Wednesday, 22 April 2009


The marking season hasn't even started yet, and I'm already tired of it. At present I'm looking through a pile of formative assignments, which are exam-style questions to prepare students for what is awaiting them in a few weeks' time. And I don't like doing it.

Why not? Is this the typical whingeing about an unpleasant job? Partly. I can think of many things I'd rather do, and that I still have to do once the marking is finished. But that in itself is not the reason. Giving feedback should be one of the central tasks in education, but the ways we have available for it are not very satisfactory.

Ideally I would write an essay about the length of the students' submission to give them proper feedback about all the things I like and don't like about their work. Because the student will read it at some point, and might come back to me with questions about it, I have to be very specific, and have to make sure they can be read out of context (ie without having the student essay still fresh in mind). This is very difficult to do. And would consume more time than is available.

It is also the case that it is very hard to phrase feedback properly. I can easily read a text and decide whether I like it or not, but then telling somebody else why I came to that conclusion is difficult. Often these points are on an almost sub-conscious level, and hard to verbalise. It would also be a lot easier if it could be delivered in a face-to-face conversation, as interactivity would be much better than simply a list of bullet points with good and bad points about the student's work. Resource shortage however makes that impossible, apart from practical considerations.

Maybe it would be an idea to try out what other people have done: record feedback orally, and then send it to the students. It would be quicker to say something, rather than to write it down in great detail, but dealing with sound files might be more time-consuming in the end.

So it remains the only option for the moment, filling in feedback forms, printing them off, attaching them to the paper, and hoping that the students will be able to use them to improve their work. Unsatisfactory!


  1. It's entirely possible to mark on the computer, using comments in Word or highlighting online, say, record the screen and your own audio comments as you go, and send that as a video file. Difficulty comes with size of files, though, so perhaps via WebCT individual forum...

  2. One problem is that it presupposed Word, which I don't use. And also, submissions are (still) on paper...

    I think the fundamental problem is with the idea of feedback that is 'delivered' without interactivity. It would be a lot easier to discuss a piece of work, rather than to write a review of it, in other words, talking to the student about their work would be much more valuable and also easier to do than writing a self-standing document that usually cannot easily directly refer to places in the essay.

  3. I thoroughly endorse everything OL says about marking. Once, long ago, I fondly hoped that when I 'got good at' marking, I would be able to do it more quickly. In fact, the opposite has happened. I have always been a slow marker, and if anything I've got worse over the years. And, as with OL, the two things that really slow the process for me are (1) formalising my sense of what's wrong with the essay, and (2) finding the appropriate language -- accurate but constructive -- to convey this to the student.

    What's most frustrating of all is the strong likelihood that all these carefully chosen words will simply never be read – or will, at best, be skimmed and then forgotten. I always tell my students that they should come back and see me to discuss anything they don’t understand about my feedback, but in the whole of the current academic year – during which I have taught more than 100 students – only three have actually done so. Meanwhile I see the same students making the very same mistakes in their second and even third and fourth pieces of coursework as I’d identified in the first essays they submitted. It would make you weep.

    When I was a graduate teaching assistant at Glasgow, we didn’t use feedback sheets, though we were expected to write annotations and end-comments on essays. The first few times I marked coursework essays, I called students in individually to return their essays and give a bit of oral feedback. It wasn’t a great success. Some students didn’t turn up. Those who did, tended to listen quietly while I said my say; and then, when I asked ‘Have you any questions?’ said ‘no’ and went away. I also gained the impression that many students found it difficult to absorb oral feedback, no matter how gently and tactfully I expressed it. I felt that I was spending quite a lot of time on this process (10 minutes each – on top of marking time – for 45 students is quite a lot, and I wasn’t getting paid for it) without actually achieving very much. So I discontinued the oral feedback sessions after a year.

    Nowadays I try to write my feedback as accessibly as possible, always using the second person, and making sure to find something constructive to say at some point on the sheet. I use the categories in the Dept template where possible, though I interpret them rather flexibly, and sometimes just scrap them entirely if I don’t think they really help me to say what the student needs to hear. I try to key my comments to specific instance within the essay as much as possible. I don’t claim that any of this is ideal, but I can’t think of anything feasible which would be much better. I simply regard marking as the most difficult and least rewarding aspect of the job.