Teacher Tales: The Red Ink Diaries
I don’t like red ink. I suppose, as inks go, it’s probably pretty nice on its own, but it seems like when in a teacher’s hand, it becomes a weapon of mass depression. Apparently, I’m not alone in feeling that red ink for grading is detrimental for student self-esteem. One study, found on prestigious Vanderbilt University’s School of Teaching’s page, “According to a study in the European Journal of Social Psychology, reported on NPR, instructors who grade with red pens tend to grade more harshly than instructors who grade using blue pens” ( Bruff, 2010).
That’s a problem for me. I’m not a teacher because I want to break someone down with scarlet graffiti all over his paper. I want to always try to build a student up. Sure, we’ve all had that one teacher who decided to go all “Picasso” on something we wrote. Can you remember the dreaded “paper return day”? I remember those days well. I could feel my stomach twist itself into little knots of anticipation. I certainly do not ever want to have my students experience dread on “paper return day”.
Blue ink is nice. Black ink is dandy. The argument that red ink stands out more than does blue or black, and is therefore, easier to read is nonsense. Students are often hungry to read feedback from their instructors. They couldn’t care less whether constructive criticism is transmitted via blue or black ink, but you’d better believe they care when they see red letters on their pages. It signifies that they’ve done something wrong, and depending on the student, becomes a sort of “red flag” waved in front of an angry alpha-male bull!
I must admit that I used to use red ink to correct and grade papers- until the day one of my fifth graders came up to me during recess. I could see how bravely she was trying to prevent the tears from coming. She held her paper out to me, and turned to the last page, where I had written what I thought was constructive criticism. Instantly, it was clear to me why she was crying. I had written, “Good improvement, but I know you can do better.” It was meant as an encouraging note, but written in red ink, she took it as though I was saying this particular paper still wasn’t adequate… despite the fact that she received a “B+” on it.
There are only two circumstances where I believe red ink is an asset to learning. The first is when working with students who have learning challenges, and only then, when used in conjunction with a rainbow of colors- for highlighting, organizing, and self-corrections. The second is when working with a student who is a visual learner. Multi-colored inks, paper, and images help these learners process and retain information on a much deeper level.
Be kind, and save the red ink for artwork.