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Seeing red: The ink color used to correct papers may bias the final grade

Hmmm…. I may need to rethink how I grade my college students’ writing and editing assignments. I like to mark the papers either with a red pen (on hard copies) or with the red color choice in Microsoft Word’s "Track Changes" program (on electronically submitted copies). I’ve always believed that red works much better than blue or green at alerting students to my more subtle marks (like adding that all-too-often missing comma before a conjunction dividing two independent clauses).

But, as a study [PDF] published online in the European Journal of Social Psychology earlier this month reports, “people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than people using blue pens.”

“[R]ed pens are not neutral objects, but rather are laden with meaning,” suggest the authors of the study, led by psychologist Abraham Rutchick of California State University Northridge. “[A]s such, they could potentially prime the concepts with which they are associated.”

For some 300 years, Rutchick and his colleagues note, red marks have been associated with mistakes and failure — so much so that some school districts in England, the United States and Australia have recommended that teachers stop using red pens “because the sight of papers covered in red corrections is stressful to students.”

Oh, dear.

A trio of experiments

This study included three separate experiments. One experiment had 120 student volunteers use either a red or a black pen to complete missing letters in a series of words. Five of these word-stem problems could be completed with words related to making mistakes and performing poorly. For example, “FAI_” could be completed as either “FAIL” or “FAIR.” The experiment found that students using the red pens were more likely to finish the words in a negative way (“FAIL”) — a result that suggests, say the study’s authors, that the red pens make “the concept of errors and poor performance more cognitively accessible.”

The second experiment gave 103 volunteers either red or blue pens and an error-ridden essay ostensibly written by a student who was learning English. The volunteers were told to mark any errors in punctuation, spelling, grammar and word choice. Those wielding the red pen marked significantly more errors than their blue-pen peers.

But that finding didn’t necessarily mean that the red pens were making the evaluators more inclined (“cognitively accessible”) to marking things wrong. The volunteers in the red-pen group may have simply been more vigilant. So the researchers devised a third experiment. This time, volunteers were given red or blue pens and asked to evaluate a one-page essay written (or so they were told) by an eighth-grader. The essay contained no grammatical or spelling errors, but its word choices were very basic. Volunteers were instructed to point out any flaws in the paper that they believed could be improved and to grade it from zero (worst) to 100 (best).

The red-pen evaluators did not make significantly more negative comments about the paper than their blue-pen peers — but they did grade the paper significantly lower.

Object priming

These findings, suggest the study’s authors, support previous research on “object priming” — the idea that “physical objects and environments can also influence cognition and behavior.” Other studies, they note, have found that “the presence of guns can intensify aggression, the trappings of the business world induce more competitive behavior, and merely seeing a sports drink leads participants to perform with greater endurance.

The current study has limitations, of course. The study did not control for the volunteers’ age, level of education or other possibly confounding factors. And none of the volunteers were experienced teachers.

Would that make a difference?

“Teachers try to be fair when evaluating student work,” write the study’s authors. “They turn off the television, close the window, and otherwise free themselves from distraction. Many teachers correct papers in short bursts to minimize the effects of fatigue; some even counterbalance the papers’ order or read them anonymously to maximize equitable evaluation. Clearly, when teachers pick up their red pens, they make every effort to free themselves from extraneous influence, but it may already be too late: Once the red pen is in hand, they may have already lost.”

Note to my students: I’m switching to blue ink this semester.

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Comments (1)

I've noticed this for some time. Most grading/correcting is done on a computer and I've taken to highlighting - in yellow - things that need correction. My comments are highlighted in magenta. I only use red very sparingly, e.g. when there is a really bad error. Maybe one in ten papers get this treatment.

I've decided that this is a little like the all caps stuff in e-mail. THIS IS SHOUTING. Shouting is not good. Marking something in red is also shouting.