Power of the Pen – Is Red Ink on Schoolwork Damaging to Students' Confidence?

By Blog Editor Susan Wells

We all remember the feeling of sitting at desks while the teacher returned a test or important paper. I held my breath waiting to catch a glimpse of that red mark on the top of the paper…was it an A or even an A- or lower? Those red marks and red grades are a source of stress for almost all students. Is red ink on a paper damaging to student confidence and motivation?

An unnamed secondary school in London recently banned teachers from using red ink on papers in case it upset or discouraged the students. The ban was set by a head teacher at the school.

One of the classroom teachers brought this ban to Bob Blackman, a Tory (conservative) member of Parliament, and he brought the issue before Parliament.

Blackman is against the ban and explained, “A teacher contacted me and said ‘I cannot believe I have been instructed by my head to mark children’s homework in particular colours and not to use certain colours. It is all about not wanting to discourage youngsters if their work is marked wrong’  It sounds to me like some petty edict which is nonsense. It is absolutely political correctness gone wild. My take on all this is to say children need to understand the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong.”

The issue does have its supporters in the education world. A Florida teacher chimed in the discussion by saying, “I do not use red. Red has a negative connotation, and we want to promote self-confidence. I like purple. I use purple a lot.”

The red ink issue is global – teachers in Queensland, Australia were given mental health kits in 2008. The kits suggested teachers avoid using red pen, because it can be seen as aggressive. Some students say they feel less than perfect when they see red corrections on their work.

Are students being coddled and protected by these types of over political correctness? What will happen when they grow up and become a member of society and the work force? I’m not sure they will be able to handle any criticism without getting offended. Part of getting an education is learning from mistakes and adjusting to criticism.

Keep in mind that red does stand for stop, while green for go. Maybe green pens should be banned so students don’t get confused and feel too positive with their grades.

A study in 2008 European Journal of Social Psychology claimed grades would be higher if teachers graded in blue ink vs. red. It suggested that red pens may potentially make teachers more likely to spot errors on tests and be more critical. The use of a red pen triggers the teachers’ brains to focus on failure.

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.”

I do still remember the feeling of receiving a paper covered in red marks. It definitely didn’t feel good and did upset me. But it also motivated me to work harder the next time and eliminate some of the red marks on the next try. Errors should not be treated as defeats, but a second chance. There is always another test or another essay to redeem yourself. It’s all in the way students are trained to react to all of those marks, whether red or green or purple.

What are your thoughts? Should red pens be banned in education to protect students’ feelings and remove some of the focus of being wrong? Or are learning from your mistakes one of the best lessons a student can gain while in school?



6 replies
  1. flask
    flask says:

    i used to grade papers primarily in black.

    i had rules about what colors STUDENTS could write in though.

    it is hard for my eyes to focus on light colors, so you will hand in your work in blue or black ink or pencil if you want credit for it. if you really MUST use some other color, i reserve the right to decide whether it’s easy enough for me to read.

    …which most of the students found to be a reasonable position.

    but black, red, green… it matters little what color you use to criticize somebody’s work and no matter what color you do it in you have to be careful and respectful.

    you know, ‘coz your objective is to help them WANT to do better work and not to show them how smart you are.

  2. Jhonnette smith
    Jhonnette smith says:

    I personally like my work to be graded in red because it stands out from the original piece. I think this was the original purpose of the “red pen,” so you can see the difference. I don’t think the color matters. If the teachers start grading in purple, then I think people will start fearing to see all those purple marks. -Get tough! I don’t know if schools and students are actually getting worse or the media just makes it seems that way, but I personally believe we cater to the child TOO much. My goal isn’t to make the child feel good, but to teach them the content and also how to deal with the world we live in. (in a resepectful way of course)

  3. Natalie
    Natalie says:

    What are we truly teaching out kids??? My daughter’s school has “no due dates” on assignments. Basically, she can hand in the assignment whenever she wants. I went to the teacher and said absolutely not! Due date is due date an I fully expect a lower grade if she does not hand it in on time. LIFE does not work this way, why the hell are we so afraid to draw a line in the sand??? Ugh!!

  4. Yahya haliru sabo
    Yahya haliru sabo says:

    It’s obvious that, students do anticipate best always after examinations. Errors are dictated at their papers but to them, assuring excellence.Red pens are motivational. They are alarting negativness to positiveness. Red is indeed need educationally.

  5. Satyajay Mandal
    Satyajay Mandal says:

    I think that all teachers should stop checking their students’ copies with red ink and use some other colours for this instead, like blue, green, etc.


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