The Mark

I ran into a student the other day in the hallway, and he looked like he was trying to walk down the hall while carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Typically, this student has a pep in his step and is always quick to flash a smile. This day he looked different. His gaze was turned down, his shoulders slumped, his stride slower, and he didn’t meet me with a smile and a hello as usual. I asked him how things were going, and he didn’t say a word, he just passed me the paper. I looked at it and asked what was upsetting him. He directed me to look at the mark on the top right corner of the page; 14/28. Initially I did not see the number there in black ink; instead my eyes darted around the page looking at his work and the feedback his teacher had left for him. The mistakes he made in his work were obvious; a missed negative, a calculation error, a transposed number, a question not attempted; they all contributed to the mark.

It was the mark he focused on, and it got me thinking about the marks we put on our students’ work. This year we have spent time discussing assessment, and have talked about grading and reporting. The conversations we’ve had have been deep and insightful and have helped me develop a better understanding of assessment of and for learning. I’d invite you to ponder the following questions as you provide feedback on your students’ next summative assessment piece:

1.    What will be the initial reaction? A mark causes a response. A student will be elated, deflated, or may have gotten what they predicted they would. Regardless a number will create a reaction. When you think about the reaction from your student, how will you prepare for that? In the end, we want to help our students succeed, and if we can help build their self-confidence, or avoid the erosion of it, we are making strides in the right direction. How will they react?

2.    What are they expected to do with the mark? A mark should not mean the end of the learning. What should the student be expected to do once they have been given their piece of work back? Is there a normal routine that occurs in your room? Is it a game of ‘find and share’ with friends? Is it a game of ‘flip and hide’ the evidence? Regardless, there should be something the students are invited to do with this feedback. 

3.    How is the mark part of a larger picture? We speak a lot about triangulation of data, and it’s the other evidence you have been collecting that may elicit the reaction discussed above in #1. How is this summative piece part of a larger collection of data? Is this the first piece of a larger puzzle? How do we let the students in on the plan?

4.    What does the mark cause you to think? Sometimes a mark causes a reaction before the student even sees it. I recall times marking an assessment piece only to be caught off guard by the performance. When things do not go as anticipated, you should begin asking questions. During several staff learning meetings, we’ve discussed a variety of things that can impact an assessment, from how we create the assessment, to how the students had prepared, to how the students felt when the snapshot took place. Just remember sometimes when things do not go as planned you need to hold a magnifying glass in one hand and a mirror in the other.

5.    What does the mark cause the student to think? What the student thinks goes deeper than the initial reaction, and it speaks to question #2. If the students are invited to do something with their feedback, how does this process look and sound? Do we give enough time to this stage of the feedback cycle, or is the piece returned and the students are left to digest it on their own?

6.    How do the comments help explain the numbers? I was fascinated at how fixated the student was on his 14/28. He seemed oblivious to the written feedback on the paper. It can be frustrating when students simply stuff their assessment pieces in their desk or backpack with little to no acknowledgement of the comments the teacher has spent hours writing for them. Once again, this can be addressed by #2 above. What are the students expected to do? What are the established routines? One thing I needed to work on as a teacher was my penmanship. Often my comments looked more like a doctor’s prescription rather than something they could read and reflect on.

7.    What are the plans for next steps? We’ve discussed this as well, and we’ve talked about how assessment should inform students and teachers about the critical next steps. I think about when I used to teach fractions in my elementary math class and would intentionally follow it with a unit on probability. By doing this, I was able to reinforce the work we had just done in the previous unit and had an opportunity to provide enrichment for those students who had mastered fractions while at the same time giving reinforcement for those students who struggled with fractions earlier. When you put that 1, 2, 3, 4 or that percentage on an assessment, what are you already planning?

The mark is a powerful thing as it evokes a response and has an influence on the student’s state of mind going forward. What are we doing to help our students move their learning forward using the information it brings?

Here is what is on the horizon this week:


  • Grade 5 – 12 teacher staff meeting
  • Spirit week begins (PJ and/or slipper day)


  • Spirit week continues with colour day


  • Spirit week continues with Superhero Day


  • Bruce away
  • Hockey tournament
  • Spirit week continues with hoodie day


  • Spirit week concludes with 80s/90s day (oh my!)

As always, create a great week!

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About the Author: Bruce Mellesmoen