Grading with Red Pens

Nick Chura in a comment to this post cited this paper, The pen is mightier than the word: Objective priming of evaluative standards by A.M. Rutchick, M.L.Slepian, and B.D. Ferris (RSF).  As I read the pit there are two issues.  One, seeing red marks on a paper activates feelings of “failure and negativity” and two, using a red pen activates “corrective and evaluative harshness”.

I certainly understand the impact of the color red.  I would never wear a red shirt to class for instance.  I do this not because of the association with red pen marks but because the color red evokes strong unconscious emotions and I want a calm classroom.  I do use a red pen (digital “ink”) for emphasis or contrast sometimes.  The RSF paper has enough evidence to convince me that I need to limit its use even more.

I have my students use a red pen to self grade their own quizzes.  Now they are creating their own red marks.  RSF cite a paper, Blue or red? Exploring the effect of color on cognitive task performances by R. Metha and R.J. Zhu, that, according to RSF, suggests “that exposure to red facilitates effective performance of tasks that require vigilance, attention, and a focus on detail.”  This could be the “evaluative harshness” that RSF found and is exactly what I want my students to be doing.  So I think I will continue the practice.

Grading math papers requires “vigilance, attention, and a focus on detail” and using a red pen probably helps me grade more carefully and fairly.  Which I want to do.  Since I allow students to correct their tests and papers for additional points, I generally don’t make extensive comments or put extraneous red marks on a paper.  I use abbreviations for common errors.  But now I can see that a paper with a lot of red marks can be discouraging.  I feel stuck.  I want students to look at corrections on a test or paper as an opportunity to learn yet I want to grade with attention to detail. (I was accused by one students  of “scrutinizing.”)  I will markup drafts of papers with a green or purple or blue pen.  I am still inclined to do most of my grading with a red pen however.  I will just feel less good about it.


About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
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