Marking: Boulder or Butterfly?

Open book, read, tick, turn page, read, write comment, tick, tick, read, correct capital letters, tick, tick, correct spelling mistake, turn page, write comment, stamp, close book, next.


And repeat. Thirty times. Then thirty more. Then thirty more. Then thirty more…

Marking a set of books can make any teacher feel like Sisyphus, the Greek king condemned to a life of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down again and repeat forever. We want to give every book our full attention, but getting it done to the level we deem necessary can sometimes feel like a task of Herculean proportion. And the worst part is, as soon as you’ve marked every class, the cycle is complete and you have to start all over again. We watch helplessly as the boulder rolls back down the hill, slowly stumble after it, and muster the courage to start all over again.


Mountainous marking.


Below is a photograph of one of the first books I ever marked, back in September 2011. I remember taking the set home after about a week in the classroom; I was eager to see how the kids had done and wanted to make a good job of it. I settled down, steaming cup of tea in one hand and fancy new red pen in the other, and cracked on with it. Five hours later, I was done. I marked thirty books, all of which looked a bit like this once I downed tools.


Poor Jake: I don’t think he really deserved that.

On Monday, I took the books into school and proudly distributed them to my students. I was expecting them to be overjoyed with the amount of feedback I had given them. I was a bit surprised when they ignored it and continued chatting to their friends about their respective weekends.

I worked out that I had spent roughly 10 minutes on each book. After much coaxing and cajoling, I got the kids to answer their targets, which probably only took them about 2 minutes.

That’s one heck of a ratio. 10 minutes to 2 minutes! I was spending five times as many minutes on their feedback as they were!

Marking Miscalculation


My school’s policy stated that books should be marked once a fortnight. This meant that (as was always inevitable) I struggled to maintain the level of detail that I had started out with. I did my damndest, but something had to give. I ended up having to either mark in less detail or prioritise one group over another. It simply was not possible to mark all my classes in this way every fortnight.

This, I realised, is the first problem with marking. We sacrifice frequency in favour of detail.

Writing out detailed comments takes time. Providing students with detailed comments means that they won’t be able to get feedback very often. Most teachers will manage once every couple of weeks, but some (those who have families, other responsibilities, or exciting social lives) might not even make that. This means that when Jimmy does a piece of work on the first of the month, he might not find out how well he did until the fourteenth, by which time he has completely forgotten what the task was and might not really care how well he did.

I kept up this marking routine for the whole of my first year. Marking became a behemoth. I hated it. I would spend hours procrastinating whilst a pile of year 9 books festered in the corner of my apartment. I would sigh loudly as I ticked and flicked. Marking was something I put off as much as possible and only really did because of the two-week turnaround policy. It became a tick box exercise, rather than a powerful way of helping my students to improve.

Which brings me nicely to the second problem with marking. If we hate doing it, we don’t do a good job of it.


When I was tired or had only just scraped through an utterly horrendous day, the last thing I wanted to do was pour over a set of graffiti-adorned exercise books. I would either put it off a day longer, or do a poor job of it, not really paying enough attention and not giving very meaningful feedback.

I felt pretty ashamed about this. I thought long and hard about how I could do a better job of marking. This post offered a fantastic solution: use icons to save time, set targets and help them improve.

The Butterfly Effect

Last weekend, Joe Kirby wrote an excellent blog post detailing a method that hopes to reduce the effort and increase the impact of marking. Rather than seeing marking as a task akin to Sisyphus’ boulder, Joe perceives it to be a low effort strategy that, like the flapping of a butterfly’s wings, has the potential for enormous impact, no matter how insignificant it may at first appear.

After a lot of soul searching and contemplation, I adapted the icon approach to something that I felt happy with. I kept Joe’s simple litmus tests in mind (that marking must be timely, regular and actionable) and came up with my own speedy system that cut down the time I spent marking, made it worthwhile for the pupils, and was a bit more palatable at the end of a hard day.

My Approach to Marking

After every lesson, I take all my students books in. I read the work they did that day and I draw a coloured dot in their exercise book. A red dot means they didn’t understand at all, a yellow dot means they have understood parts of it, but haven’t quite mastered it, and green means they have mastered it.

It takes me no more than 30 seconds to mark each book. That’s roughly 15 minutes per set- a huge time saver!

A little coloured dot may not seem like much by way of feedback, but it serves two extremely important purposes: firstly, the students can see how well they did in the previous lesson, which is extremely motivating and helps them to see if they are on track. Secondly, it provides them with an opportunity for DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time): a low effort strategy with high impact.

At the beginning of the next lesson, the kids get their books back and immediately turn to see what coloured dot they got. They then answer a ‘coloured dot question’, which is on the board. They answer the relevant question for their colour, which usually takes them about five minutes.

Frequency over detail?

I can now mark every lesson with no worries. But have I simply flipped the problem on its head and devised a situation whereby I am sacrificing detail for the sake of frequency?

I don’t think so. Marking every lesson means I see into their book every day: they get feedback on every single piece of work that they do and are constantly acting on it. The ‘coloured dot questions’ bridge the gap between the previous lesson and the next, allowing them to deepen or consolidate prior knowledge and prepare them for new knowledge.

Some people have asked me about how I give specific, focused feedback to those who need it. I make a note of all the pupils who get a red dot and make sure that I spend the first few minutes of the lesson with them, addressing any misconceptions and talking them through the answer to the red question. If they still struggle, or repeatedly get red dots, they come back to me at lunchtime and we discuss it in more depth.

In September 2011, my ratio of marking time to pupil response time was about 10 minutes to 2 minutes. Now it’s 30 seconds to 5 minutes! I think my marking has far more impact now than it used to have, and I really don’t see it as a chore any more. If anything, it has now become so integral to my job that I don’t think I could teach without it!

So next time you sit down with a set of books, ask yourself this: how long are you spending marking each one? And how long will the kids spend responding to your feedback? Is it a ratio that you are happy with? Think about this carefully, but if all else fails, remember:

Marking should be a butterfly, not a boulder. Low effort, high impact strategies save time, help to motivate pupils and improve the quality of the feedback they get. So leave the boulder at the bottom of the hill and start making butterflies!

21 thoughts on “Marking: Boulder or Butterfly?

  1. I have read as many marking/assessment/feedback tweets and blogs as possible since September as I felt I wasn’t doing it right. That after twelve years it had evolved into the millstone round my neck, the boulder on a steep hill and it was taking over my life.

    I, too, have implemented DIRT but only once a week (we have two lessons at ks3 and 3 at ks4). As much as I love your coloured dots idea-us geographers love coloured pencils-our school has a ‘what went wellx2’ and a target or two stars and a wish policy. Every book gets marked that way. However you have given me food for thought, I might managed to get the coloured dots in there some how!!
    Thank you, v thought provoking.

  2. “Five hours later, I was done. I marked thirty books… I worked out that I had spent roughly 20 minutes on each book”.

    I wouldn’t pay much attention to a teacher who worked out that 300/30=20.

    • Thank you for such a positive and inspiring comment!

      You are right that mathematics fails me here, some books took less time and some more. I will amend the post to reflect this gross miscalculation. I hope you will then consider listening to me after I have done so. Many thanks for pointing it out 🙂

  3. I loved the blog and find the idea inspirational as well as aspirational. It is clear that the pupils are valuing what you are doing for them.

    However, Peter just pointed out your numeracy error and therefore ALL you have written becomes invalid. Thanks Peter. I don’t know what we would do without people like you.

  4. Fabulous idea. Love the ease with which this allows DIRT and effective feedback. Our school has a policy of writing in strengths and targets when marking, but could definitely include coloured dots!!!! Thanks

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  6. As a science teacher, most of my marking is of a straight forward factual right/wrong answers to questions. I have just got my yr 8 to do an extended piece of writing to test their understanding of the work we have recently done in class. The dot marking idea you present here would seem to be a perfect way of marking this work. Any correction of misunderstanding they show can be done with a red dot question, and extension can be done with a green dot question. I can also see how to tie this into the SOLO taxonomy outcomes with red dots equating to Multistructural level up to green dot at extended abstract level.

  7. I don’t think it’s the ‘dot method’ in particular that is the key issue here, but the drawing of attention to the onerous expectation by those in authority regarding ‘how’ teachers should mark – creating the boulder. Surely the point is that if teachers can find a time-efficient method of their own which is prompt, diligent, time-efficient and effective for learners – in contrast to teachers dreading the marking, avoiding the marking and hating the marking – then that is the point of principle. And they should be allowed. Good post! Very topical.

  8. I think that marking is such an interesting topic. If we’re supposed to work in a way that suits us best, plan in a way that works for us, teach in a way that is natural for us, why can’t we mark in a way that is best for us?
    My school has a two-week turn around too with a feedback sheet made to tick all the boxes for good feedback, but I think I’d like to incorporate your idea into the marking that I do every lesson. It’s so quick, yet so effective! Thank you for sharing this!

    • Its a good point that schools prescribe methods. I wouldn’t mind if they prescribed a method that was quick and useful, but ticking sheets every two weeks sounds utterly horrific! I’m not sure how effective it would be, either.

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