Polishing the DIRT – Symbol Marking

In preparation for the delivery of a Twilight inset training session for local schools named “Reducing workload while maintaining impact – effective feedback strategies”, I have done a lot of reading around different strategies. Included in this was the chapter from Dylan William and Daisy Christadoulou in “What does this look like in the class room?” by Carl Hendrick and Robin Macpherson.

It seems to me that Dylan William’s intentions surrounding Assessment for Learning, like a lot of things in education, were taken on by schools disproportionately.

William estimates that teacher’s time spent marking would probably cost around 2 and half billion pound per year in the UK and a lot of this has absolutely no impact on student outcomes. Incredible.

Our school policy is very fair and we follow “a quarter marking” policy after an assessment working party met and developed a new policy last year.

This means that we share the marking and feedback between 25% teacher written comments, 25% skimming and verbal feedback, 50% peer and self assessment, of which the quality is monitored by the teacher.

We also have a “Think Pink” policy where students are expected to respond to any pink highlighted information or questions. This blog will show how I have developed a strategy that improves this process and will reduce workload in the long-term.


There are some important factors when considering marking and feedback:

  1. Feedback should be more work for the receiver than the donor
  2. It should be acted upon/responded to and should change the learner in some way
  3. What, probably, are the mistakes and misconceptions that students are going to make?
  4. Are misconceptions so deeply rooted that it would be better to just re-teach?
  5. What is the most effective and efficient way that I can improve the outcomes of the students through this feedback?


Symbol Marking

I originally got this idea from Making Every Lesson Count by Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby.

The idea is that rather than write out the same questions, comments or feedback to students for the sake of evidencing it in student books, the teacher thinks of the most common misconceptions, questions or comments that are likely to come up and you then add them to a grid or table with a symbol.

I chose to use the letters TP and then assign a question number. Below is an example that I used for year 8 set 4 of 8 after their first lesson on volume of basic prisms.

think pink pic n mix 1

You can create these before you start marking or you can create them live as you begin to spot misconceptions.

In student books you simply write the codes that you wish them to attempt and then highlight the codes in pink. This can be displayed in the IWB or can be printed into student books.

I also included a vocab section since I spotted spelling mistakes in a quiz from the start of the lesson when we were discussing what the definition of a prism.

This was a massive time saver for me in the short-term but probably even more in the long-term as I begin to build up these resources.

Verbal feedback can be given to students during this reflection time:

“Hands up, who needs to complete TP1? Can you tell me in as few words a possible what to do?”

“Cube root the volume of a cube to find one of the lengths”


“Everyone write that in your own words please.”

I included some more challenging and open-ended questions for those students who had a good understanding of the basics and I also interleaved some writing of alegbraic expressions for volume.

think pink pic n mix 2

Above I have pre-thought of one for next half term with the same class. Which common misconceptions will there be? What types of problems can I extend the moe able with and which steps may need some more purposeful practice for the students to feel more confident? That is what we want – students who accept our feedback because they know they will get better if they listen to it and then act upon it.

This type of activity does five things:

  1. Uses the testing effect to improve student memory
  2. Puts the onus back to the student
  3. Makes the students think – after all, memory is the residue of thought.
  4. personalise feedback to each student without having to draw the same drawing or write the same comment multiple times.
  5. Allows the teacher to give verbal feedback that the students then put into their own words

“Motivation does not always lead to achievement but achievement often leads to motivation”

As a lone teacher this reduces workload, as a department with pooled symbol marking it would drastically do so…. as a Twitter network we could do amazing things with this.

Please let me know what you think. I am open to constructive criticism.


4 thoughts on “Polishing the DIRT – Symbol Marking

  1. This looks great and I love the idea of pooling resources in a department. My concern would be though that if a student has been identified as having a problem/misconception, then how do they then answer the question set?
    When I mark I create a ‘sheet’ that gives a modelled answer and then a question. I keep the master sheet and then photocopy it the number of times required. Sometimes I will use up to 8 different sheets for a class (but over the years have already created most of these – so don’t have to constantly write new ones. ) It’s still time consuming though and I often feel like I’m doing the hard work.


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