Quick and Effective Lesson Ideas #4 – Take a student-focused approach to improve your marking efficiency

Over September and October I will be publishing articles on effective teaching strategies for trainee teachers and NQTs, offering brief (and, I hope, useful and practical!) examples of lessons, ideas, and resources that saved my bacon on more than one occasion!

Previous articles in this series:


How do you make your marking more efficient?

Two years into teaching, I was in the staffroom scribbling furiously over yet another essay in department-mandated green pen when a colleague asked me a simple question that completely changed my approach to marking. Even better, it ultimately led to my marking becoming faster, more effective, and more efficient!

The question was this:

“Are you sure your students will read all of that?”

The answer was, of course, “no”. I stared at the stack of exercise books I had already annotated cover-to-cover and realised with a heavy heart that I’d be lucky if anyone in my class took in even a tenth of what I’d written. Indeed, if I was in their shoes and received back pages and pages of green scribble I wouldn’t have the foggiest where to begin. If I were a student, how would I know which comments were the most valuable? What feedback should I address in my next piece of work? What message should I take away from this? Why?

Since that day, I’ve learnt three lessons about marking. The best marking is:

  • Constructive, and highlights both room for growth and achievement.
  • Manageable for the teacher.
  • Provides students with an opportunity to respond, and to improve their work.

That may all sound like a tall order, but there are a couple of really useful strategies that will enable you to hit all three of the above targets at the same time. One-to-One Student Focused Marking is one of the simplest, most effective, and satisfying. The best part? It’s a fantastic way of developing positive relationships between you and your students.


One-to-one student-focused marking is, simply, sitting down at a table with one of your students, and mark their work with them present. Doing this turns your marking into an active, powerful dialogue that palpably involves the student in the process rather than leaving them as passively recipients of your comments. There are a couple of ways to put this into action, but the technique I always found most effective involves five steps:

1) As a starter activity, ask students to look back over the work they’ve completed recently since you last marked their books / essays / portfolios etc. Tell them that they need to decide on TWO pieces of work that they’d really like your feedback on. These can be homework, classwork, or a mixture of both. The only catch is that one of these must be something that they’re proud of, and one must be something that they think they could improve. If any of these pieces of work is particularly long, ask students to use a highlighter and draw a box around the most important section that they think you should see.

2) Once that’s done, Set the entire class a piece of extended work that they can carry out over the course of one or two lessons without too much input from you. Ideally this will be something that they can work on relatively quietly – a group project in the computer room, perhaps, or a piece of long-form creative writing. If you trust your class enough and they have an examination or assessment coming up, you may allow them the privilege (!) of independent study.
(TIP: If you do the latter, by the way, and allow students to work on computers, I recommend that you casually-but-conspicuously take up residence somewhere in the room where, at a glance, you can see exactly what’s on everyone’s screen!)

3) One by one, call up each member of the class. Give each student a good 5 minutes of your time – even if this means spreading the load over two lessons. Sit down with them, and allow them to talk you through both of the pieces of work that they chose during the starter activity. Mark these pieces of work as they watch, and as you do this be sure to explain to them the reasons for the comments you make, the ticks and squiggles, and the grade that you give.
(TIP: If there’s a piece of work that you really want to see from a particular student, use this as an opportunity to mark that as well – even if it isn’t one of the pieces they chose! Just make sure that you involve them actively: “you know, I’m really keen to see how you did in that spelling test last Tuesday – do you mind if we look at that as well?” They’re not likely to say no – especially if you’ve already praised their “Proud of” work!)

4) Once done, pick one of the pieces that you have marked and ask the student to respond to your comments in order to improve it somehow. Perhaps they need to write another paragraph, or show their workings-out more clearly, or refer to an extra source. Whatever the case, they’ll know exactly what you’re looking for, and what they need to do!

5) The most important step – follow through! Check every improved piece of work at a later agreed date to see how they’ve responded to your advice. You needn’t go into masses of detail – just “borrow” their book for a second as they’re working on something else. What matters is that you model the same care and diligence that you expect of them – and if they’ve gone to the effort of improving their work, it deserves to be acknowledged with a tick, stamp, or some positive verbal feedback! As for anyone who hasn’t followed through and corrected their work… once they see that you mean business, they’ll likely try to avoid making that mistake a second time!

Opportunities for differentiation:

One of the best things about this task is that your bespoke marking and target-setting allows for powerful, targeted differentiation. The “improvement” task that you set at the end will be entirely dependent upon the needs of the individual student. Enjoy! 🙂

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this strategy, and how it works for you! I’d also really love to hear if you have any favourite marking tips or strategies. Leave a comment below and share your expertise! 

6 responses to “Quick and Effective Lesson Ideas #4 – Take a student-focused approach to improve your marking efficiency”

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