A little over two years ago, I wrote a piece for Teacher about a survey I was conducting looking at what Australian teachers think about doing large-scale marking. The survey has been completed, and the main results were recently published in Issues In Educational Research (Reinertsen, 2020).
It was clear from the responses that marking exams and other large-scale standardised assessments was valued by the survey participants as good professional development.
Benefits and downsides
They reported that it gave them insight into students’ learning, into test procedures and what examiners are looking for, and even into ways they could improve their own assessments. There was a wide variety of benefits reported – not all of them shared by all respondents, but there was a unanimous acknowledgment that there were benefits to be had.
There were also responses that pointed out the downsides of marking: how much time it takes away from other commitments and activities, the stresses of the additional workload, and anxiety about being accurate and fast enough.
But the downsides were often mentioned alongside the benefits, and did not appear to outweigh them. Almost all of the respondents would recommend other teachers take up marking opportunities if they are able to.
Time and access to opportunity
There are other results that haven’t been publicly reported yet, and they raise an important issue: access to opportunity.
The survey was designed in such a way that there was a screening question early on, to ‘filter’ respondents who hadn’t marked for a large-scale assessment from those who had. The respondents who hadn’t marked were directed to a different set of questions. I collected 19 responses from the ‘non-markers’, and they shed some light on the obstacles that prevented the respondents from taking up this excellent PD opportunity.
For most of the ‘non-markers’, time was the biggest barrier to entry. That wasn’t surprising considering the responses received from markers: it was one of the downsides they also identified. The respondents that identified time as being an obstacle wrote about how they just couldn’t see a way to balance all their commitments against the extra workload.
But, there were other issues too.
Two respondents identified that they lived in rural areas, and distance was an insurmountable barrier. One of them wrote: ‘The expense of staying overnight makes doing large-scale marking from the country prohibitive.’
Another barrier was teaching experience (identified by two other respondents). Curriculum authorities that employ markers for Year 12 exams prefer to employ teachers with recent teaching experience in the course being examined. Graduate teachers, though, are probably less likely to be teaching Year 12 courses, and consequently are less likely to be able to access exam marking as a PD opportunity. Recent graduates may also be less likely to be employed for other large-scale marking as well.
There were a range of other barriers to entry implied or hinted at in other responses, including: lack of confidence; a colleague sharing their experience and recommending against it; and being worried about the marking guide conflicting with what they value in student work.
These barriers to entry suggest that marking opportunities are limited to experienced, confident, metropolitan-based teachers who have the time to do it in addition to their work and family commitments.
That means there are a lot of teachers missing out on this valuable PD opportunity.
We can hope, of course, that with recent world events highlighting different ways of working remotely, that online marking might remove distance as a barrier in the future. But what about the other obstacles?
Another way to extend marking opportunities is what the rest of my PhD research was about: simulated large-scale marking. This wasn’t an online or computer-based simulation, it was a day-long marking workshop where I trained 22 pre-service teachers in the same way I train professional Australian Council for Educational Research markers. After the training, the pre-service teachers spent the rest of the day marking authentic student writing.
What made it a simulation, rather than an authentic experience, was that all the participants knew it was a PD activity, not a paid marking job, and that the scores they gave would never be reported to the students. That was important, because it removed the possibility of negative consequences from scoring mistakes or unreliable judgment – the simulation became a safe space to learn how to assess students’ writing.
One of the likely sources of PD benefit from authentic marking and marking simulations like this, is discussing with colleagues the different qualities of student work, and how to make good judgments about them. Another likely source of benefit is seeing the variety and creativity of students’ ideas and approaches, and their varying levels of ability.
Simulations are able to offer these two key parts of the experience, and they can be tailored to the needs of the participants in terms of location, time and duration. There is also no pressure to be accurate and fast, because no students are relying on the results.
There is a lot of PD out there, and large-scale marking is just one type. Data from my small-scale survey show it’s seen as very valuable PD, so it makes sense to find ways to share the experience with as many teachers as possible. Simulations can lower the barriers to entry and mitigate the drawbacks. Perhaps there should be more of them.
Reinertsen, N. (2020). ‘The pay is not worth it but it is excellent PD’: Australian teachers' perspectives on doing large-scale marking. Issues in Educational Research, 30(2), 655-672. http://www.iier.org.au/iier30/reinertsen.pdf
Have you done large-scale marking? Have you considered whether you could design a marking simulation for your colleagues to help them experience it?