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As is common practice, I usually have used a red pen to grade student work and provide edits and comments on papers I collaborate on. However, I was speaking recently with an elementary school teacher who told me that they are instructed to avoid using red pen when grading student work. This led me to ask if using red pen to provide feedback on student work is a practice I should avoid.

Based on the study discussed in the link below, wherein red pen is found to have a negative effect on student response to feedback, it seems that using red pen may actually cause students to receive feedback less favorably.

https://phys.org/news/2013-01-red-pen-instructors-negative-response.html

I also have been told by a Korean colleague that red pen is only used to write the names of the dead, and writing a living person's name in red is akin to wishing the person dead.

In light of these thoughts, should red pen be avoided in academic settings? It seems that use of red pen can have negative psychological and cultural implications.

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    I don't see the point of your question. You've found people and papers that give you information about red pens. Now you, yourself, can decide what to do. Sep 11, 2018 at 17:58
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    Are you in Korea? Sep 11, 2018 at 19:07
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    A quick note, some individuals are color blind and have difficulty distinguishing between red pen ink and blank pen ink.
    – JWH2006
    Sep 11, 2018 at 19:27
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    It's an interesting question whether this is due to some inherent feature of the color red and its perception, or whether just because red ink is traditionally associated with corrections. If people switch to purple, will purple eventually develop the same negative associations? Sep 11, 2018 at 19:59
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    Some years ago I tried "critique-ing" students' papers in blue... but they complained that my comments were easy to overlook, and they preferred red, for visibility. Sep 11, 2018 at 20:48

6 Answers 6

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In the past I have also received suggestions about marking in red, and had various discussions on the topic. My only reason for continuing to mark using red is that it contrasts strongly with the typical blue or black of the submissions.

It is often cited/claimed that red is an "angry" colour, or students find it demoralising, and so it should be avoided. But that doesn't really follow when the markings are "ticks" or other constructive affirmations.

Using blue pen when the work is blue or black does not provide a good contrast and corrections are more easily overlooked. (I have used blue pen for marking when, after having had students ask if it matters what colour they use to write, I have received work written in shades of pink. In that case, blue gave a better contrast than red.)

Green has been suggested as an alternative, but then there are studies to indicate that information written in green is not easily remembered, and if the reason for writing corrections is to help the student learn, green would then be counterproductive.

Other colours such as purple and black also do not give a good contrast. And you may well find that the students who complain now that they don't like red will later complain that you didn't show them the correct answer/method/result because the new colour used didn't stand out from the rest of the work.

There is also the issue of marking individual items or questions and then totalling the marks across multiple pages. The individual marks need to be easily seen by you so that you don't inadvertently miscount and record a lower mark or grade for the student work.

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    Or, to summarise, "there's a reason red became traditional for marking, it stands out far more than anything else!"
    – Nij
    Sep 12, 2018 at 7:53
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The reason that the "mainstream" color for correcting is red is because it attracts your attention easily and is well contrasted to the blue/black or pencil that will commonly be used.

My guess is that because red has been used for corrections for so long, it can be thus associated with errors, and hence elicit the potential negative feedback reception. Be that as it may, you're not dealing with preschoolers. Your students are adults. It's up to you to pick the (imo, a rather trivial detail) color you wish to use to grade assignments.

It seems that use of red pen can have negative psychological and cultural implications.

Psychological? No. It's not like you'll ruin someone's day because a correction was made in red ink. You may or may not make that person less receptive to your feedback as per the paper you linked, but to say that it will have negative psychological repercussions is an overstatement.

Cultural? Depends where you are. I wouldn't use a red pen in Korea, but here in America, red pens are most well-known for adding comments and annotations on documents.

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  • It's already a long time since I had a significant teaching load; even then we already had routine second-marking of some assessments, including coursework. So we already needed two defined colours that wouldn't get confused with the students' usual blue or black... totally excluding red would have been really, really awkward!
    – Lou Knee
    Dec 15, 2021 at 20:46
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What you could do, is mark the wrong answers in red. When I get a test that is all mark up in red ink, I believe that I got everything wrong. So, you could chose another color, say blue, and use that for corrections, and then use red for the really "bad" ones.

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I believe that, as a student, it can be a little bit demoralizing to use red pen, and I have had past teachers avoid this. The color red is commonly associated with anger, and this may contribute to feelings of "wrongness".

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I suppose if ALL of your comments in red ink are negative and there's red ink everywhere, sure, that would be demoralizing. But is that really how you mark up your students' work? When I'm grading a paper, I'm underlining passages I liked, I'm making comments in the margins like "Yes! Agree!", questions that came to mind, and stuff like that. And all of that is in red. No matter how bad the submission, I can always find something I like, so when they read my comments, I hope they experience them less as an avalanche of criticism and negativity and more as a conversation about their work.

Fwiw, I'm not changing. I like red, maybe because it's traditional but also because it makes the comments so easy to pick out against the text. And if you're considerate in your comments, I'm unconvinced there's a genuine problem that needs fixing.

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One of my professors in college used green, and I liked that, so I also use green. No issues so far, except for the rare case when a student writes with a green pen!

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