Standin’ in line marking time….

In my previous post (here) I suggested seven principles to adopt when looking at technology adoption in schools. Adoption of these principle was to enable the maximum benefit, particularly in terms of workload, to be reaped. In this post I look in more detail at how this would work in one area.

The biggest time-suck will vary from teacher to teacher, from school to school and from subject to subject. That said, I think it is fair to say that in any survey of the subject it is likely that marking and report writing (with its special bonus subject, ‘Parents Evenings”) will come up high on the list. According to the 2013 Teachers’ Workload Diary Survey, Assessment, Marking and Reports is overall the second largest taker of teacher time behind Teaching (for Primary it is marginally third, behind preparation). So it’s on areas of marking and reports that I intend to focus my attentions when looking at where technology can be used to help reduce workload.

Firstly some caveats.

  • If your technology implementation is pants, it wont save you time. If you are taking 10 minutes to log on (and I have seen that in some schools) then don’t read on yet. Just get that issue sorted first.
  • Marking affects different teachers in different ways. The workload is already different depending on what your subject is. So the impact of technology on your workload could vary.
  • Don’t expect to be able to benefit from technology without changing in some way how you do things. The real gains come when you allow process change in order to maximise the benefit.

There are also things I’m going to ignore here. Not because they are not important, but because they are issues that can easily (and cost-effectively) be solved once there is acceptance of the benefits the suggestions I make below. Two obvious issues that fall into this category are the ‘digital divide” and teacher technological competence.

Lets start with marking and start with the theory.

Most classwork that gets marked is written either in exercise books, on paper or onto worksheets. The systems exist for this work to be machine read and then machine marked. Currently this is not a viable option because the technology that permits it is still very young and therefore not, shall we say, 100% reliable. The reliability increases as we move along the scale from unstructured to structured work. So work that involves filling in missing bits on a worksheet is more likely to be able to be machine marked reliably than an essay written into an exercise book.

As I said, it’s theory. The handwriting recognition technology is fairly bullet proof at the individual word level (as writers tend to take more care in structured documents) and acceptable on the whole document level. So getting the work into a machine is more or less taken care of. The problem area is the AI required to then assess the outcomes of the work. Again, single word answers, no problem. Short answers are also easily marked by machine, though they take longer to code with the possible answers – I’ll talk about this trade off at the end. This UCLES research paper show how far the technology had advanced even 10 years ago. There are essay marking systems available that produce more than acceptable results but they do require a considerable level of human marker input to make them accurate.

So lets leave classwork and essays to one side for the moment. This still leaves all other homework. In theory all of this could be machine marked. Preferably it could also be directly input (i.e. online) which removes another layer of potential technological problems from the mix. This approach also fits quite well with the idea that homework tasks should be relatively short, frequent and matched to current learning. A good automated system would also test previous topics at the same time.

There are clear benefits to such systems. Firstly, they take away the marking workload. Secondly, they are marked straight away. In theory a teacher could work the outcomes of the previous days homework into the next days lesson, or at least be cognisant of the results. This would have the impact of making homework more relevant. Being online will also allow parents to see what homework is being set and whether it is being done. Automated systems have the added advantage of storing the marks for you and allowing serial non-completers of homework to be easily identified. This final bonus would allow homework refusal to be dealt with by someone other than the classroom teacher for those students who miss homework across a range of subjects. This also cuts down workload – one person dealing with a behaviour issue rather than every teacher in the school having to do it for the one student. Non-machine marked work could easily be integrated into such a system.

There are some downsides. The marking process provides a teacher with information that feeds into the planning process. Any automated marking system would have to provide summary information for the teacher to replace this. Creating online quizzes of any kind can be time consuming. Better question generation systems need to be created and better sharing methods are also needed. The provider that cracks these issues can create a good business for themselves. Yes, there are open source systems for this but in my experience they let themselves down on both these latter issues.

I’m fairly sure that the immediate response to above from some subject areas will be “My subject doesn’t work well with multiple choice questions”, or “We need more than short answer questions for my subject.” I’m afraid my answer to that is very simple. If your students are studying a subject that requires them to learn things that they need to remember and then recall at some time in the future then your students will find multiple choice and short answer questions useful. Don’t take my word for it. Joe Kirby (@joe__kirby) has written an excellent series of posts on the subject of multiple choice questions (here and here). If you want the (slightly) opposing view try Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish) here.

So on to reports (and parents evenings).

Back in the day, reports were fairly simple things. Here’s mine from my upper sixth year (that’s year 13 to you youngsters).


Since then they have become ever more complex and time-sucky. I think we need to step back and ask ourselves why do we produce reports? It’s a legal obligation? Because it provides useful information to a parent? To a student? I would argue that little useful information is provided in a report. My experience was always fighting to say something useful, and being told I couldn’t say that as it might offend. So then I said, why not use a comment bank? Ah, I was told, that would be too impersonal.

Here’s my solution for reports. And I come to this as a student, parent and teacher. Scrap them. Don’t do them. Your online systems should be providing sufficient information on an on-going basis. This is possible. Many schools already do it. It is better for a parent to have this information as we go along. Which enables them to raise any issues as we go along, and for teachers to deal with those.

Which brings us nicely to parents’ evenings. If issues which a parent wants to raise can be raised as we go along (and in this age of easy communication why shouldn’t they) then why do we even need a parents evening? So that’s my answer to them. Don’t do them. They are from a bygone age. They are unnecessary. More than that that they are unhelpful in that they presume that the relevant time to deal with a student issue can be calendared months in advance.

So three big bugbears of teacher workload – homework marking, report writing, and parents evenings. At one end of the scale they could all go away. At the very least their time-suckiness can be massively reduced. Yes, there is set up time required. But nothing like the on-going time requirement currently needed.

This is the trade-off I spoke about at the beginning. All technology solutions tend to have this. Time is invested up-front in order to save time down the line. For example. Preparing material on a PowerPoint ready for projection is more time consuming than writing it out in note form ready to write ‘live’ on a white board. But once done, the PowerPoint can be reused (and revised) over and over again. This is often why technology implementations fail. Even when the tech is right, and the training is adequate, the time to develop personalised content is not provided.

The workload survey I referenced at the top of the post suggested that over 9 hours a week are spent (on average) by each teacher on assessing/marking pupil work and reports. This costs around £2.25bn per annum. It also extracts an horrendous toll on our teachers.

It would cost a whole lot less to provide the technology to make this expense largely go away.


That’s just the way it is
Some things’ll never change
That’s just the way it is
Ha, but don’t you believe them

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