The Red Pens

Happy marking season! It’s so festive these days, what with all the red ink splashed everywhere. No? Well, it is for me: term papers and exams mean red ink. But is there a problem with using the colour red for marking? Let’s go to the evidence (what there is, anyway).

Using a red pen seems to make people pick out more writing errors, and cause them to grade more harshly resulting in lower scores, compared with using a blue pen (Rutchick, Slepian, & Ferris, 2008).

Another study found that corrections in red ink are interpreted by students as being harsher than those made in “aqua” (what, water?), because red is an emotive (“arousing or able to arouse intense feeling”) colour (Dukes & Albenesi, 2013). The corrections are also more likely to be interpreted by students as “shouting,” which leads to emotional loading and anxiety, and a potential rejection of the feedback on the paper.

Even before this evidence appeared, there have been suggestions that teaching mark using purple or pink pens. (That’s the ink colour, not the colour of the barrel. No research on that yet.)

I remember getting term papers back, and seeing the red ink. It didn’t make me feel good. If I had known that there was a typo or a lapse in logic, I would have corrected it before handing it in. See the red made me want to be a better writer. I was getting valuable feedback from professors, and I would be dumb not to learn from it. I can still remember some of the corrections, advice, and feedback I received decades later. Did it hurt my feelings? Sure. Did I let it stop me from improving? No way.

So I use red ink. Yes, it can trigger emotions. But maybe it’s supposed to. In (literal and figurative) contrast with blue (or even black) marks on the paper, red draws your attention. It says, “Hey, this is important.” Maybe it elicits an emotional reaction; maybe it acts as punishment (in the operant conditioning sense of the word). If I have emptied a red pen marking your term paper, it clearly needs improvement. Learn from all the scribbles I make on your paper. I’ve spent time reading, thinking about, and analyzing your writing. It’s customized, one-to-one communication, and it’s what you’re paying for when you take a course. I wouldn’t spend all the time I do if I didn’t think it would help.

I’ve used a lot of red pens over the years. Here are some I’ve tried recently.

Staples 1.0
It’s a pen. A red pen. Nothing special. But they’re cheap: You can get 864 of them for $252.69 at Staples.

Zebra Sarasa 0.7
This used to be my go-to pen, but even with gel ink the 0.7 mm tip is a bit too sharp. Often dies with ink left in it. (And what’s with the name? Is it made from zebra blood?)

BIC Velocity Gel 0.7
The name grabbed me right away: I need a fast pen. But it has a too-sharp tip, and also dies with ink left. Grr!

PaperMate Profile 1.4B
Now we’re talking. A nice big fat 1.4 mm ballpoint gel ink pen. It’s smooth and doesn’t require a lot of pressure to write with, which helps prevent tendonitis. Makes an inconsistent line though, so I only use it to mark exams.

PaperMate InkJoy 300RT 1.0M
My new favourite pen, the InkJoy series features amazingly quick-drying ink. Super smooth and fast, it’s what I use to mark term papers.

So, how do you feel about red ink?

Why aren’t you studying?

Rutchick, A. M., Slepian, M. L., & Ferris, B. D. (2008). The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of evaluative standards. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 704-708. doi: 10.1002/ejsp.753

Dukes, R., & Albanesi, H. (2012). Seeing red: Quality of an essay, color of the grading pen and student reactions to the grading process. Social Science Journal, 50, 96-100. doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2012.07.005


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