Common Teacher Myth: Students Don’t Like to See Red Marks on Their Papers.

I conducted a survey of 26 students to find out how they felt about getting red marks, which indicated grammar mistakes, on their writing assignments.  I was motivated to do this after some colleagues had told me students get upset or dejected when they see these, so they only marked a few mistakes, and one even changed to a different color, thinking that, like her, students associated red marks with something negative.

Three types of marks on students papers

When I give students feedback on their writing assignments, I want them to notice three things:

  1. Good writing points.  These are ideas, details, examples, expressions, sentence styles, grammar that they did well.  I underline these in GREEN to indicate good.  (See Students’ Positive Responses to this Teacher Technique  for more details.)
  2. Weak grammar points.  These are grammar mistakes or wordings that they should revise to improve their papers.  I try to indicate these in a way that seem like a puzzle that can be stimulating for students to discover. I use RED to indicate these.  (See Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills  for more details.)
  3. Places to improve content.  These are places where students could improve their papers by adding details and/or including examples. I use BLUE to indicate these.    (See “Wow” is not Necessarily the Goal in Students’ Essays and The Huge Advantage International Student Writers Have Over Their American Classmates for more details.)

The survey question to students: If you could only have one type of mark on your papers, which one would you choose?

Color code survey

If those colleagues who thought students were upset by red marks (grammar mistakes) were right, then it would seem that the students would not choose that option, and in fact, probably prefer the Green (good parts) option.   Spoiler Alert: that didn’t happen.

The results of the survey

These are the results:  “If I could have only one type of feedback …”

          50%      I would want RED to indicate my grammar mistakes.

           38%     I would want BLUE to indicate places that I need to add more          .                               details/examples.

           11%      I would want GREEN to indicate good parts.

Contrary to what some teachers think, a majority of students actually want to see RED on their papers.  And they overwhelmingly chose marks (like red and blue) which identify places where they could improve their papers. 

If the teachers use red and blue marks in ways that can lead students to better writing skills, their students will see that the teacher is on their side and working with them as a teammate, not a judge.

Ironically, I’ve been able to use red marks as a kind of reward, which I can withhold if I want to motivate a change in behavior.  If I have students who consistently turn their assignments in late, I tell them that the next time they do that, I’ll mark in green the  good parts, but I won’t mark their grammar (in red).  This “threat” never fails to motivate students to turn their assignments in on time.  In fact, just last week, a students whom I used this approach with said, “Please, please give me red marks.  I promise to come to class on time from now on.  In fact, I’ll come 10 minutes early.”

David Kehe

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