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When Grading Papers, Red Ink May Mean Lower Scores

New research suggests the use of red ink by teachers to correct students’ work may result in harsher evaluations.
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Remember those gut-wrenching high-school moments when a teacher handed you back a test or assignment, having corrected your mistakes and rendered a harsh verdict in bold red ink? It may be small consolation now, but newly published research suggests your grades may have been higher if that ink had been blue.

A study in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests the use of red pens may make teachers more likely to spot errors on tests and to be more critical when grading essays. “Despite teachers’ efforts to free themselves from extraneous influences while grading,” write California State University Northridge psychologist Abraham Rutchick, Tufts University psychologist Michael Slepian and Bennett Ferris of Phillips Exeter Academy, “the very act of picking up a red pen can bias their evaluations.”

The paper describes three experiments testing the proposition that red pens trigger teachers’ brains to focus on failure. The researchers note that red pens “have long been associated with errors,” adding that many previous studies have found physical objects in one’s immediate environment can influence behavior. (An earlier Rutchick study found voters whose polling places are in churches are more likely to support candidates and causes supported by the religious right.)

In one of the experiments, 103 volunteers read a two-paragraph excerpt from an essay. They were told it was written by a student who was learning English and instructed to mark any errors in punctuation, spelling, grammar or word choice.

Half used a red pen for the assignment, while the others used a blue pen. Those using red ink spotted significantly more errors than those using blue ink.

In another experiment, 129 students were instructed to evaluate a one-page essay ostensibly written by an eighth-grade student. The paper contained no grammatical or spelling errors, but the language was at a somewhat rudimentary level. Participants were instructed to point out words or phrases that could be improved and then grade the essay on a scale of 0 to 100.

Once again, half used a red pen and half used a blue one. Those marking the paper in red ink gave the essay lower grades than their counterparts using blue ink.

Rutchick and his colleagues argue this demonstrates “using red pens increases the cognitive accessibility of failure-relevant concepts.” However, they concede that other factors could be at work. Being associated with aggression, the color red could conceivably increase graders’ testosterone level, making them more assertive and critical.

They also note that the test participants were not trained teachers. Nevertheless, they conclude that “it seems sensible to avoid presenting students’ work covered in a color automatically associated with failure and negativity.” (The Boston Globereported some school districts are switching to purple ink for that very reason.)

“Red pens, ubiquitous in academic settings, are not inert objects,” they add. “They are laden with meaning.” Perhaps the phrase “the power of the pen” needs to be taken more literally.