Marking: Why It Doesn’t Work


Marking used to fill me with dread…

It consumed every evening and at least one day of the weekend. The workload was unbearable. I had no life and the cycle repeated itself every week until the summer holidays. I hated marking.

Oh, and by the way, it made no difference!

I was ticking and flicking, leaving comments that were far too generic and the marking often went unnoticed or unacknowledged by the students. So, I’ve stopped. Or at least, I’ve stopped doing what I was doing. Now, my marking is less frequent but makes a much greater difference to the progress of my students.

I’ve trialled a few different methods of marking and feedback (they aren’t always the same thing!) to a wide range of classes from KS3 to KS5. I’ve settled, for now, on the one that appears to make the biggest difference, whilst taking the least amount of time to implement. My classes are making better progress and I have my life back!

How to mark and still have a life

Decide why you are marking in the first place

It isn’t agreed by all educators what the purpose of marking is. Some argue it is to point out where the student is going wrong and guiding them back to where they should be going. Some argue it is to build up a relationship between the teacher and the students so that the teacher can understand better how to support them in class. Others think that marking is a way of showing to parents and school inspectors that teachers are paying attention to the work produced by students. Recently, Ofsted has begun using evidence from marked books and folders as a better judgement of progress than lesson observations.

My view is that marking is one method  we can use to cause an improvement in student performance. It isn’t the only method; forms of feedback other than traditional marking can be much more effective, e.g. immediate verbal feedback (one of the most significant drivers of improvement in my experience). It is the ‘causal’ relationship between the marking and the improvement which is the key point here.

If marking doesn’t ’cause’ improvement, then either change it or abandon it entirely.

As teachers, we are sometimes slow to abandon practices that don’t yield fruit immediately. We see value in playing the long game. However, we can also fall into the trap of mistaking the ‘long game’ for plain old-fashioned ‘laziness’.

Question: Are we really assessing our methods over time, or are we just unwilling to change our method and hoping that things will improve?

Only mark work that will significantly help your students achieve their goal

Some work should be marked and other work shouldn’t. We should get students to do both types of work, as they serve different purposes. However, we also need to distinguish between both types of work when planning our lessons. Otherwise, our lessons risk becoming too formulaic, may lack creativity and will fail to engage at least some of the students.

To decide which work to mark, ask this question: “What does the student need to be able to do by the end of the course?

The work should (only?)* be marked if it shows:

  • the student adding to or improving a skill that they need to be able to master
  • the student’s understanding of a concept, story, method, etc that they need to be able to explain
  • the student’s detailed analysis, application or evaluation of a theory that they need to be able to argue

The work (perhaps?)* shouldn’t be marked if it shows:

  • Repetition of previously marked work (with nothing added or amended)
  • Basic consolidation of understanding and which may be below the student’s ‘true potential’ (I hate this phrase but we all use it)
  • skills, knowledge, etc that doesn’t help students in their pursuit of the goals of the course (why would you be doing these tasks anyway?)

*In teaching, nuance is everything – you know when an exception can be made here!

You must give feedback quickly

Students who receive marked work long after they handed it in are less likely to engage with the feedback comments. Make sure that you return their work in a timely manner, so that they can still remember the topic clearly. Immediate feedback has been shown to make the biggest difference to students. The longer you leave it, the less difference your marking will make.

Only make comments that will significantly help students achieve their goal

Generic comments like ‘great effort’ and ‘more detail needed’ are only useful up to a point. They tell the student in a vague way how you feel about their work. However, they do not give any specifics about what to do to rectify any mistakes or omissions. There are different schools of thought on this. We can either go the ‘spoon-feeding’ way and tell our students exactly what they should have done differently. This can include re-writing sentences or adding content that students failed to include, for example. However, this can be time-consuming. For an easier way, read this post on how to implement a marking code, to reduce marking time.

Alternatively, we can encourage more independence in our students by giving them some indication of what they should do, but without the specifics of how to do it or what it should look like. I use a mixture of both but tend towards the latter. Over the years, I’ve found with my classes that if they come to rely on specifics from me, then over time they lose the ability to solve problems for themselves further down the line.

Ensure that students respond to the marking

When students respond to marking it accelerates their progress. When students don’t respond to marking, their progress will be limited. Responding to feedback also leads to higher levels of confidence over time. But not only that, it helps you see more easily what a fantastic difference your interventions are making in their education. Since we are all here to make a difference, maybe this will be why you would move to the marking system I’ve adopted. Another benefit: you’ll have more time for a social life (remember that?). But that’s not all.

You may even learn to love marking. Really.


My personal marking policy may be controversial, it might already be in use by you and your team, or it may seem arbitrary and confusing. Either way, I always appreciate constructive feedback.

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Top 10 Ways to Add Detail to Essays

how to add detail to essays

How I teach students to add detail to essays

My students are generally very good at recalling the points that they are supposed to make when writing their essays. However, where they often lose marks, at least at the beginning of the course,  is where they add detail to their points. For years I found that this was a challenge to teach. I teach two different essay-based subjects. I’ve also examined at GCSE and A Level for two different exam boards, so the topics I’ve covered are extremely varied. Over the years I’ve come up with a few different essay structures and even paragraph structures for students to follow. I have found that essays which gain the highest marks, regardless of the subject, share a number of striking similarities. These similarities can not only be applied to my own subjects but can be effective in very different subjects such as Science and Technology too. Hopefully, though, with a little tweaking, you should be able to take these tactics and apply them to any subject you teach.

The top 10 ways to add detail to an essay

Over a period of ten years, I’ve taught Religious Studies, Law and even dabbled in Critical Thinking. This year I’ve also taken on the Extended Project Qualification. They are all assessed on different criteria. But despite this, I have found that the essays which gain the highest marks share a number of striking similarities. These similarities can not only be applied to my own subjects but can be effective in subjects such as Science and Technology too. What we all know though is that when students add detail, they achieve higher marks.

1. Introductions

It is often very important to write an introduction, but not always. Whenever I read a good introduction, it is always focused directly on the question the student must tackle. It isn’t always necessary to “rephrase” the question, but for some students, this can be a good way for them to focus their mind on the way they would like to answer the question. Beware, though, if the student rephrases the question in a way that moves away from the central topic criteria, then it can sabotage the rest of the essay.

In some cases, an introduction is not needed and the student is better off just diving straight into giving their first argument or setting out the first part of a theory that they will go on to explain.

In evaluative essays, the introduction should be planned well in advance, so that the student can set out what they intend to prove. If this isn’t planned in advance, the student may be caught out and actually have to admit in their conclusion that their original position is not supported by the evidence they gave in the body of the essay. Planning is key!

2. Defining ‘terms’

Key terms related to the central aspects of the question should be defined and analysed. Often a key term can be interpreted in a number of ways. This might change the outcome of the essay’s conclusion, so it is useful for the student to set out what they interpret from the outset. That way, the internal logic of the argument is likely to be far more resistant to criticism.

3. Defining ‘style’

It isn’t always necessary in the essay to write about the style of the essay the student is writing, but in some subjects it is. For example, are they writing to explain or to argue? If they are arguing, are they basing the argument on deductive reasoning or inductive reasoning? Are they relying on empirical evidence to prove their point, or will logic suffice?

It is also crucial for the student to know whether they are simply trying to demonstrate how a theory works, or whether they are evaluating its effectiveness. In many exam questions, this difference is signposted by the ‘trigger words’ in the question. If it says ‘analyse’ or ‘explain’ then it is asking for the student to show mastery of a theory. If it says ‘assess how far’ or ‘evaluate’ then the student will need to weigh up evidence for and against, then arrive at a conclusion.

4. PEE paragraphs

PEE stands for Point, Explain, Evidence and is a popular structure for students to ensure that they add detail to their essays. The advantage of this style of writing is that it is clear and easy for students to remember. It is also easy for the examiner to quickly pick out the points they are looking for, so long as the PEE style is followed consistently. A disadvantage, though, is that when used consistently, without adding any extra elements, the essay can lack flair. Students may, therefore, miss crucial areas that the examiner would like better answers to show, e.g. hypothetical alternatives (see below).

5. IDEA paragraphs

IDEA stands for Identify, Define, Explain, Apply. I teach this structure to my students who are answering a scenario-based question. In Law, this could mean that they must identify the offence committed, define the rules governing this offence, explain how the rules are applied in theory and in previous cases and then apply those rules to the facts of the scenario. I find it works a lot better than the PEE paragraphs because it adds detail by including a further level of depth. Also, you can teach students specifically how to structure each of the constituent parts of IDEA. Then you just tailor them to whatever subject you want to across the curriculum.

6. Arguments

When writing an argument, there are two things that excellent answers tend to show: passion and clear reasoning. Arguments that jump out at the reader will often be worded strongly. By simply changing “Aristotle’s objection is strong because…” to “Aristotle’s objection is particularly strong because”,  it adds an extra element: judgement. This shows to the examiner that the student has weighed up the different objections and decided that this one is more notable than the others. Higher marks for evaluation will usually follow.

7. Scholars and Authorities

Adding detail in the form of scholar’s views, case studies from the media or quotes from texts is an excellent way to support your arguments. The key here, though, is to cite the authority and then analyse the different ways that it could both show support for your point but also any drawbacks that authority has. For example, you could use a court case to illustrate  how a law is applied in reality, but then point out how slight differences in the case may have changed how useful the case is in supporting your argument. Differences in interpretation of a scholar’s view are the best way to demonstrate a breadth of study, clarity of thought and depth of evaluation.

8. Hypotheticals

Sometimes there isn’t an example from real life that a student can draw from to illustrate their point. In this case, encourage the student to create their own hypothetical scenario that would show illustrate their point. This highlights to the examiner that the student is aware of how to apply their argument to reality. A good tip is to keep the hypothetical scenario as simple as possible so that there is less chance that the student will confuse themselves or the reader. Any extra complexity in the scenario, however, would give the student a great opportunity to examine a range of issues that might not surface if the scenario was simpler.

9. Audience

This component is sometimes overlooked, especially as it may not be specified by an exam board as a marking criterion. By ‘audience’ I’m referring to the intended recipient of an argument. For example, my Religious Studies students often evaluate the strength of an argument regarding belief in God. It might be assumed that the intended audience for an argument proving of God’s existence is non-believers, in order to change their beliefs. However, this may not be the case at all. The argument’s intended audience may instead be people who already believe in God. The strength of the argument, therefore, does not depend on successful conversions. When this element is added by the students, it demonstrates a much broader view of the role of arguments in general, a much more sophisticated view.

10. Conclusions

My students often struggle with this one. They often just make a simple statement, either agreeing or disagreeing with the point they made in their introduction. As an examiner, I would want to know why they chose this conclusion, as opposed to an alternative one. Teach your students to explain why they were persuaded this way and which reasons were the most significant and why. (You can read more about how to teach students to write better conclusions here.) If they want to add some unexpected ‘twist’, then this can be of benefit, as it can show creative thought. However, I try to dissuade my students from doing this. This is because, if their ‘twist’ is good enough to be mentioned, then it should appear earlier in the essay and be analysed in depth, just like the other reasons they gave.

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Motivating Students

motivating students

Motivating students after Results Day

As a teacher, motivating students is one of the biggest challenges we face. There are probably a number of reasons, other than the quality of teaching, to explain why some students didn’t make as much progress as they could have done. Lack of motivation, distraction, tiredness, ineffective study techniques, porr homework record, the list goes on.

But no matter what the reason was for their underperformance, we, as their teachers or Heads of Departments, will have to quickly deal with the areas that have held those students back from achieving their potential. Otherwise, we fail too.

Take action

In your first lesson back after the summer holidays, take some time to explain to students the context of their results: why the results matter, but also why students are not defined by their exam results. They are people, not data. This may offer little comfort to some who think that they’ve wasted a year or two, but at least they will see you as being on their side and being willing to look for solutions. This will help later on when things get tough again.

However, most importantly, it’s true. Students are people, not little marks on a chart, or a step towards achieving an acceptable percentage for the cohort. Teachers can lose sight of this when schools are increasingly measured by exam data. If this thought isn’t central to our thinking, then we will lose sight of the entire purpose of education – to help people achieve their full potential and contribute positively to the world.

Below I’ve outlined a few solutions, as a way to begin helping your students to the next level after their exams. It’s a starting point, not a complete solution. So if I’ve missed something obvious, or you would do things differently, then good! You know your students better than I do!

Priorities for improving student achievement:


Sometimes it’s important to refer back to the big picture. Ask the students why they are here, studying your subject. Get them to see both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of performing well your subject. Will high performance in the subject lead to Higher Education, a career, further vocational training? Will proficiency in the subject develop skills relevant to a wide variety of industries? Will the skills increase enjoyment, or be useful in everyday life? So long as you can find a “yes” for each of your students, you will be able to do something to improve their motivation.

Unsurprisingly, students will be very emotional. Surprisingly, though, many teachers do not tap into this to see if there is some way to get students to focus on positive emotions. I find that visualisation can help here. Tip for motivating students: Have the students close their eyes and talk them through what the upcoming year will look like, leading through various stages, all the way up to results day when they will open their results envelope, discovering the grades they are hoping for. By giving students the time and by creating the conditions for them to imagine the simple stages leading to success, they will see the end result as attainable. This will help prevent the familiar “I can’t do that” mindset that can emerge after a poor performance in an exam. Resilience is key. You can read more on developing resilience here.


Focus is crucial. Distraction is the enemy of focus. If there are distractions, then identify them. Remove the distractions when the revision is supposed to take place. Once temptation to procrastinate is removed, focus will be easier to achieve. Popular distractions for my students include:

  • social media
  • computer games
  • nights out
  • part-time employment
  • an infinite number ways to procrastinate online

By far the biggest distraction for my students is social media. I tell my students that when revising, turn off your mobile and put it in another room. Try to revise using offline methods wherever possible. Anecdotally, it works. Try it – it might work for your students too!

Motivting students


Studies suggest a wide range in the number of hours that we need, but they generally all agree that students need even more! Remind students to get to bed early more often than not and over time it will have a huge impact on their attention spans and ability to retain information. Revising whilst tired is a poor substitute for revising whilst alert.

Effective vs ineffective study techniques

Get the students to mind-map their revision methods (if they used more than one – hopefully they did). Then get them to list the most effective and least effective methods they used – NOT the ones they enjoy or prefer. A discussion of the results will help groups of students to see what ‘busy work’ they should avoid next time, leaving time to complete effective revision. There’s nothing worse than finding out that you’ve worked hard and been busy in the lead up to an exam, only to find that your revision didn’t actually work!

Motivating students is a much simpler task if you can clearly show them the best ways to achieve success.

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