Why ‘rainbow marking’ students’ assignments is a waste of time
By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. April 7, 2016
When it comes to painting, I enjoy seeing a piece of work that skillfully incorporates the full range of the colour spectrum. However, when it comes to homework assignments, receiving a marked page with two, three, four different colours in not only disarming, but also a bit confusing.
In an effort to soften the “aggressive” tone of criticism, teachers in Europe and North America have been testing out a new form of marking, where different colour pens are used to classify different types of feedback. For example, a green marking can represent grammar error, purple can represent inaccuracy, and blue can represent misspelling. This technique is coined “rainbow marking.”
While it may seem like an invigorating way to help students recognize their mistakes, we also must remember that a significant part of a teacher’s job is marking. Having them go the extra mile to pick up different pens to mark different errors seems like an unproductive use of their cognitive energy and time.
For the students, it leaves a whole new level of confusion. If they don’t understand how they made their mistake to begin with, changing the colour of the marking is not going to educate them any better. They might be able to see that the green mark means they should have removed the comma and added a period, but they wouldn’t know why. They know it is wrong, but they don’t know the principles of their mistakes. The root of the problem is never resolved.
As for the argument that the colour red is “too aggressive” for students, I say: “toughen up.” You cannot coddle students forever with pretty colours. This type of teaching reinforces the idea that some errors are less important than other errors. When I was in grade school, a common question that would pop up whenever an assignment was due was “does spelling count?” For some reason, we felt that the accuracy of our spelling should not compromise the content of our homework. Of course spelling counts. How will anyone understand what you wrote if you don’t spell properly? Yes, some errors are more glaring than others, but if we want our students to strive for perfection, we cannot say that that mistake is better than another. We need to be aggressive if we want results.
In Western culture, we put too much onus on the little nuisances of the teachers. We call out the teachers for the students’ mistakes. It’s clear that “rainbow marking” is another system of testing the instructors, not the students. It allows a third party to look at the marked paper and say, “Well, the teacher is clearly incompetent. He used a blue pen here when clearly he should have used an orange pen.”
Why not just mark the paper with a pencil? Why not just allow the student to erase it afterward so they can feel better? If the teachers are hired to do the job, then trust their judgment. Let them stick with the tried-and-true system: red pens for marking.