What is the purpose of Marks?

17 Oct

What is the use of marks?

Meeta Sengupta
08 October 2013, 03:45 PM IST

What happens after the marks are declared?

After the whole cycle of learning, examinations, assessments and exhaustion, come the marks. Then what?  

 From the school gate chronicles:

 Parent:  “Did you get your paper today?”

Student: “Yes, I got 95”

Parent: “Why? What happened to the other 5 marks”

 Student mumbles. 

Bystanders applaud, for the focus is on the lost marks. 


In a workshop, this would be a mini case study. I would pause and ask the participants to ponder this dialogue. 

This is not unusual. This conversation is had between caring parents and students all over the world. 

 On one hand, it is awful that parents seem to focus on the loss rather than on the success. It is a part of good mentoring and parenting that the successes are celebrated first before the losses are bemoaned.  

On the other hand.. what is the purpose of marks but to give feedback for improvement? 

If marks are an end in itself, then they have no value in any education system. The entire purpose of an assessment system, whether at school or at work is to identify development needs, and then to create an individual plan to fill those development gaps. 

Assessments are traditionally either formative or summative. Mid term examinations, weekly tests, CCE (continuous evaluation) and semester or termly exams are designed as formative tests. They are supposed to provide feedback on progress during the learning cycle. Summative tests are at the end of the year and their purpose is different – even as they give feedback and form the base line for the next cycle of teaching and learning, their purpose is to signal attainment (or not). Did the student make it? Did they learn what they were supposed to learn? Did the resources serve their purpose? 

Students learn from both success and failure. Success needs to be analysed as much as failure does. What went right? What processes should we replicate. How can we make a good thing better? Does it tell us something about our interests and aptitudes? Can this success be converted into something monetisable? Does it help build our portfolio of skills? Can current success be a launching pad for some interesting projects? 

The same with failure? An introspection on what went wrong cannot stop with a moan and a cry. Nor is it the end of the world, because every failure, every lost mark gives information about what needs to be done differently. This is where the attention needs to be – charting a path that improves from the path that lead to failure. What were the gaps? What could have been done differently? What held us back from meeting the target? The failure is only a tool in identifying the path ahead. And the only true failure is not recognising the potential for improvement. 

Do schools consistently use this opportunity? Are school exams during the year (and even at the end) converted to learning plans for children. Each child can be shown the habit of reflection and can be taught the skills of creating a path for themselves. This would be a far more important life lesson than the mere content that they have been asked to memorise and replicate on paper. (What is being assessed is a whole other discussion, ideally examinations should be about thinking (cognitive) and analytical abilities). 

Does this apply to teachers too? Of course it does. And to school systems. They too have goals for the year, and are assessed during and at the end of the year. Such assessments are often seen as a judgement of the teacher and the school. For example, school inspections. It is less important to note what the school achieved in an external assessment than it is to know what it plans to do to improve the school. The same applies to teachers – they would benefit immensely from peer assessments. Teachers who sit in each other’s classes and then point out what they would have done differently. This is not about judgement – this is a constructive way to improve the school and its commitment to better teaching and learning. 

 Children, and teachers go through this intense exercise that is emotionally draining and time consuming  called examinations. Every assessment is rich in embedded information, if only we care to ask the questions. It would be such a shame to waste the results.


This was published in the Times of India blogs on October 8, 2013 and is linked here: http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/educable/entry/what-is-the-use-of-marks

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