Moving away from the red pen

Reading time: 3 minutes. Relevant programme: SSAT Leadership Legacy Project

Rob Jones, science teacher and SSAT Leadership Legacy Fellow, All Hallows Catholic College, extols the value of more productive methods of marking including photographic, audio and video feedback

As a relatively new teacher, I can say that the thing I have found hardest in my chosen profession has been keeping up with my school’s marking policy. As I also have appalling handwriting, there is a strong chance that anything I write in my students’ books is either being ignored or not understood. I have become increasingly disillusioned with marking in this manner and grown to loathe the red pen. This led me to question why we do it – what is the purpose of marking?

The sole focus of feedback and marking should be to drive students’ learning forward. This should be done as early as possible so that the feedback is most effective. It allows teachers to adapt to their students’ needs within the lesson and plan further lessons in the topic.

It is our role as teachers to ensure that feedback given is purposeful, to improve the chance of having a positive impact on future learning. Could a certain amount of marking be done in lesson? Obviously simultaneously circulating and marking a class set of 30 books is usually not possible.

I need a way to deliver personalised feedback which can guide students to improve their work or understand a difficult concept (and preferably not have to write it down). How can I give my students meaningful and motivational feedback while also cutting down on the workload that surrounds marking?

Workload research and Ofsted

A recent project led by Ffion Eaton for the Cheshire School Alliance, Workload Research: Rebalancing Feedback Trial, aimed to set out targets for schools to give more feedback at the source, during lesson time when it is the most useful. They state:

“In an age of shrinking budgets and rapid curriculum change teachers are increasingly time-poor. Therefore, we need to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of teachers’ feedback, addressing the fact that written marking generates significant workload for teachers, often without any real impact.”

During this study teachers of year 10 and 11 English were surveyed about workload and the main issues were as follows:

  • The ‘evidence trail’ linked into accountability pressures caused pressures for teachers.
  • It sometimes felt like a time-wasting burden if the marking was not having the desired impact on student outcomes.
  • Teachers felt that there was a common misinterpretation of ‘feedback’ as solely dependent on written feedback.
  • Most felt that marking wasted valuable planning time.

The same problems come up time and time again. Ofsted are trying to help, and we should listen very carefully to what they say about marking and feedback and adjust our policies accordingly. For example, Ofsted inspections: myths, updated in July, states:

“Ofsted recognises that marking and feedback to pupils, both written and oral, are important aspects of assessment. However, Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide…. While inspectors will consider how written and oral feedback is used to promote learning, Ofsted does not want to see any written record of oral feedback provided to pupils by teachers.”

Some colleagues in my department, science, and those in other departments agree that ‘the red pen’ is a poor way of communicating feedback. For a perhaps extreme example, take subjects like art, drama or animal management: videos or photos are clearly more useful. I feel by having an open marking policy, so long as there is clear coordination on desired outcomes and criteria, departments can choose the way they want their feedback to go to the students.

Audio feedback

I decided to trial a way of getting useful feedback to students which can make departments more efficient and allow more time for planning. Showbie is a website which is free to sign up for and allows a number of classes to join before it becomes fee paying. Among its features the one in particular I looked at was the method of leaving audio feedback on students’ written work, videos and photos, which I trialled with a year 9 class, and video presentations with my year 12 class.

When taking photos of students’ work, all questions and responses can be peer or self assessed.


Students have a record if they lose their books and can construct an ideal book for future reference. If they miss lessons there is an easy way to catch up through lesson notes. They can retain books to revise from, and can be given more feedback and advice than otherwise, which they can check repeatedly. In general there is more talking, less writing.

Teachers can give a lot more feedback and explanation without having to write a lot, saving time. They can mark without having to carry books around, and can mark anywhere providing they can get online.


Teachers may be hesitant to set up the system; students’ log-ins getting lost, iPads not working properly.

I had to dedicate much of the first lesson to getting students set up on Showbie and informing them of what we were going to be doing over the following weeks. However, when the students were given their first homework task, to complete a reflection, they really switched on to the idea. In particular, they loved the personalised tasks.

Assessing practical work

With the changes to AQA’s science practicals for A-level, students need to show they have developed practical skills in key areas. Taking photos/videos and uploading them to Showbie provides a permanent record that can be accessed by teachers, students and AQA to show they have mastered certain skills.

Recording and showing students’ presentations: I used this facility with my year 12 physics class so they could access videos of their presentations. This meant they could not only have feedback from their peers and me; they could also watch and review their presentations.

My conclusions

There were some problems with setting up Showbie and these methods require clear instructions given to students at the start of the year (codes stuck in the front of their books, etc). However they can work very well in the long term.

Using Showbie, it took less than 45 minutes to ‘mark’ a class set of 25 books with two lessons. I feel that this could be cut down further by changing the policy to allow marking every four weeks.

A workbook should be the student’s first port of call for revision. Any notes should be well organised and neat and key words highlighted and defined properly. In keeping with the SSAT Teacher Effectiveness Enhancement Programme (TEEP), all construct activities should be completed roughly on whiteboards, etc. The apply part of the lessons should always be marked by students, either themselves or through peer marking; and discussed, so that students do not need to wait to know if they have grasped a concept, or if they need to work on it in their own time.

Teachers should then be checking students’ work books to ensure that content is recorded correctly, though the emphasis should be on the students to correct this work. Workload could be significantly reduced while maintaining high standards in feedback and ensuring that misconceptions are dealt with through using a program such as Showbie and having a more relaxed marking policy in terms of timeframe (see Ofsted’s comments, above).

Further reading


Is there a teacher at your school with outstanding leadership potential? Would you like to make a nomination for the SSAT Leadership Legacy Project? Nominations for the next cohort are open Monday 3 September – Wednesday 19 September, exclusively for SSAT member schools. Find out more about getting involved.

Read on the SSAT blog: Cutting marking time in half

Rob Jones, SSAT Leadership Legacy Fellow, All Hallows Catholic College

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