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Pooky Knightsmith

Does Marking in Red Pen Damage Students’ Self-Esteem?

Red Pen Marking

There is a growing school of thought that using red ink to mark and correct student’s work is damaging to their self-esteem as it is an angry and confrontational colour traditionally associated with mistakes.   Many schools in the UK now have a policy which dictates against the use of red pen for marking , suggesting instead the use of more calming or positive colours such as green or purple.

Red does have its benefits though – possibly the easiest colour to differentiate from the blue or black that your students will have written which may make it easier for them to see where they have made errors and learn from their mistakes.   There is also an argument that if teachers are encouraged to consistently mark in an alternative colour – such as green – that green will simply be seen as the new red and the negative connotations would become associated with green.

Some would argue that it is not a problem that red is associated with mistakes – after all, when you are correcting a child’s homework you are correcting their mistakes and perhaps seeing a lot of an emotive colour like red on their work will motivate them to do a better job next time.  Others however, would argue that the red pen punishment is demotivational and acts to highlight a student’s failings rather than encourage good work.

Maybe the colour is irrelevant and it is the level of marking and correcting that we should be worried about – after all wouldn’t a child find it equally damaging to their self-esteem to find dozens of errors corrected in purple or green pen?  But where does that leave us – ignoring our students’ errors so as not to damage their self esteem?

What do YOU think – should we be marking students’ work in red pen and how far should we go in correcting their errors?

  • AB

    Surely it’s more important what we right with the pen, whatever colour it is?
    Highlighting a positive and giving one or maybe two improvement points, or follow up questions to extend in red would surely be more postive than a load of ‘x’ in green?

    • I think you’re right – at the end of the day if you are writing endless negative comments in green then it will still be seen as negative. However, in researching for this post I did read in several places that if red was used, even positive comments weren’t read in a very positive light. I wonder if that is true?

    • Clare Mackenzie

      I think you mean ‘write’, don’t you? Pass me the red pen please!

  • AB

    Ahem, write. Oops :s

  • I found heavy red pen marking very destructive as a dyslexic student and I try to avoid it now. However I’m stuck with it as a lecturer. It is the designated colour for assessor marking where I work, IV uses green & EV uses black. My adult learners hate it.

    • Interesting that your adult learners also hate it – as you’d have thought that many of them would always have had work marked in red as it has traditionally been the norm. Or maybe that’s EXACTLY why they hate it?!

      • Dr. Geoffrey A Walker

        In my FE assessments, I mark the scripts with pencil and complete assessment sheets in black. Rightly or wrongly, I do feel that red marking suggests aggression as it does in other contexts. The important thing is to be fair and reasonable with your constructive criticism. I work largely with international students whose first language isn’t English so it is important to start with positive comments and close with positive points (the heavy duty constructive criticisms are ‘sandwiched’ between).

  • Damien

    Like AB I think it is the type of marking policy you adopt which can have a positive or negative effect rather than the colour of the pen. As a general rule I will only correct one spelling mistake – usually a recurring one which is a key word in the topic. Comments will always stress the positive and make one suggestion for improvement.

    I would be interested to know if Linda would have felt any better having had her work negatively marked with green pen.

    • It’s interesting that you only correct the key mistakes – is the theory here that if you make too many corrections they will all be ignored but one or two salient ones are likely to be taken on board?

  • Jane Kiklpatrick

    I agree with Damien and AB. To corrupt an old phrase – “it’s not the colour that matters, it’s what you do with it”. If we’re talking about “assessment” rather than just “marking” then it’s about what you write and how you write it. Positive comments and suggestions on how to make it better in any colour must be a good thing? We can make a student feel valued in red or disheartened in purple/green/whatever…

    Being pragmatic, it’s pretty important that we try to use a colour that the student will see (and red works better than most for that). It’s also important that we don’t scrawl all over work that students have sweated over. Save it till the end and be sensitive (but relentless).

    We often use post-it or, for more extended assessments, a separate bit of paper to stick in.

    Is there research out there where someone has actually asked the students what they think?

    • The use of post its is an interesting idea and presumably the student feels less like you are ‘defacing their work – is this widely used?

  • THO

    We had a phase when we used green ink & the children actually commented on it. I think what ever the colour, if it is writing negative comments, it will be the wrong colour. Much better to have ‘praise sandwich’ type comments then the colour won’t be noticed!

    • I think that it is too simplistic to think that simply the colour can make all the difference but some other responses certainly seem to indicate that it is an important factor – though of course WHAT you write must surely be the key thing?

  • Strangely enough it was the colour, or at least the associations it brings. As an adult in the final year of my degree a lecturer forgot my plea to avoid red and the result was so traumatic I nearly walked away from my course. I’m glad I didn’t, especially as I eventually achieved a first!

    • Wow – well if there was any doubt that colour made a difference, here’s the proof! Do you know why it affected you quite so adversely?

  • TWITTER COMMENTS:

    @ChrisLeach78: “My previous school we used GREEN for growth and tickled PINK – so negative in GREEN and positive in PINK”

    @Chrissy_Kelly: “when I mark on paper i mark in GREEN and when I mark online I mark in PINK..no red pen allowed at my school!”

    @reallara: “Mark in whatever colour comes to hand and is legible. Constructive nature of feedback is what is important not ink colour”

    @Sevim77: “very rarely in red, tends to be green.”

    @Joga5: “when we looked at it as an school we found that teachers and parents had an issue with it pupils didn’t. the children were more bothered by having something relevant to them. ie didn’t want reams of marking but wanted dialogue. with the teachers and self evaluation. They didn’t care if this took place in red, green or puce!”

  • TWITTER COMMENTS:

    @sueellendixon: “oh please! it’s the quality of feedback that matters. Yp upset by the colour ink need a slap (metaphorical one u understand)”

    @AnnaMusielak: “I always correct in pencil;) And for kids – glitter pens;)”

  • Osborn

    It seems all PC to talk about what colour to use for marking purposes so as not to offend students. How on earth are they going to learn from their mistakes if they are not annotated in some way. People can always use red for actual mistakes and green for e.g. suggestions just to tone it down a bit.

    • Clare Mackenzie

      Here here!

  • Vijay

    Most of my corrections are always done in a color other
    than that used by the students themselves. The idea of correcting
    or evaluating a child is to highlight the mistake and rectify them
    with the correct response. How then can it then matter whether
    the teachers correction is done in Green, Red or Yellow.

    • I had a teacher who would always mark in pink or purple! I used to really like it but the boys didn’t!

      Some people think that highlighting mistakes is very negative and that we should be using a more positive approach to marking…

  • At our school, the children edit and emend their own work in red pen. We use blue and it seems to work really positively. The power of the pen for correction lies with the learner this way :)

  • Keely Griffiths

    My school doesn’t allow marking students classwork in pen at all.

    Corrections are made in pencil so that they can change their work to include the corrections and therefore, in theory, learn how to self correct in time.

    Exams are marked in red though. They go home and too many parents erase the wrong answers, put in the correct ones and then come back to school stating that the teacher marked it wrongly!

  • Vinita Shenoy

    colour does matter for corrections as much as, the tone of corrections.
    I too refrain from using red so not to give students a negative feedback . Yr 12 students have been used to seeing a lot of red in all their school life so much so it gives them a feel good factor to see corrections in their favourite colour.
    But at the same time it does remind me of the time I did put a remark in red ‘you can do better than this’ :) to which the student replied in pencil, ‘I will surely try miss’ :). here the smiley face did the trick not the colour of the ink

  • We use Yellow Stickers for all comment marking. The idea is that is highly visible. There are sections for successes & targets. Students love them

  • Clare Mackenzie

    Gosh next we won’t be marking at all. Or worse still, won’t be askign the little darlings to complete any work for fear of pressurising them and stifling their creativity.

    For heavens sakes. We all turned out ok didn’t we? Perhaps a little bit of discipline, a little bit of attention to detail and correctness and Britain would be in a less sorry state than it is today?

  • Adrian Bradshaw

    What ever the colour of the pen, children need to learn to fail. We seem stuck in a society that encourages children to think they never fail. This seems to breed generations who cannot cope with real failure in life. We are setting them up to crash and burn. We all make mistakes and we need them to learn to cope with it. Teach children that there are limits to what they can do and DEAL with it, no matter what the colour. There are so many young adults who go into the real world thinking they are always right simply because they don’t know failure because they havn’t been exposed to it. Afterall, don’t we learn by making mistakes?

    • Barbara

      Congratulations for your thoughts!

  • Barbara

    All my life I grew up being corrected by my mistakes, Wether in green, yellow, blue or red (although red was the most used color). I don’t think my self esteem grew poor or weakened because of these corrections made by my TEACHERS, whose objective in MY LIFE was to correct my mistakes and show me the path to follow. When you make a mistake, you’ll only know when somebody tells you. And let’s agree that red is the easiest color to distinguish among the student’s text/homework. Why would we change it now? If you don’t know you’re making a mistake, you’ll never correct it. And THIS can become a reason for lowing your self esteem once you become a laughingstock for making that mistake later in life.

  • Stu McP

    Who is it out there who comes up with this? Since when has the concept of self esteem been elevated to such dizzying and god-like heights that we must tone down and pack with cotton wool any talk of making “mistakes” in order to protect our poor children’s fragile egos? Listen. Nobody here is advocating return to the bad old days of getting the cane for failing your arithmetic test or any similar such thing. However life (real life) is all about making mistakes, being honest enough to call them mistakes, learning from them and moving on. This most critical of life skills (dealing with our mistakes) is under fire by well-meaning but naive people who suppose it is in our children’s interests to paint them a vista of blissfully unending success as their inevitable future. Come on folks let’s stay real and honest here. A mistake is a mistake. Mark it in red, fix it, learn from it, move on. There is no age too young to start learning this gutsy vital stuff.

  • JR Pelland

    When I was attending university, the toughest marker I had always marked in green. The professor would cover students’ work with green pen. He pointed out every possible mistake. I learned far more from his harsh comments in green than I did from any other professor. I love to correct with a green pen, but I am not averse to red. I think both stand out and serve their purpose. As long as we mark consistenly, I don’t think the colour really matters. It seems unfair to target teachers who use red pens.

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