Marking boring academic essays: A Tien-needs-help approach

Marking academic papers bores me to death. And the only way out is simple:

This is Tien’s paper when he was a beginning learner. Please help him.

I will look at my learners’ papers as if I was looking at mine when I was learning academic writing. That’s how I push myself forward, providing as much detailed feedback as possible.

This is Tien’s paper when he was a beginning learner. Please help him.

I treat learners’ problems as my own problems. I view learner’s mistakes as my own ones. Fixing my learners is fixing my younger self, when my writing skills were not carefully reviewed.

This is Tien’s paper when he was a beginning learner. Please help him.

Please help him.


Total Editing Time

Time Working on the file

I didn’t know Word 2013 had this handy tracking function: it recorded the amount of time users spend working on a particular file.

Remarkably, sixteen hours and fifty-two minutes on my paper, Demand High Learning, for the 4th TESOL Conference at Ho Chi Minh City Open University.

Worth the efforts, isn’t it?

What does it take to be successful?

(Reading 1 Course for English Majors at HCMC Open Uni)

Take a look at my classroom’s board notes on success – a classic theme that is never absent from any English coursebooks for EFL learners.

Can you guess what we were talking about?


Yeah I mentioned the seven habits of highly effective people, self control (the marshmallow test), grit and deep practice (the 10.000 hour rule)

For each subtopic listed above I assigned group presentations.

I didn’t make the board illustrations. Students all by themselves. I simply asked them to support their PowerPointless presentations by doodling. The doodle idea works like a charm, and I’m thankful for having attended the online webinar on creativity hosted by Alan Maley, British Council a few months ago.

Back to the session, I ended the discussion by neatly jotting down the small-size talent on the bottom right corner of the board. Had to squat writing but heard some giggles, owing to my unfamiliar posture?

I supposed my fresh undergraduate minds had been notified of the true status of talent – the last, the lone and the least important attribute – when we were trying to portray success.


A wonderful visual image

“Marking Marathon”


(Marking marathonBy underthecastle. Link:

This paper is an assignment for Coursera online course Writing Expertise by Professor Denise Comer Duke University)

The image, entitled “Marking Marathon”, depicts a black and white portrait of a teacher marking his students’ written assignments in Nansato Primary school at the foot of Mount Mulanje, Malawi, Africa. At first glance, the focus of the photo is the side-view of a male teacher who has heavy built and is in his forties. On the background shown several school kids, of whom the two girls were in uniform and one of them expressing a big grin. Taking a closer analysis, several distinctively visual features are indentified.

Firstly, it is the close relationship between teachers and students which reveal the natural interaction in the classroom. Proximity is kept at the minimum when the teacher sat next to the student he wanted to mark and provided on-the-spot feedback. On the other hand, there could be a lack of teacher’ personal zone in the classroom because he had to share the desk with students while marking. More important, one could observe that the teacher was wearing a patterned tie, which was extremely unusual in a primary setting and increased the formality of teacher-student relationship. In other words, the teacher while maintaining a formal position in the classroom through his attire, was showing an intimate relationship with his students.

Secondly, teacher’s expertise is demonstrated through the chalk dust on his fingers. As a teacher myself, I would rarely hold a pen and mark my students’ work before cleaning the irritating and itchy chalk dust. He was so immersed in his task that he ignored the physical annoyance! It also demonstrated that the teacher moved directly from doing his presentation and writing on the board to marking his students’ paper without recess. Furthermore, though I could not see the teacher eyes, it could be inferred from the image that those must be striking and gleaming.

Thirdly, as the photo was taken in contrasting color, one could presume that the photographer tends to contrast this particular traditional classroom in an impoverished area with more modern technology-integrated classrooms in more developed regions. The teacher used very basic tools to facilitate learners, namely chalk, pen and paper. On the contrary, a classroom in more wealthy contexts would involve peer assessment or providing review on the computer. Though it is reported that schools in Malawi are mostly “under-funded, under-resourced and under-staffed”[1] I would be uncertain if students in other developed areas are more motivated than those in this photo.

Finally, what I learned from the image is the devotion the teacher exerts on his students. As mentioned above, the chalk dust, the tie and the close proximity reveals his teaching expertise. From the photographer’s note, it is also revealed that the teacher had to mark 70 papers! How much patience would it take? More remarkably, according to the photographer, the teacher had to cover two classes at the same time because his colleague was away[2] How much stamina would it take?

Without doubt, this photo should be presented to teachers-to-be, those who wish “to teach is to touch a life forever”, to tired teachers, those who needed to be motivated and encouraged to keep moving and also to teacher trainers, those who are seeking for an appropriate method. A must-see at Museum of Education all over the world.