Red, Blue or Green: Which colour pen should teachers use for marking?

What colour pen do you use for marking? It’s surely one of the most hotly debated topics passing through staff rooms, seemingly without consensus.

To try and make sense of it, we threw the discussion over to 134 teachers on Twitter. In this post, we’ll reveal what they said, plus have a look around at what the research says on the psychological considerations of using different coloured pens when marking pupil work.

 

What colour is best for marking? What the teachers say

Our poll asked teachers one simple question; when doing some marking, what colour pen do you use? 

 

The 134 responses came out like this:

  • Red – 67.9%
  • Blue – 14.9%
  • Green – 13.4%
  • Other – 3.7%

By over a two-thirds majority, teachers prefer to use the classic red pen to mark and make comments on the work of their pupils, with a decent chunk preferring to use a blue pen or green pen.

Some 3.7% said they wouldn’t use any of these above, preferring colours like black or even purple. The poll kick-started a whole host of debate.

Some mix it up depending on who they are writing for, using purple as a teacher but green for peer or self-assessment.

 

Red is preferred here, with the caveat that green needs to be used as a moderator when you’re checking the work of the marker.

Is there research on this?

Red seems to be favoured by the majority – but what do industry experts and studies in the relevant fields have to say about it?

Strategy Education have a great summary of the debate here. They cite the study that fired up the debate, made a few years ago in the US. In it, using red pens to mark work was discouraged, claiming that it is associated with ‘warning, prohibition, caution, anger, embarrassment and being wrong’. Many others have suggested that red, as a colour, is just too “aggressive” to be used for marking.

The colour psychology aspect makes some sense, but one study went a step further and suggested that the effectiveness of marking is damaged if you choose an alternative colour like blue. Published in the European Journal of Social Psychology in 2010, it said that using red pen brings greater accuracy when identifying and correcting errors when compared with neutral colours. Although it should also be noted that study wasn’t conducted with teachers.

So even if you can’t consciously feel it, the theory says that red puts you in a particular frame of mind for finding errors. Other research has suggested that red ink effects a student’s perception of fairness with regards to the mark they have been given – which might have a knock-on effect on the rapport between teacher and student.

Teacher Toolkit have delved into this debate too, saying red “hinders a pupil’s retrieval, heightens their mental health and reduces their exam score!” This is all before you consider the accessibility issues with using red pen to mark work from pupils who are colour blind.

There are even some who suggest this is all just a big distraction. In this piece from Callum Jacobs in TES, he says the debate about coloured pens is an attempt to check-in on teachers, rather than pupil’s work.

 

So, what colour pend should you use?

It’s amazing how much debate and even scientific research has gone into this question. It leaves us with plenty to ponder over and seemingly no absolute answer.

To join in the debate, let us know your thoughts over on Twitter @HopeEducationUK.

 

<a href="https://blog.hope-education.co.uk/author/william-hinch/" target="_self">William Hinch</a>

William Hinch

Hope Education writer

Will has been writing for Hope Education since July 2020, helping provide teachers with tips, advice and insight that helps them educate the next generation. Away from his educational writing, Will is a typical Yorkshireman; a lover of ale, cricket and tea!

9 June 2021

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