The Red Pen

By: Clemente de Althaus

Creative Commons Image taken from Pixabay

The red pen is a technology related to the standardization of education. It is deployed mainly to inform the students – from childhood through young adulthood – about their mistakes and their grades in academic evaluation, increasing the relationship and association between red and failure.[1] This association process between red and failure is built upon a cognitive propensity to relate red with danger, which speaks of the complex relationship between humans and their own blood.[2] Blood and fire, both red, have evoked different sensations – power, change, purity, sacredness, danger – throughout human evolution. These sensations are still instinctively triggered when facing red, but in the context of education, we have been taught to foster a particular set of these connections above others: those between danger-mistake-failure and red. The potentiality of red to become a shortcut for danger-mistake-failure became instrumental during the standardization of education and the subsequent emergence of A-F evaluation as one of its main technologies of normalization.[3] As Schinske and Tanner argue, the main motivation behind the implementation and growth of the A-F grading system was not to improve learning, but to standardize and communicate better between institutions:

Our current “A”-”F” grading system was not designed with the primary intent of motivating students. Rather, it stemmed from efforts to steamline communication between institutions and diminish the impacts of unreliable evaluation of students from teacher to teacher.[4]

For institutions, the red pen functions more as a means of standardization than it does as a means of learning – for which, studies show, it is actually counterproductive. Firklova et al.’s (2019) found that the use of a red pen has an influence on the “activation of the association with failure and on a heightened propensity to find mistakes in a text” (p.4). During Firklova’s experiments, “the participants using red pens formed words related to failure more often than the participants using blue pens. The participants who used a red pen to correct a text also marked more mistakes than those using a blue pen” (p.3). The overuse of red highlights a mistake-focused mindset that can become problematic for learning.

Nowadays the red pen is almost a relic of the past, but red-as-mistake and red-as-evaluation are very alive in the digital realm. Digital grades are still red, evaluation systems often employ red grids and wordings to indicate lower grades, and even Microsoft Word will underline in red when detecting a mistake in orthography. Perhaps the red pen is becoming obsolete as a material object, but red as a technology of mistake and evaluation is still very much alive in the digital era, perhaps at its peak of deployment now that has transcended the classroom and inhabits cellphones and laptops.

What might we do to “fix” the red pen? Before jumping on a quick “fix” like banning red pens from education, let’s reflect upon what is “broken” in the red pen. I think that the red pen by itself is not the problem; what requires a “fix” is the rigid association with mistakes and evaluation it carries for us since our childhood (Firklova et al. 2019). It’s true that there is a cognitive link through the danger sensation that blood innately provokes, but there are other sensations that are also innately evoked by red (like sacredness for example) but that are not explored or deployed for educational purposes. Moreover, we humans are not determined by our innate evocations; what red is to us depends on the “dynamics between cultural systems and genetic inheritance”[5], and what is going on in terms of the cultural systems is very much an indoctrination since childhood that red equate mistakes and failure in the cultural context of school.

Instead of abandoning a powerful and evocative color like red in the context of education, I would suggest exploring some other alternative avenues that redness may open. For example, taking inspiration from how Inca and Moche culture employed red in their religious ceremonies, to ornament their priests and highlight sacred offerings:[6] what if instead of using red for pointing out mistakes in students’ work, we use it to highlight or ornament (with drawings perhaps?) what we think is the most generative part of their work? Red was the first color of artistic representation, present in the earliest cave paintings discovered: why can’t we think of reacting with artistic red to celebrate, elevate or be in dialogue with students’ work?

Taking inspiration from non-western traditions of red[7], as well as non-educational uses of red in the west (for example, the representation of love and friendship) could be generative ways of “fixing” the red pen problem. However, it’s important to mention that the red-as-mistake is an important technology within grading and the standardization of education, and therefore it’s unlikely for it to change if these bigger structures remain the same. Still, thinking about individual teachers and students, I believe that breaking the chains that fixate red-to-mistake could free its transformative potential, taking learning through unexpected but very likely highly generative reddish paths.

1. Fikrlova, J., Cechova, L., Lebedova, T., Pycha, P., Sesulkova, A., Prochazka, J., & Vaculik, M. (2019). The power of red: The influence of colour on evaluation and failure – A replication. Acta Psychologica, 198, 102873.

2. Michaeli, D. (2021). The Fascinating History of the Color Red [Medical]. The Doctor Weighs In.

3. Davidson, C. (March 1, 2018). UC Santa Cruz conference. Video:

4. Schinske, J., & Tanner, K. (2014). Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently). CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(2), 159–166.

5. Whiten, A. (2021). The burgeoning reach of animal culture. Science, 372(6537), eabe6514.

6. Novoa, S., Botánico, J., & Núñez, O. V. (2006). Sobre el Origen de la Tuna en el Perú Algunos alcances. 8

7. Mohyuddin, A., & Farooq, M. (2016). Symbolic representation of red color among Muslims: Case study of Rawalakot village, Azad Kashmir. International Journal of Education, 5.