Marking in Aqua-Coloured Pen: The Evidence!


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Aqua Coloured Pen

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Does the colour of pen a teacher chooses to use, really matter?

Higher education is also another austerity beset area of the public sector.  It comes to us all differently – to universities austerity has been an attack on student support, and particularly Student Disability Allowance (SDA), which funded individual support for university students. One of the responses to this has been exploring ways to make changes to practice which are low cost and improve accessibility – or reduce barriers to learning for some, without disadvantaging any.

One of the changes I have been looking at is the colour of ink in feedback.

There has been much political and emotional discussion about whether marking in red is a tradition (Akoi) which should be maintained, or whether learners view feedback in red as negative. The right-wing press would have us believe that considering any other colour is “political correctness gone mad” (Chorley). As a part of my PGCertHE I explored the implications of the colour I was using to provide feedback…. (my personal stationery fetish finally had an outlet in work). Here is what I found…

The Psychology

There has been some exploration of the psychological effect of using a red pen on markers allocation of marks. One study (Rutchick et al) talks about the ‘object priming’ effect a red pen has on markers – where those with a red pen will provide more corrections (maybe a good thing) but fewer marks than those with neutral coloured pens (Not teachers, results were not replicated) (Dukes & Albanesi). Other work (Dukes & Albanesi) were able to find that marking in red ink had an effect on students perceptions of the fairness of the mark – and theorise that might have an impact on learner rapport with the instructor. 

Ross has also blogged about this on Teacher Toolkit: That if a red pen is only used for assessment, it hinders a pupil’s retrieval, heightens their mental health and reduces their exam score! (Gnambs, Appel and Kaspar)

Visual Disability

More concrete data worthy of consideration comes from medical studies of colour vision. Around 1/10 – 1/12 men and 1/200 women are colour blind. In an institution the size of my own that represents over 700 students. The striking thing is that with all but (very rare) total colour blindness, the blue part of the spectrum remains visible, while green and red are almost impossible to see for most people with colour vision deficiency (read this for a really good simulation of how different types of colour blindness appear, and another, but you have to hold your nose and visit the Daily Mail).

So – the cost to your school (or to you, it’s the same in HE) ordering turquoise pens instead of red or green ones, nothing – but it might make a difference to those 1/20 students in your class who find it hard to see what you’ve written!

Just imagine how many ‘undiagnosed’ colour blind pupils you may be teaching? If teachers mark in an Aqua-coloured pen, expect 5 – 10% of your students to be able to access your feedback when compared to those teachers who are only using red and green pens. 

This is a guest post by Dr. Ed Thompson is Associate Professor of Student Experience at Leicester Castle Business School – De Montfort University, a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a Governor of Soar Valley College in Leicester


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