Avoid Red Pen When Marking Papers

by Dani Cooper, ABC Science, 1/18/13

Red pens are making students feel blue, according to a study that recommends teachers refrain from using the color when marking. In a paper published in The Social Science Journal, sociology professor Richard Dukes and associate professor Heather Albanesi (University of Colorado), show the use of a red pen in marking has a negative impact on student relations with their teacher….

For the study, the researchers randomly gave 199 participating undergraduate students one of four versions of an essay answer and mark by a hypothetical student named Pat. The four versions included a high-quality response and a lesser-quality answer with comments from the teacher in either red or aqua. The students were asked to rate whether they agreed with the teacher’s grading, what grading they would give the paper and to rate various qualities of the teacher based on the essay comments including whether the teacher was: knowledgeable, organized, nice, enthusiastic and had a rapport with students.

Dukes says the findings show that students’ perceptions about the quality of learning are not affected by the use of the red pen. However teacher-student relations are affected with comments written in aqua resulting in the teacher rating higher in their “bedside manner”…. He says it appears the use of a red pen equates in the student’s mind to shouting in the same way as writing in ALL CAPITALS. Writing in the color red is therefore loaded with emotion, the researchers say.

This additional emotional loading of messages on the grading of student assignments may not be a tactic that teachers should use to convey constructive, critical comments to students, the researchers say. Dukes says a change in marking pen color can “generate worthwhile results by facilitating teacher-student interaction, and can do so without affecting rigor in the delivery of the curriculum.”

“If red writing on a student’s paper adds emotional loading that the teacher does not intend to be part of the content of the communication with the student, the rethinking of the choice of pen color is worthwhile,” the researchers conclude. Dukes says he is unaware of the history of why red was chosen as a marking color, “but it does not seem to have been a particularly good one”.

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