Black, white and red all over

How red pen can dent employee engagement

May 23, 2016

Receiving and delivering written feedback can be difficult, but improving the impact of your comments could be as simple as switching your pen.

A red pen is a proofreader’s go-to weapon. With most writers etching in blue or black ink, and black being the most commonly used for printed documents, corrections made in red pen stand out clearly.

It isn’t a new practice – there’s evidence of editing in red as far back as the Roman age. In a letter to proofreader Atticus, philosopher and politician Cicero wrote: ‘I am glad that my work pleases you … for I was afraid of your little red crayon!’

But Cicero’s note also suggests there was something about Atticus’ ink that he found unsettling.

Of course, this isn’t simply a matter of stationary colour. Receiving criticism, however constructive, can be disheartening – even for fearsome ancient leaders. We probably recognise the sinking feeling that comes after being handed back work and seeing it buried under corrective scrawls.

Peer evaluation is an important part of developing our work, but that doesn’t mean critique is always easy to receive.

It can also be tough in the reviewing role. You want to share your comments honestly while not leaving your colleague feeling like they’ve done a bad job – and getting that tone right is a challenge.

“The way we phrase our feedback is really important, but that’s a really subtle skill to learn. The colour of the grading pen is much simpler to change,” said Dr Richard Dukes, Professor of Sociology at the University of Colarado, who, alongside Associate Professor Dr Heather Albanesi, has researched the impact that red ink can have on a recipient.

The professors presented a group of students with two versions of two answers to a sociology essay question, one which had been graded as A- and one which was of a C+ standard.

Both essays had been printed out twice and marked with the same comments; one set was written in red and the other delivered in turquoise.

The sample group was asked to evaluate the examiner’s responses to the examples.

“We asked the students to grade how knowledgeable, organised, enthusiastic and nice they felt the teacher who had marked the essays was, and how they judged their rapport with their students,” explained Richard.

“Knowledge and organisation are instrumental, task-at-hand kind of measures, and the latter three are more expressive and emotional. We found that the colour of the pen made a difference to how the students viewed the three expressive qualities. So, when the turquoise pen was used, they felt the teacher was more enthusiastic, nice and had a better rapport.

“It wasn’t a huge effect, but it was statistically significant, which means it couldn’t have happened by chance or by asking a ‘more positive’ group of students. It’s modest evidence, but it’s there.”

Many schools are applying this thinking to their marking. Fearing pupils might feel demoralised at having their homework dissected in red, teachers are being encouraged to delve deep into their pencil case, including those at Mount Bay Academy near Penzance, Cornwall.

“Our teachers use green pen,” said Sara Davey, Principal at Mount Bay Academy. “It’s so much nicer than having red ink everywhere. Red can look quite aggressive; there’s an emotional reaction to it.”

But it’s not just the colour of the pens that’s different at Mount Bay Academy; the school has reevaluated the whole marking approach, which is now known as ‘feedback and feedforward’.

Sara explained: “A student completes a piece of work and the teacher makes a few comments and feeds back on the areas that are good. The teacher will also feedforward on what the student can do in their next piece of work. It’s not so much about correcting, but a learning intervention.

“We also ask our staff to write a personalised question for each student to stretch and challenge them, which the student will then reply to in purple pen. We want to encourage a dialogue. Students are helping to write their own learning narrative as opposed to just being told what their errors are.

“When teachers have a red pen, it’s as if they are in charge and the students are doing as they’re told – it’s a compliance model of education. Opening a dialogue is more of a collaborative learning approach. I think that the colour of the pens we use symbolises this change in direction.”

Richard is already trying to put his research into practice at work. He said: “In the teaching aspects of my role, I’m always conscious to make sure that my feedback is constructive and clear. Perhaps this is even more important than the colour we write in – but changing our pen is something simple we can all do.

“I like turquoise – as shade between blue and green, it hasn’t historically been used to represent any emotion in particular. My favourite turquoise pen is a Pilot G207, which only comes in sets of four or more. I have nine sets so far, which means I have 27 pens I’m not using!”

So next time you’re presented with a colleague’s proposal, consider benching your usual Biro – it could make a difference.