Stephen Louw

The slaughterhouse called marking

It's boring, thankless work, right? Should we even bother?

Have you seen those 'fact-perception' memes - “what my mom thinks I do and what I really do”? They're fun. If you search for a version of the meme for 'teacher', you'll come across ones like this: 

Does this one ring true?. Do our students think all we do is scream and shout? I'm not sure, but I do agree an inordinate amount of many teachers' time is spent on paper work, particularly marking. I have spent many quiet weekends catching up on the week's marking. It's boring, thankless work, right? Should we even bother?

Marking helps

Yes, says John Hattie, a researcher at Melbourne Education Research Institute. Hattie suggests that the feedback we give to students on their written work, if given well, has twice the effect on learning than regular teaching. If he's right, feedback on student work is incredibly powerful. 

So what is marking if it is 'given well'? Well, one response might be that a teacher should approach the students' work diligently, and give feedback on the things that are wrong – both content and mechanics. For students to find out how to improve, the teacher should assiduously highlight what's wrong. 

So, check out Cameron Diaz marking her students work in the movie 'Bad Teacher'. In this clip, Cameron is in her 'diligent' teacher phase, and is marking with serious intent. Not only that, watch how she focuses on both the content and mechanics of the students' work.

Marking 'well'

My god. It's a parody, sure, but whoever wrote this script really knew a thing or two about how not to mark: there is the problem of unmitigated negative judgments; calling students 'stupid'; the problem of the infamous slaughterhouse effect. The slaughterhouse is what you get from using massive amounts of red on a student's manuscript. The more red there is, the greater the slaughter of the student's effort. 

I remember at school peering vaguely at work teachers had marked. I could quickly gauge how poorly I'd done by how much red the teacher had splashed across the page. It was usually not good, and so I seldom actually read any of the red blood stains. Without my active engagement in the teachers' handiwork, Hattie's argument in favor of teacher feedback for my learning was fundamentally flawed. One wonders, really, how I got through school at all.

So if that is feedback given poorly, what's the opposite? For a quick response to this, have a look at this detailed blog explaining the implications of John Hattie's research

The trauma of writing

For now, though, allow me zoom in on just one particular aspect of marking: the focus on what's wrong. But first, a diversion to contextualize my point. I find writing tough. Writing blogs like this one is an real challenge for me: choosing a topic, deciding where to start, singling out a potential audience, finding the right tone. When the thing is written, there's the painfully irritating editing process which I inevitably get wrong.

After it's published, comes the apprehension about its reception. I'm fortunate that the Ajarn readers like you are kind. The truth is, though, by putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and expressing a view, you open yourself to judgement, evaluation and criticism. The possibility of an adversarial response is real. All up, committing writing is stressful, and it's no wonder that many people, including teachers, resist writing.

Yet, as teachers we get our students to write – and rightly so, it's our job. But our students are writing in a second (or third) language. To do so, they face even greater obstacles. 

I know that there is absolutely no way I could produce a viable essay or blog in any of my 'other' languages. Let's admit, irrespective of quality, the students need a high five for even agreeing to write in English. After they've finished writing, the students submit their work to their really nice, friendly teacher, who, upon picking up the red pen, transforms into Shezmu, the vindictive Egyptian god of blood, hunting errors in the underbrush of neophyte prose.

Building extraordinary writers

Hunting down every error is hard on a student's ego, but also very time consuming for a teacher faced with a full class-load of papers. There are ways around it. 

As a young trainee teacher all those years ago, I was told to correct a limited number of errors – perhaps 10, and ignore the rest. Yes, there are problems with this, but it reigns in the bloodthirsty error-hunting red pen.

Alternatively, you could mark with a specific purpose – so if you taught the past tense, you focus only on that in your marking. You could use a correction code (like this one from the British Council)

You could get students to peer-correct (yep, like this idea from the British Council Or how about this very clever idea of 'Feedforward' from the Cult of Pedagogy podcast in which you give feedback before the student has finished their writing rather than afterwards. 

Ways of mitigating our marking load like these are useful, but the point I wish to make is that an exclusive focus on what's wrong with the students' writing is, well, one-sided. 

Back to the clip of Cameron Diaz: among the many things she is doing 'badly' is her lack of appreciation of the students' effort. While focusing on students' weaknesses may help them learn, it undermines an already thin film of confidence in and motivation for writing. If we can take the time to identify things that are wrong, we can just as easily identify things that are right. 

The benefits that emerge from appreciating a student's work, effort, imagination, ideas or contribution are the basis of Tojo Thatchenkary and Carol Metzker's theory of 'appreciative intelligence' which they define as the capacity to see emerging potential. 

This sort of appreciative approach stems from work in positive psychology and principles from the fantastically relevant self-worth theory. 

As teachers with red pens, the concept of appreciation is important. Seeing and appreciating what is right (an excellent imagination, for instance) instead of focusing only on what's wrong (say, poor use of articles and poor spelling) is important because by building on students' strengths, we can encourage extraordinary writing, in spite of individual weaknesses.

PS. There are three mistakes – did you spot them?

Steve has been a teacher and teacher trainer for over 30 years, and is currently a lecturer on the Master’s in TESOL program at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi in Bangkok.


To mark or not to mark?
Marking another person work can be tedious, stressful and at times or on many various occasions can turn out to be a waste of time. I think one should not be obsessed with marking as I found out to my horror in some young learning centers in Asia! Is there a better way to assess a student progress? I think it is okay for students to make mistakes while they are learning. At the same time, mistakes that occur in student's writing should be pointed out and discussed on a regular basis in the classroom. Students also need to be assured that it is okay to make mistakes while learning but at the same time learn to be aware of mistakes and to avoid them recurring again. I also think a more direct feedback, i.e. a face to face chat as to where they got it wrong in their tests would be better than them receiving a grade without knowing their mistakes in their tests. Perhaps, another suggestion would be instead of wasting too much time on marking, students who make too many mistakes should be advised to go for extra classes.

By wpass, In another part of South East Asia (28th December 2018)

I share something of Freemo's scepticism. I had only one semester teaching EFL in Thailand, and I don't know how representative my experience was, but I saw/heard nothing in my time that suggested that assessment/grading was taken at all seriously by my College. Maybe that's no bad thing.

By David B, UK (23rd November 2018)

Why worry about grading if all Thai students pass anyway?
Put as much effort into your grading as your admin staff care about your grades. That is why schools hire backpackers as teachers.

By Freemo, Japan (14th November 2018)

LOL! if...

"The benefits that emerge from appreciating a student's work, effort, imagination, ideas or contribution are the basis of Tojo Thatchenkary and Carol Metzker's theory of 'appreciative intelligence' which they define as the capacity to see emerging potential"...

..even apply in Thailand.

By Josh, between the lines (13th November 2018)

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