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How can we reduce teacher workload without affecting the quality of marking?

Written By: Andrew Jones and Martyn Essery
7 min read

In 2016, a Department for Education (DfE) working group found that the obsessive nature, depth and frequency of marking was having a negative effect on teachers’ wellbeing and their ability to plan, prepare and deliver outstanding lessons. Marking was monopolising our working hours outside of the classroom to the detriment of our health and, ironically, our pupils’ progress.

The working group’s report, Eliminating Unnecessary Workload Around Marking, concluded that our profession needs to reconsider our approaches to marking and feedback. It said:

‘Marking has evolved into an unhelpful burden for teachers, when the time it takes is not repaid in positive impact on pupils’ progress… Too often, it is the marking itself which is being monitored and commented on by leaders rather than pupil outcomes and progress as a result of quality feedback.’ (p. 6)

This rang very true for me. I have often written extensive feedback for pupils knowing that they were unlikely to read it, act upon it or have time to reflect on it. Moreover, my mind was often focused on the member of SLT who would be scrutinising my book, rather than the needs of my pupils. Instead of planning how to use the assessed work to move the pupils forward in their learning, I was committed to flooding their books with red or green pen on the premise that the more I wrote, the more thorough my marking would seem to be.

It’s also important, then, that the DfE report noted the need to refocus our energies on using assessment to inform our teaching and support our pupils’ learning.

While we expect dedication and commitment from our staff, we also felt that teachers were spending too much time on marking.

Our marking challenge

My school decided to act on the working group’s findings. While we expect dedication and commitment from our staff, we also felt that teachers were spending too much time on marking. As with all schools, we have been implementing the new GCSE and A-level curriculums, which presented some challenges. But, as a non-selective free school established in 2013, we also have some unique factors:

  • Our day is longer than most (we finish at 4.15pm)
  • We have electives for one hour every day where teachers deliver lessons outside of the normal school curriculum (on everything from the workings of the UN to fencing)
  • All of our staff are developing their departments as our school grows.


Add to this the expectation that books should be marked every three weeks, and we realised that we needed to review our practices. For example, consider one of our maths teacher’s experiences of marking:

  • 120 books
  • Spent 5 minutes marking time per book
  • Completed 4 times per 13-week cycle (or every three weeks if you ignore the last week)
  • This is 2,400 minutes, or 40 hours, marking per cycle
  • That equates to 3.5 hours per week.


It’s worth noting that some subjects – such as English and Humanities – can be substantially longer, especially at key stage 4 and 5.

Moreover, as Mark Enser points out, one of the problems with ‘deep marking’ is that individual comments end up being very generic. Pupils’ books are swamped with comments like ‘add more detail here’ or ‘explain this’, but without the relevant additional detail on how to follow through on these directions. Importantly, in a class of 30, we also need to be realistic about getting around to each pupil to explain our comments and ensure they are understood and then acted upon.

Our research into marking and feedback

We run ‘Three Strands’ INSET sessions, where a working group meet three times each term to research and discuss areas of best practice that relate to our school development plan. As part of this, a group of teachers had been trialing a different approach to marking and feedback. They explored the evidence around whole-class feedback, and reviewed the experiences of other schools trialling similar approaches.

One of the key documents the group looked at was the Education Endowment Foundation’s 2016 study into the effectiveness of marking and feedback. It stated that while the ‘quality of existing evidence focused specifically on written marking is low’ (Elliott et al: 5), there were some key trends:

  • Careless mistakes should be marked differently to factual and conceptual errors resulting from misunderstanding
  • Grading every piece of work reduces the impact of marking, especially as pupils pay more attention to the grade than the feedback
  • Pupil progress increases if targets are clear, relevant and actionable
  • Time should be set aside to enable pupils to consider and respond to marking
  • Some forms of marking, including acknowledgement marking, have little impact on pupil progress.

Whole-class feedback trial

After an initial trial and evaluation, we rolled the trial out more widely across years 7, 8, 9 and 10 (we decided not to try this with year 11 as the process of adapting to a new method of feedback may have been too much change for them in the run up to their exams).

After INSET training, our teachers all engaged with the whole-class feedback trial. We do not actually ‘mark’ individual pupils’ books, but instead read through them all, making notes of common mistakes, misconceptions and areas for improvement, as well as strengths and successes. These notes then inform a taught feedback lesson called ‘DIRT’ – dedicated improvement and reflection time. This is where all pupils learn from each other’s feedback, including strengths, weaknesses and possibilities for stretch and challenge.

Here is the approach, step-by-step:

  1. Collect a set of books
  2. Get a blank whole-class feedback sheet ready (electronic or not)
  3. Read through each book, making notes as to what you are finding on the sheet – no need to write anything in pupil books
  4. Devise a set of feedback tasks and add these to the bottom of the sheet
  5. Print the feedback sheet off for each pupil (on green paper, which will make the feedback forms stand out in pupils’ books)
  6. Plan a feedback task/lesson, giving pupils the time and means by which to act upon your feedback.


These trends have been identified by other researchers. For instance, the first point is similar to evidence from Hattie and Timperley (2007), who found that immediate feedback is more effective for simple corrections. They also suggested that pupils need to fully comprehend their misconceptions before moving on; this suggests that feedback should be thorough and pupils’ understanding should be checked in some way.

Similarly, Kluger and DeNisi (1996) note that feedback is not always helpful for pupil progress, especially if pupils are not made aware of how to improve; this could suggest that traditional tick-and-flick marking with the odd comment does not properly inform pupils.

It was whilst identifying these trends that one of my colleagues stumbled upon a blog by Doug Lemov on his Teach Like a Champion website, outlining the success of Michaela Community School in reducing workload by giving whole-class feedback, as opposed to giving written feedback on every piece of work. Furthermore, this approach to marking had also been recommended by other bloggers, such as ‘Mrs Humanities’ and ‘Mr Thornton’, as well as influential writers such as Daisy Christodoulou. Faced with these positive examples, we decided to give whole-class feedback a go.

Staff feedback and views

We surveyed colleagues after two terms to collate and analyse their views on whether this approach to marking and feedback actually reduced their workload, without adversely affecting the quality of feedback. The survey results show considerable positives. You can download  all our results – including a selection of comments – below.

Impact on students

From our own scrutiny of pupils’ books, we also feel that there is a positive impact on pupils’ use of feedback. For example, we review a sample of pupils’ books (one book per teacher) every four weeks at both senior leadership and department level. Some of the positives about this approach to feedback we noticed when reviewing books include:

  • Detailed explanations of why positive Reach Points (merits/credits for good work) are given
  • Identifying good practice from individual pupils and explaining why the work is good
  • Very clear and thorough explanations of the follow-up tasks expected by teacher, which will improve pupils’ work
  • Plenty of detailed feedback in English, which is concise enough to avoid cognitive overload
  • Dyslexia font used on English feedback pro-formas
  • Extensive feedback sheet with clear tasks for improvement and even an ‘extension task’ section
  • Pupils ticking off tasks as they complete them
  • Evidence of pupil participation in feedback sessions is evident through work completed in purple pen
  • Links to websites to help pupils extend their learning
  • Clear evidence that books have been thoroughly checked in regards to work that ought to be celebrated. Many pupils named for a variety of positive reasons
  • Good feedback that considers practical activities.

We do not actually ‘mark’ individual pupils’ books, but instead read through them all, making notes… These notes then inform a taught feedback lesson.

By analysing the assessed work as a class, you have more opportunity to demonstrate and model the different strengths and weaknesses as well as any trends (such as common spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes). Moreover, the feedback can also identify ways to move grades up. This all makes the feedback far more meaningful and purposeful in terms of active learning.

It also reduces teacher workload. If you consider the pre-trial marking workload, now think about the new approach:

  • 120 books
  • Spend 1.5 minutes per book
  • Complete 4 times per 13-week cycle
  • This is 720 minutes, or 12 hours, marking per cycle
  • This equates to 1 hour per week (not 3.5).


Planning purposeful tasks based on what you have learnt from your book review is the lynchpin of success for this approach. Some of the time saved on marking books must be invested in planning the follow-up feedback lesson, because there is no point giving feedback unless pupils have an opportunity to act upon it. We were lucky because ‘Purple Pen Time’ (where responses to feedback are written in purple pen) and DIRT lessons were already in our routine, so this was easy to embed.

Planning purposeful tasks based on what you have learnt from your book review is the lynchpin of success for this approach.

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