust me…..

To Sum Up…


Yes, I admit I have been teaching for ten years and so I’m getting better at managing my time.  But the fact is….I spend my time developing questions, not lessons.  I mark very little, but those marks say more.  I never go home with a bucket of marking and I never feel over whelmed by the marking I have.

Those days are over for me.









About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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2 Responses to All I Do Is Mark….

  1. Terri says:

    When I was over in England….I had a chance to be mentored in Black and William’s Assessment for Learning. Last year when I returned to an American classroom, it took a little bit for the students to get ‘feedback vs marking’. They were so used to grades for EVERYTHING!!! Homework…quiz..that worksheet…ugh… I am excited for you and know your students are going to enjoy getting authentic feedback. I spent some time this year with my gifted students asking the question…What does an A mean? Which led to a discussion about meaningful feedback linked to learning. It was incredible to watch their lights come on. They get it!

    • Wow, what an amazing opportunity! I’ve seen Dylan Wiliam speak twice now here in Canada and really like his message. And it seems so obvious yet sometimes I think we need to be hit over the head with what’s “obvious” to make us rethink what’s done because it’s always been done that way.

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