Open Thinkering


How I mark students’ books.

Marking books

I’d love to mark blogs (or even Google Wave) rather than exercise books. In my previous school I used Posterous-powered blogs with my Year 10 History class. However, in some situations it’s just not practical for various reasons. This isn’t the post to go into the ins and outs of why this is the case. This is the post that explains how I mark books with some justification behind my actions. One reason for putting my system online is to get feedback as to how I can improve it.

Let me just say right from the outset that I don’t mark as often as other teachers. Or as often as they claim to, anyway. In fact, during these half-term holidays is the first time I’ve marked my classes’ books this year. I would have ordinarily have liked to look at them before now (after 2-3 lessons) but setting up a new Academy kind eats into any free time you’ve got…

One more thing by way of context. It’s usual, but not universal, in England for Key Stage 3 students – whom I’m talking about here – to get one lesson of History (my subject) per week. Marking their books at the end of the half-term means they’ve got a maximum of 6 lessons work in there.

With that out of the way, let me explain how I go about marking. I do it in two ‘waves’:

First wave

Crap at History?

In the first wave I’m concentrating on the following:

  • Encouraging students
  • Completion of work
  • Understanding of key concepts
  • Spelling of key words
  • Factual errors (to correct)

If I notice a pattern across books (either all or a subset of them) then this informs my teaching and/or direction of Learning Support Assistants.

I used to mark in green, after hearing that some students find red a ‘confrontational’ colour. However, after having students in two separate schools complain about this, I’m back on the red. That’s handy, as green pens are more expensive and harder to get hold of!

Sometimes I fall into the trap of ‘ticking’ work. There’s really no point in this, but I do it to reassure students that I’ve seen a piece of work that doesn’t really require any comment. I focus my time and effort on things that are likely to make a difference to their learning. Sometimes this is reinforcing/correcting understanding of a key concept; sometime it’s encouraging a student; sometimes it’s drawing attention to spelling of key words. It depends on what you’re teaching and who the student is.

Second wave

Marking: the Second Wave

Once I’ve been through exercise books with a red pen, I revisit them (the ‘second wave’). The purpose of this is to:

  • Make a summative comment on how each individual student is doing.
  • Inform the student on work that’s missing from their book.
  • Highlight 3 ways they can improve.
  • Enter data into a grid showing homework completion.
  • Add notes, comments and indicative levels to my (online, Google Docs-powered) gradebook

Before I started to do this (or an iteration of it) I noticed that students wouldn’t read the comments I made on books. Having an obvious bookmark (such as that provided by the full-page feedback) gets them reading what I’ve said. By observing a colleague at my previous school I’ve also realised the importance of building time into a subsequent lesson to let them read what you’ve said. :-p


This marking system takes time. The thing that actually takes the most time is the chasing up of books that haven’t been handed in for marking, students who haven’t completed homework, and monitoring the catch-up work of absentees. Once students get used to the system, however, they seem to like it. After all, they know that I’ve been through their books carefully and given personalised feedback. They appreciate that. 🙂

Comments? Suggestions? Use the comments section below!

8 thoughts on “How I mark students’ books.

  1. Sounds like a good system Doug. I like the idea of that summary of feedback in the second wave, sounds like it helps to get students to actually look at and make use of marking. Also think it is so important to give them time to read and reflect on marking (especially with 8 yr olds I teach), as otherwise your time in marking is largely wasted.

  2. Hi Doug.
    Really interesting post and very much in line with what my school has been ‘training us on’. We had a very informative AFL session with a woman whos name escapes me (emma something) she was an advisor of sorts. She made some interesting comments on marking – firstly she suggested that really studnets should only get a grade on 4 – 5 occasions in the year, she argues that in a year you would hope a student makes maybe a 1 level gain in general terms and therfore it can be slightly mis leading or defeatist if this student is seeing the same 4C over and over. The main point behind her argument was that the comments are far more important and that students by habit gravitate towards the mark rather than the bit that is designed to help them – the comment. She also talked about an interesting marking method that i have since used and it works a treat – marking the books using codes, lets say every time you see a student use evidence you use the code ‘evo’ or bias ‘bi’ and also for lets say ‘great uses of a source’ ‘gr8’- then at the start of the lesson she has posters of what each code means around the room and the students have to go around and look/fill in. She argued that this method made them really understand the comments she was making and also know what they had to do to improve.
    If you want her name or the slide notes she gave us i could mail both.

    1. Thanks Matthew – interesting stuff! A friend of a friend also uses a netbook to get students to type up their comments. He writes in their books, then they type it up into a Google Doc. This means they *have* to read the comments! :-)

  3. Just found this and this is how I was set up to mark when I was HOD, but was told by a so-called expert adviser that it was all wrong.
    My day to day marking was like your ‘first wave’ which i could do when I had free time during the teaching week, or to catch up, take books home!
    I was a bit more formal with the ‘second wave’ in that students had formal assessments at the end of each topic, and it was the only time they got a grade. In each exercise book they had NC grade table, and an achievement/target able, every half term I would produce a summative assessment comment for each student, which would be a basis for my comment on how to improve, which were colour coded red, amber & green.
    I would have for each class an excel spreadsheet, showing both formative and summative assesments, and to be honest all I really needed to do to make notes for reports was the exercise books and the comments I had made on the red sections on the spreadsheet.

  4. ‘G’day’ Doug (I’m an Aussie in Sydney), love your blog – you are an absolutely inspirational educator and I follow what you are doing very closely. I’m very interested in the collection of words you have at the bottom of this page that you can click on and be led into discussions of areas that interest you. I can forsee great interest in creating such a thing with my class next year and I would love to know more about it – what it’s called, how you created it…..

  5. I teach in the UK- I’m a science teacher. In my school we are required to mark books every 2 weeks, full constructive comments plus we are scrutinised on whether the students acted upon our comments (if some didn’t we can be marked down on our lesson observation). Plus tests and homeworks (that’s on top of books which include mostly classwork) every 3-4 weeks each – these must be graded and with full constructive feedback (depending on student age and type of homework set). I teach around 180 students (that is 20 hours contact time) so this adds up to unsustainable workload.
    I’m interested to know how often you are required to mark books and whether you mark any other type of student work (tests, homeworks). Looking at your method of work I feel that you must have the luxury of time I don’t 🙁

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