Marking: a guide for markers

I started marking as a doctoral student, as many of you do. And the first time I marked, I marked alone.  As a student I had put a lot of value on my grades, so I was concerned to respect the significance of marking on students, but I’d never done it before. I had no idea how long I should take.  How carefully I needed to read the work. I had no idea if I was being too harsh or too lenient.

I’d never read a representative cross-section of student work, just my own work and the odd shining example.  I also saw, for the first time, why I’d always got such high grades.  As a student, I did plenty of research, followed instructions, wrote grammatically correct English, and set out my argument clearly. I had never realised that this wasn’t what everyone did. I was amazed by how many students completely ignored direct instructions. ‘Don’t do this,’ I’d tell the class; and repeat in an email. And 4 or 5 students would… do just that.

I spent 4 hours this Friday afternoon live-tweeting my marking. I wanted to give other people a model, so the first time they marked, it was in company. (I’m not saying my model is perfect, but it’s better than what I came up with on my own in 2007!) So I’ve got some useful strategies, and also some healthy perspective.  I’ll share some of that in this post (along with the recommendations that so many other people shared with me as I tweeted: people are so kind, I love them all).

Two other things  emerged in our conversations. The role of emotions in marking (see Inger Mewburn and her conversations on #markingemotions), and the roll of self-medication (through sugar, caffeine and alcohol) to deal with those emotions.  I’ve decided that’s a really important topic all on it’s own, and so you can read about it in an upcoming blog post. 


Marking strategies.

First, get your scripts into order.

This is the most BORING task ever, but it saves so much time later. Depending on the task, I’ll sort them into alphabetical order, or by topic (so for every 3 Romeo and Juliet essays I get to read one about something, anything, else). The bigger your marking pile, the more important this is.

Second, set up a spreadsheet. 

Or use the spreadsheets in Blackboard or Turnitin, etc. 

I have been playing around in Blackboard (our LMS) and have found you can download a spreadsheet from the ‘Grade Centre’. I’ve added a comments column. I’m hoping I can just merge my two spreadsheets (or copy/paste) and upload. I’ll let you know how that one goes.

Thirdly, set up a system to help you give quicker but better feedback. 

The three that seemed to be popular: give audio feedback; text expander; a feedback handout.

Fourthly, don’t sweat the small stuff. 

One of the reasons it’s so hard to mark within the time allotted (and casual/adjunct lecturers and tutors are paid by the number of scripts, not how long they actually take), is the sense that you need to be careful, to be exact, to be perfect. However, small differences in marks for individual assignments don’t usually make much of a difference over the full range of the subject. 

#marking I keep wavering over 1-2%. ‘Is it a 72 or a 74?’ I ask. For a task worth 30%. That’s not even 1% of the total grade. Need to chill.

— Katherine Firth (@katrinafee) November 1, 2013

I usually am paid less than 30 minutes per assignment. I used to take much more than that. Last semester, I tried marking to the Pomodoro technique.
The difference in the marks I gave? Almost none. The difference in time it took? Enormous!

Use the grading equivalents of [INSERT QUOTE HERE] to help you mark faster.

Oh, yes. Generative Marking. Marking works in stages, just like the writing cycle.

  1. I take care to plan and get set up properly,
  2. I produce the work quickly, perhaps using the Pomodoro technique.
  3. I then go over it to check that it meets the structures, distribution criteria, rubrics etc.
  4. I finesse any final small points.


I hope this advice helps you to mark more effectively and efficiently, with fewer late nights and less stress!

Thanks to everyone who contributed! If you have your more advice, please share it in the comments!


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Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.


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