Effective formative essays – without marking every word

We know it is excellent practice for students to write formatively. The down side of course is the huge amount of marking that it creates if every week you have to mark every essay for every student for every class. Say goodbye to your weekend!

For senior classes who need to practise handwriting essays under time constraints in preparation for exams, I get them to write formative essays quite regularly but tell them that I am only going to focus on one or two of the following aspects – and they are absolutely NOT going to be getting ‘a mark’ – they will get comments.

  • Introduction
  • Topic sentences
  • Plan (and adherence to it)
  • Specific historical information / examples
  • Historiography
  • Highlight each place where you used key words from the question
  • Highlight / comment where you tried to improve based on comments from last week
  • Referencing
  • Bibliography – format, academic, used in text etc.

The other way of marking essays is peer marking. Using the criteria used in the exam, get students in groups of 3-4 to mark and comment on each others’, then give feedback. This one is best done with prior warning: it is a great incentive for a little bit more attention if they know their peers will be seeing it. And they are often far more critical on things like handwriting than we ever are! Only after they have had some experience in marking work they are not emotionally invested in do I get them to mark and comment on their own.

As far as questions go, again I structure it from me giving the specific question, to ‘come up with an appropriate question on …’ until towards the end of the course it is even less structured ‘These are the syllabus requirements: you give me a plan of what and when you will be writing essays and what aspect you want me to look at.’

What I am aiming for is a self-sufficiency that will see them able to construct a study plan for when they are at university and the ability to be self-critical. Of course, the last few revision weeks before exams I will mark and comment on everything that they submit.

I hope this gets your students working, and gives you some spare time!