A few weeks ago, one of my kids brought back some work from school. It had lots of red corrections on it and the color really struck me and stood out. In my work with teacher interns we had talked about the effects of color and how a teacher should be aware of this as they assess. I wanted to blog about grading in red and as I researched the topic, was somewhat surprised by this being a “controversy”. In reading comments on various blog posts, I am beginning to suspect that much of the discussion missed the point.
The idea of using a different color than the tradition red to provide feedback and grades is nothing new. Teachers and professors having being doing it for decades. Relatively recently a research article was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2010 that brought focus on the issue – The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of evaluative standards. It claimed that “Because red pens are closely associated with error-marking and poor performance, the use of red pens when correcting student work can activate these concepts.”
Across various blog posts, there quickly developed camps of whether to use red, or green, or purple, etc. Even NPR weighed in. I think that many of the comments seemed to be missing some major points. Comments like:
“So using red ink causes writing teachers to do a better job at finding and marking errors? Remarkable. Give a box of red pens to every teacher.”
“I want my child to be graded with a red pen. Seems like he will get a truer grade. If red really does make a teacher spot errors and mistakes better.”
“Finding all the errors is somehow a bad thing because it makes students feel badly about themselves? Why not just give all of them a nice pat on the head and forget about trying to improve their English skills?”
“2+2=5 “Good Effort!” (written in blue pen) Sorry…that doesn’t cut it with me. Mark it wrong with a big red “X” and teach them that the correct answer is ‘4’.”
There were, of course, as many blog posts in favor of the idea of rethinking the color of their pens.
But Wait, There’s More
I think that perhaps there was several points that were being missed. I think that this is less about self-esteem and more about the fundamentals of how our brain works.
1. The association with red does NOT come from grading and schools
As the image on this post suggests, the idea of red being bad is deeply ingrained in our environment.
Red – danger, stop, warning, blood (think vampires)
Green – safe. go, life, growth
If you see the word “go” in red, your brain trips over itself as it tries to process the contradiction. That’s before it even engages with the word.
2. The brain processes negative slower than the positive
Those clever chaps in lab coats have shown that the mere act of processing negative is slower than positive. Regardless of the nature of the “message”, if it’s in red, then that will slow processing.
3. The underlying feedback in the comment gets lost
Research shows that people pay more attention to negative issues. Since humans can only focus on one message at a time, due to selective attention, the negative message becomes more profound. In our case, the negativity is associated with the color. Our brains first see the color, start making that association and are less able to process the actual comment regardless of it’s nature.
4. The purpose of assessment is to increase student learning
There is enough research about the harmful effects of traditional grading to fill a library – or two. The idea that grading work should be about spotting mistakes and correcting errors is a very narrow one. There will be far more student learning going on if they have self-assessed their writing themselves, then engaged in small group writing conference before it ever gets to the teacher to splash their ink all over the paper.
There is also research to suggest that it is more effective to make global comments at the end of a piece rather than having teacher comments embedded in the writing. In the latter case the student tends to narrow their focus on just correcting the noted errors rather than trying to make the piece better as a whole.
5. Changing your pen costs 30 cents
There is virtually no cost to using a different color when providing feedback or grading. Even if all the research and arguments about not using red turned out to be wrong and there was no difference, then nothing has been lost. The reverse, however, is not true.
So there you go.
I hope you have a wonderful day, and get done everything you wanted to!!