Can teachers mark less but mark smarter?

Can teachers mark less but mark smarter? (Elliott, Baird, Hopfenbeck and others, 2016)

A review of the literature on written marking was carried out for the EEF, based around the most common approaches found in marking policies on school websites. There is surprisingly little research on written marking – it’s often small-scale or comes from TEFL research. There are a few key things for teachers to think about – such as whether students are making errors as a result of misunderstanding, or mistakes which they can correct themselves with a bit of thought.

A sample of marking policies was reviewed to elicit different approaches, and also the question of giving grades as well as comments was added in, because there is strong evidence on this. A search for studies on each of the approaches was undertaken as widely as possible. This is not a ‘systematic review’ because this would have had to exclude virtually all the studies if due to strict criteria – many are small-scale, or qualitative, or measure progress over a short term. The studies were screened for relevance and a narrative literature review was conducted. The full report also has details of a survey of what kinds of marking teachers do, and four case studies of marking approaches from specific schools.

The quality of existing evidence focused specifically on written marking is low. This is surprising and concerning bearing in mind the importance of feedback to pupils’ progress and the time in a teacher’s day taken up by marking. Few large-scale, robust studies, such as randomised controlled trials, have looked at marking. Most studies that have been conducted are small in scale and/or based in the fields of higher education or English as a foreign language (EFL), meaning that it is often challenging to translate findings into a primary or secondary school context or to other subjects. Most studies consider impact over a short period, with very few identifying evidence on long-term outcomes.

Some findings do, however, emerge from the evidence that could aid school leaders and teachers aiming to create an effective, sustainable and time-efficient marking policy. These include that:

  • Careless mistakes should be marked differently to errors resulting from misunderstanding. The latter may be best addressed by providing hints or questions which lead pupils to underlying principles; the former by simply marking the mistake as incorrect, without giving the right answer
  • Awarding grades for every piece of work may reduce the impact of marking, particularly if pupils become preoccupied with grades at the expense of a consideration of teachers’ formative comments
  • The use of targets to make marking as specific and actionable as possible is likely to increase pupil progress
  • Pupils are unlikely to benefit from marking unless some time is set aside to enable pupils to consider and respond to marking
  • Some forms of marking, including acknowledgement marking, are unlikely to enhance pupil progress. A mantra might be that schools should mark less in terms of the number of pieces of work marked, but mark better.

There is an urgent need for more studies so that teachers have better information about the most effective marking approaches.


Victoria Elliott

Jo-Anne Baird

Therese Hopfenbeck

Jenni Ingram

Ian Thompson

Natalie Usher

Mae Zantout


James Richardson and Robbie Coleman from the EEF.

Contact information

Research Role

Education Endowment Foundation


For more information please see the EEF website:

Read the full report at:


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