Monday, June 13, 2011

Aargh! Marking

I like being a teacher but with any job there are drawbacks.

At parent teacher interviews recently a harried mother of a teenager finished a difficult conversation by saying "I don't know how you deal with so many of them, I've only got one and I find it difficult". I think this is fairly typical of how outsiders see the downside of teaching. Teenagers can be frustrating, belligerent, sarcastic and apathetic and that does tend to get on their parents' nerves. Crowds of teenagers at the mall or on the street can seem scary. Their youth, their self-confidence and their alien codes of behaviour make many adults think they could never cope with my job. But I don't mind all of that stuff. It's a challenge sometimes but it's always interesting. The hard slog of getting teenagers engaged with learning is actually a lot of fun.

If you ask teachers about the worst part of the job though I think you'll find a fair bit of consensus around marking. It is certainly the part of my job that I hate the most.

There is probably some interesting stuff to say around marking about the ways to improve the process so that students learn more and pay more attention to our feedback. I do have a few tricks I'm trying out of Dylan Wiliam's work to try to improve the way marking feeds forward into students' work. But I've brought three class sets home for the long weekend and I don't want to be bringing them all back into work unmarked on Tuesday.  So right now I just want to know how to get the bloody stuff done.

This is me admitting I'm a bad person by the way. So please be gentle. I've taught with at least three people who get all of their marking done within a 48 hour turn around.  They still complain about the load but somehow it is all done in no time. They seem to be doing it properly too - not just assigning random scores.


For me, it has always been a struggle to get it all done. I'm constantly looking for some kind of anti-procrastination technique to make it all a breeze this semester for once. So far nothing works.

Some of the things I've tried in the past include:
  1. Chunking by papers. The idea here is if you have 50 essays to mark completing the entire job is essentially impossible (I've timed myself a bit so I can tell you 50 essays take about 8 and half hours of concentrated work without breaks). So when you receive the work in you put it into groups of four or five papers with a paperclip and tell yourself 'I just need to finish this chunk'.

  2. Do the whole thing at once. This is the hero's method - and it's probably what those 48 hour people do somehow (performance enhancing drugs?). I tried this recently inspired by Dan Ariely's The Upside of Irrationality.  Basically he talks about how the evidence shows we habituate to things if we do them for a long time. This is regardless of whether it is something pleasant - like reading The Catcher in the Rye. Or something unpleasant - like reading a classload of essays about The Catcher in the Rye. Basically, good or bad we tend to find things more neutral if we do them all at once. So if you really want to enjoy rereading Catcher you should do it only a couple of chapters at a sitting. Each time you sit down to it you'll be thinking "Man, that Salinger - great prose!" all over again. Conversely, if you want to get through some dodgy essays best to go through all of them as quickly as possible - the pain will lessen over time.

  3. The Ulysses Contract. When Ulysses was going to sail past the sirens he knew that he would want to steer his ship onto the rocks. But, being the kind of tourist who has to see everything, he wanted to arrange to hear them anyway. So he told his men to stop up their ears with wax and tie him to the mast then ignore him until they were well on the way. When they passed the sirens his men couldn't hear them and sailed on. Ulysses begged them to turn the ship onto the rocks - shouting and gesturing wildly - but they ignored him as directed.

    Once in a while, when I've had the guts, I've tried this approach to marking. I tell the kids that I'll definitely have it done by a certain date. Mostly this just results in more annoyed kids rather than more papers marked.

  4. Incentives. My latest ruse is to buy three flavours of the kind of really nice ice cream that it's usually difficult to justify buying. Then I make a rule (which I broadcast to my other half) that I'm not allowed to eat it unless I've marked 15 papers that day. This worked for a little while earlier this year but lately I find I'm eating a hell of a lot of really good icecream regardless of whether the papers get marked.
So far, I'm not really getting much better at this part of my job. So I'm keen for new ideas. A couple of things I haven't tried yet include:

  • Posting the papers to India to be sub-contracted to someone with a PhD and a low income; or
  • Telling the kids that their papers "Need to be moderated this year" and never doing the marking at all (This sounds shocking but I informed by a friend that he does work with someone who pulled this on a Year 10 class last year - not something I could live with I think)
If there are any teachers out there reading this (and it's possible that it's just my Mum - Hi Mum!).  I'd be very interested to hear how they are dealing with the same problem. 

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree. It's probably the biggest incentive to get a promotion - less classes = less marking! HS