Helping Students Learn to Revise and Edit Their Own Writing

Amy Sexton, Kaplan University Writing Center Tutor



Providing effective feedback on students’ writing can be challenging, especially when we consider what we want students to be able to do based on our feedback.   As teachers and tutors, our goal is to help students become better writers and that means that they need to learn to revise and edit their own writing.   By using the following strategies, we can help students become independent revisers and editors.

  1. Do not make changes in the students’ writing.   While fixing the students’ work may be the easiest way to provide feedback, doing so does not help students learn to make their own corrections.  As a related example, my teenage daughter hates it when she is trying to learn a new cooking task, and I “help” by doing it for her, and for good reason.  She has no immediate need to learn to do the task if I do the work for her, and the same is true for student writers.   Changing the students’ writing may also be detrimental because doing so does not allow students to make decisions about style and grammatical choices and may even cause them to lose interest in the writing process.  Instead of making corrections in the student’s writing, instructors and tutors can include detailed explanations in marginal comments.   Additionally, in our writing center, tutors record video feedback which enables them to demonstrate possible corrections and edits during paper reviews and then click “undo” so that students can gain practice in correcting these issues on their own.
  2. Do not comment on every error or instance of error in the students’ writing.   I have actually heard students say things like “There are X number of comments on my paper.  I must be a very bad writer.”   Instead of commenting on all the issues or errors in students’ writing, choose the areas that are most important.   In our writing center, we often address higher order concerns first.  When we do comment on lower order concerns like grammatical or punctuation errors, we look for patterns of error.  Typically, we will point out only the first error and then tell students to locate other errors like the ones we have marked in their writing.   By doing this, we are teaching them to edit their own writing.
  3. Also, teach  students how  to identify and correct errors in their writing.  When students are able to identify patterns of error in their writing, they can learn to correct them.  One strategy that they can try  is to keep an error log.  I did this when I was an undergraduate, and I found it extremely helpful.     Each time an instructor returned a paper to me, I noted my errors on a list I kept in a separate folder.  Then, before submitting each paper, I reviewed the error log and specifically checked my submission for the errors listed.  This enabled me to not only avoid these errors but also to become a better writer capable of editing my own work.    As a tutor, I often share strategies with students that will help them learn to be their own editors.  For example, if I notice a pattern of run-on sentences in a student’s paper, I explain how the student can locate one type of this error in his or her writing by looking for coordinating conjunctions joining two complete sentences.  I tell them what the coordinating conjunctions are (For, And, Not, But, Or, Yet, So) and explain that they can use the mnemonic FANBOYS to help them remember them in order to identify run-on sentences in their writing.
  4. Finally, always encourage students to read their work aloud or enlist a friend or family member to read their work aloud to them.  Many tutors and academic support centers have students read their writing aloud in face to face and synchronous tutorial sessions.   Reading aloud is a great way for students to check for meaning, organization, tone, and grammatical errors.     Reading aloud also helps students develop audience awareness as they can hear how their writing might sound to someone else.  The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (2014) has compiled an informative handout that enumerates the many benefits of reading aloud and includes excellent suggestions for software and web-based apps that online students can use to have their computers do the reading for them.

From making careful decisions to how we give feedback on students’ writing and how much we give to encouraging students to take charge of their own writing processes through errors logs, error identification, and reading out loud, we can help students become independent writers who can revise, proofread, and edit their own writing.


The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.   (2014).  Reading aloud.  Retrieved from

Writing the Writer, Part 1

Molly Wright Starkweather, Writing Center Tutor, Kaplan University

This blog entry is the first of a two-entry discussion around anonymity as a productive starting point for online students wishing to make genuine connections as they learn.

In 1994, David Coogan wrote in “Towards a Rhetoric of Online Tutoring” that “Without the ‘distracting’ elements of personality, computer mediated discourse establishes a more egalitarian atmosphere” (p. 4). Synchronous online tutoring acts as the best setting for developing personality elements germane to the context of improving writing through forming a meaningful academic relationship between tutor and tutee. These personality elements, while not always distracting, as they may be in a face-to-face setting, are not as lacking as they would be in an asynchronous setting. The writer, when beginning a session somewhat anonymously, shows the most important aspects of identity for the context. By not knowing any personal details about a student who logs in with just a name, tutors know only the basic information about that student, thereby reinforcing that the writer understands that he or she is a writer seeking help.

Many students start off as confessional because of that anonymity, saying “I’m not a writer” or “I just failed my last writing assignment,” and that is helpful to get the conversation going about just what makes a writer (someone who writes) and how difficult it is to write (how even great writers fail). The details come out pretty quickly as they are necessary. Trust, however, becomes more difficult to establish, so educators must play up hospitality much more in the online setting since they do not know what kind of physical environment the student is in.  There is no furniture, candy dish, or stress balls around to defuse tension coming into a consultation; instead, educators must create a safe space within a tutoring room,  including an accepting person to help with the writing, no matter who is on the other end of the screen.

In the standard writing center setting, which is face to face, training guides include advice that is specific to sharing a physical space. Mimic a student’s body language, one director advises (Harris, 2000). Another guide says to sit next to the student, making sure to sit to the student’s right if the student is right-handed, to make sure to keep distance to prevent oneself from writing on the student’s paper (Brooks, 2001). The vast majority of the advice given in training for effective writing center tutoring can apply to synchronous online settings as well as face-to-face settings. Across the board, a writing center worker is likely to find the following as pieces of advice when training to become a tutor:

  • Greet each student warmly and make a plan for the tutoring session.
  • Focus on higher order concerns and only significant patterns of lower order concerns.
  • Offer resources for students to refer to as they improve a particular skill.
  • Follow up with the student after the tutoring session.

During the tutoring session, tutors are responsible for creating a hospitable environment in which a student feels comfortable sharing his or her writing for feedback. Writing centers facilitate this environment by inviting students to collaborate on the agenda for a tutoring session, emphasizing the authority of the student as the writer, and offering feedback without formal assessment (no grading) of the student’s writing. All of these measures establish an egalitarian framework in which students can improve their writing skills.

Where online settings edge out physical writing centers is in any circumstance where the writer feels that a physical setting would prevent focus being on the writing itself. Potential distractions from focusing on the writing might include the following:

  • Accessibility due to a documented disability
  • Identity as a traditional student due to age/time spent away from school
  • Cultural identity due to diverse racial/ethnic identity
  • Language barriers due to speaking English among other languages

These potential distractions might reside primarily with the student in being self-conscious, or these distractions might also reside with the tutor working with the student (also likely feeling self-conscious). The fact is that when a student is significantly different from what has been culturally inscribed as “traditional” for a university student’s identity, those added factors—age, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, etc.—have to be negotiated in the meta-conversation of how the tutor and tutee will discuss the writing. In a physical writing space, that meta-conversation might involve one of several approaches, including “We just are going to ignore the fact that you are different,” “We are going to address the fact that you are different immediately and establish how okay that is,” and “We are going to let you bring up your differences only if you feel it is important to the conversation about your writing.” While all tutors strive for this last approach, the most effective way to guarantee a student’s identity comes up in the context of discussing the writing itself is for the space to allow the writer to compose his or her own identity as part of that discussion.




Brooks, J. (2001). Minimalist tutoring: Making the student do all the work. In Barnett, R. & Blumner, J. (Eds.), The Allyn and Bacon guide to writingcenter theory and practice. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Coogan, D. (1994, March). Towards a rhetoric of on-line tutoring. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication, Nashville, TN.

Harris, M. (2000). Talk to me: Engaging reluctant writers.  In B. Rafoth (Ed.), A tutor’s guide: Helping writers one to one (pp. 24-34). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

If You Give Every Student 100%

Dr. Tamara Fudge, School of Business and IT Faculty, Kaplan University

Of course I want to encourage my students, but simply slapping a perfect 100% on all assignments each week is not really encouragement; it can be the death of student curiosity, critical thinking, and true education.

Recently I asked my students via course announcements if they have done even just one of these, ever:

  • Accidentally locked themselves out of their car, house, or office
  • Gotten a traffic or parking ticket
  • Forgotten to call someone when they said they would
  • Tripped walking up the stairs, or worse, in front of someone
  • Burned something on the stove or fried it in the microwave

We could add more to the list, but the point is that we are human. We make mistakes. These don’t have to be humongous mistakes, but we make little errors all the time, because life is not a 100% game.

When grading, I weigh infractions with consequences. Some mistakes, like a forgotten phone call, might simply be mentioned in the grading comments but won’t cost points. Others, like a traffic ticket, will have to cost some points.  Yes, I tell them some things they did that were good, but they need to know what to fix for future work, too. It is important to point out even the little things, because the next time they run up the stairs, they might be more careful. I want to see them stop tripping.

To the student who tells me she wants 100% and gets upset if it’s 99.99%, I say this: Once you feel you have reached perfection, you’re done. You have no more learn, no more ideas to seek, no more growing to enrich your life. Take every point deduction as a challenge to be better, to learn how not to trip again.

Having been a recent student myself, I found that getting 100% for all my assignments in a few courses felt like I wasn’t learning. What is it I don’t know? How can I improve?  Did you actually read my paper? Do you care about me?

Probably everyone knows Laura Numeroff’s If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. It’s a children’s book based on a cyclical set of red herring fallacies – statements that draw you away from the main ideas. With an apology to Ms. Numeroff’s brilliance:

If you give every student 100%,

You have taught them that they are perfect.


If you teach them that they are perfect,

They will refuse to learn.


If they refuse to learn,

They will forget how to learn.


If they forget how to learn,

Their bosses will notice.


If their bosses notice,

They will fire said students.


If said students get fired,

Their options include going back to school.


If their options include going back to school,

They will have to accept the fact that they are human, and they are not perfect.

And as I wrote in that aforementioned classroom announcement, “Remember that you are human. 100% means superhero strength, which is not expected of humans, but is attainable sometimes.” I think I will ask someone to cross stitch that on a pillow for me.

You can probably tell I’m writing this at the end of a 12-hour grueling Saturday grading-and-outreach session. It takes me a long time to grade assignments because I care about my students and their learning.  Although I do give full points to those who deserve them, I will not just give away a perfect score.  School is for stretching to reach that rainbow, and sometimes a point away from perfect is the ladder they need to get there.




The Big Misconception about Writing to Learn

By Chrissine Rios, MA, Kaplan University Writing Center

Who’s heard this one before?



“I can’t write.”

In the twenty years that I’ve been tutoring writing, I’ve heard it a bunch.  Even if you’ve been an educator for one year, if you’ve assigned an essay, you’ve likely heard it.  In fact, I’m guilty of saying it!  It’s truly hard to get started sometimes, and that is usually the diagnosis: writer’s block.  Invention strategies like freewriting can help:  Just start writing, and the words will come, right?  The idea is that the very act of writing will help you learn what you have to say, or as put by some more famous writers as quoted on Goodreads:

  • “Writing is thinking on paper”  (William Knowlton Zinsser).
  • “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” (E.M. Forster).
  • “I write to discover what I know”  (Flannery O’Connor).
  • “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means” (Joan Didion).

In my last blog post, I wrote about the importance of encouraging revision in Writing Across the Curriculum courses because revising involves making “decisions . . .that help writers discover what they didn’t know they knew and communicate it to the reader in a way that makes sense and matters” (Rios, 2015).  In short, I was saying that revision evokes critical thinking, and we want our students to think critically, yes?

Writing-to-learn emerged in the 1970s as a model of education in which writing became more than a method to help students communicate effectively; it was also a method that Klien (1999) described as helping students “think critically and to construct new knowledge” (p. 203).  Klein’s research, to be fair, actually exposed the inconclusiveness of the writing-to-learn research as of 1999.  He explored the “hypotheses concerning the role of writing in thinking and learning” during the writing process (Table 1) and found each of them valid but lacking in empirical evidence regarding how writing contributes to the construction of knowledge and when.

In his analysis of the cognitive processes involved with each of the writing-to-learn hypotheses, he even argued that because of the “misconceptions that arise wholly from language,” such as the concept of heating being confused with insulation (“warm sweater”) and fertilizer being confused with photosynthesis (“plant food”), freewriting derived from spontaneous language full of misconceived knowledge “may not lead to the revision of students’ existing conceptions” (p. 219), i.e., learning, unless, however, the freewriting involved reflection and critical thinking, which is where the research is today:

Writing is a tool for critical thinking only when one is thinking critically.

Writing is connected to learning only as much as a person knows how to learn.

It’s not automatic.  Writing words does not equate learning.

As a writing tutor who also taught college composition for years, I can hardly keep myself from deleting that line, for I’ve always believed that writing triggers the same brain synapses as learning.  But according to research since Klein such as that of Fry and Villagomez (2012), “the impact writing has on student learning depends on context” (p. 170) such as how experienced the students are with writing-to-learn, whether or not “the writing task required metacognition,” (p. 170) and whether the students received positive instructor feedback to encourage deeper thinking.

So what does this mean for you?

Assigning an essay and encouraging writing as a process sets the stage for learning, but it does not guarantee learning will happen.  You also have to teach students how to use writing to learn, how to think critically.

When your students come to the Writing Center with complete drafts of assignments from your class, and they know they need to revise, but they do not know how or why, or they come with your assignment instructions knowing they need to write a college-level essay but say, “I can’t write,” the problem may not be their writing but rather, their thinking, and it’s not that students can’t think, either.

The assignment itself needs to prompt critical thought. Also, the students need to know that their goal is to learn, not just write in APA format. They need to be metacognitive and think about their thinking as they are writing. Goodwin (2014) suggests you “introduce students to the language of logic and reason, providing them with an approach to analyze their own and others’ thinking” (para. 13).  You don’t want to tell the student what needs to go in every paragraph, for instance, and assignments that rely too heavily on research or ask students a series of questions to answer with research may also stifle self-aware critical thought.

Consider this:  If students have to research first then write their paper, how different is that from the current traditional education in which writing is considered a two-step process: think first; write second?  Students will report on the research as instructed and put their efforts into writing cohesive and clear sentences instead of questioning or reasoning.  They will essentially write an elaborate summary.  Summary has its merits.  It’s fundamental, in fact.  My kindergartener is learning how to summarize.  It shows your understanding of a text, but it doesn’t require you make something of it.  Just saying.

There’s also a difference between writing that communicates a clear and well supported idea and writing that analyzes, evaluates, reflects on, and/or makes sense of content by forming new relationships between ideas.  Writing can be and do both; academic writing should be both clear and critical.  That’s scholarly discourse.  But both are learned, and especially in the lower-level courses, you may need to decide which is more important at the time, academic style or writing-to-learn, for an essay based in reflection or reasoning that encourages critical thinking might not be tidy or conclusive.  It might expose contradictions and leave them unresolved.  It might explore multiple possibilities instead of focusing on one sustained line of thought. But this too is why reflective journals are assigned along with research papers in many composition courses. You might try it.

The purpose of critical thinking is to construct new meaning, discover new relationships, learn.  Writing is an ideal method for critical thinking because through writing, students can reflect, analyze, evaluate, and reason.  So writing remains an effective way for students to make sense of course content. But the goal of the writing task should not be to report the course content back to you—that banking concept of education didn’t work. Remember Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” (1970)? Students learn better when asked to solve problems.

Will students also write better when the purpose is to solve a problem?

That may depend on what we–you and I (speaking on behalf of the Writing Center)–teach them about writing. Always know that the Writing Center is here to help.


Fry, S. W., & Villagomez, A. (2012). Writing to learn: Benefits and limitations. College Teaching, 60, 170-175. doi: 10.1080/87567555.2012.697081

Goodwin, B. (2014). Research says / teach critical thinking to teach writing. Writing: A Core Skill, 71(7), 78-80. Retrieved from

Klein, P. D. (1999). Reopening inquiry into cognitive processes in writing-to-learn. Educational Psychology Review, 11(3), 203-270.

Rios, C. A. (2015). How to make your students’ writing matter–to them and to you. Retrieved from

Table 1. Adapted from Klein (1999):

Klein 1999

Note: Adapted and intended for individual use only.

Why a Plagiarism “Score” can be Misleading

Molly Wright Starkweather, Kaplan University Tutor

Virtual reading

© 2015

Recently on a social media group limited to online faculty members of various institutions, I read a post from a professor who had caught his student plagiarizing. While the post itself was pretty typical, stating how seeing a paper copied verbatim from another paper was making him lose faith in humanity, the comment thread exploded with unusual activity. An anonymous professor slammed the original poster with a series of comments that boiled down to one sentiment: “Shame on you for not failing the plagiarized paper immediately and wasting your time investigating the case in the first place.”

I believe in allowing for appeals in those grey area cases where a paper might not be as plagiarized as it seems. This might sound a little strange to those who have been trained to see either plagiarism or no plagiarism, so let us review the definition of plagiarism and see where there might actually be grey area, especially leading to circumstances where a paper might appear to be plagiarized but actually is not.

Plagiarism is defined by Kaplan University (2014) as “theft of someone else’s ideas or work” (para. 4). In many courses, students demonstrate mastery of skills by completing a research paper, which involves using the ideas and work of others in order to illustrate and explain the points the student is making in the central claim or thesis statement of the paper. The way academic writers distinguish the ideas or words of others from their own original ideas and words is by quotation marks, in-text citations, and reference page citations. In this way, students may incorporate the ideas and even the exact words of previously published sources that might also be paraphrased or also quoted directly by other students, all as part of an original academic discussion.

Many universities subscribe to plagiarism detection software that operates by comparing a student’s paper with all other papers in the software’s repository. Some software programs also can compare the papers with published academic sources and web sites as well. When a student’s work is copied word for word from a paper or a web site, it is very easy to see. The software generates a report on the amount of the paper that is considered unoriginal, or matching up with other papers, published sources, or web sites. At the beginning of the report is a “score” or percentage for how much of the submitted work has unoriginal material in it. The percentage does not prove or disprove the existence of plagiarism on its own, not even at 100%.

All research papers that incorporate outside sources and cite properly are going to generate a percentage on one of these reports. For, many reports return a percentage of at least 10%. Why? Well, because the program will often count the reference page citations as part of the unoriginal material, even if the citation is perfect. This is why the term “plagiarism detector” needs to be read with an emphasis on “detector.” Programs like Turnitin do not prove plagiarism; they merely detect it. If students quote parts of passages once or twice, as they can do in an effective paper, even if those quotations are punctuated and cited perfectly, the quoted material and its citation will be flagged as unoriginal material. In an informative paper, that can bring the score up to 20%. If a student submits the same draft of a paper twice to Turnitin, it can be flagged as a 100% plagiarized paper, even though both submissions were written by the same student.

It is very important when investigating a potential case of plagiarism to review how the plagiarism detection software works and how false positives can be generated. For more on that, please visit the bottom right video resource on our Plagiarism Information Page titled “Understanding Turnitin Reports” ( Feel free to share questions and thoughts about preventing plagiarism or plagiarism detection software in the comment area!



Kaplan University. (2014). Kaplan University’s plagiarism policy. Retrieved from

Including High-Performing Students in Systematic Outreach



Teresa Kelly, Composition Faculty, Kaplan University

Due to the essential nature of writing skills for student success and retention, Composition faculty spend significant time motivating struggling student writers to improve skills and performance.  While all students get feedback of some type on assignments, and many instructors use a constructive feedback method such as the sandwich method or the two plus two template to combine positive reinforcement with constructive advice, interactions outside grading and feedback often focus heavily on struggling students. In order to provide balance between remediation and positive reinforcement, the question becomes how to motivate good student writers to continue to perform well and develop their skills so that all students advance with strong writing skills. The answer is not revolutionary. Using positive reinforcement and a systematic process for praising students who do well makes perfect practical and pedagogical sense.

Many programs often have strong, detailed processes for outreach to struggling student writers but prescribe little if any special interaction with high achieving students writers even though Holder (2007) and other experts on student success identify internal and external motivation as a key indicator of persistence for all students. Highly skilled student writers risk not becoming high-achieving student writers if they do not receive the proper motivation and positive reinforcement. Faculty who focus almost entirely on students who need help risk not establishing a social presence with high performing students – another factor in persistence according to Ivankova and Stick( 200).  Holder (2007) also contends that “perceived emotional support” contributes to the difference between successful and unsuccessful students. Not prescribing additional formal interaction with students who are performing well may deprive them of that support. At the very least, high-performing students may not directly interact with faculty as often, resulting in a sense of dissatisfaction with the course or faculty member – another key factor in student persistence (Ivankova &  Stick, 2005).   Developing a systematic approach that mirrors outreach to struggling student writers allows Composition faculty to apply the idea of positive reinforcement to student writers who demonstrate mastery of Composition skills, good writing habits, and excellent social skills.

Proactive, positive outreach need not overburden already hard-working Composition faculty. Consider these effective but simple strategies based on understanding the benefits of positive reinforcement.

  1. Classwide Praise. Classwide praise involves giving group accolades that acknowledge something a class has done well or an activity that an overwhelming percentage of the class completed. Students who did not master the skill or complete the activity also benefit from this type of communication because they see good work recognized.
  2. A Private “Nice Work”. When an instructor notices a positive action by a student, he or she may send a personal note or email that acknowledges the act and encourages the behavior to continue – the true mark of positive reinforcement. A private chat – face to face or virtual – also works.
  3. Cumulative Performance Acknowledgement. Student writers feel pride when they know their professors see and appreciate how hard they work. One student whose Composition course used the positive communication and reinforcement model noted, “I just wanted to say that I love getting these congratulatory emails! It really makes a person feel proud when…[he or she is] recognized for good work (even at the college level.) [I] haven’t had a teacher like you before. . . Thanks for all your work that you do for us.” These personalized interactions offer congratulations and encouragement to student writers whose overall performance stands out. These interactions can take place via email, note, or individual meeting. This task can be completed weekly after grading, on a periodic basis, or at set intervals such as midterm.
  4. Wall of Appreciation. Student writers – even those who struggle – tend not to be shy about saying thank you to other students who support them. They may reply in discussion with a “Thank You” or give a verbal accolade in the classroom or live session. Many more may contact the other student privately, but such appreciation is not always visible to other students or faculty. Using a tool like Padlet (, an internal discussion forum, or even a corkboard reserved for the purpose encourages students to thank each other publically. Other students may be inspired to post a thank you themselves or to try harder to help others, thereby enhancing class rapport and cohesion.

Even implementing one of the strategies can improve the dynamic of a class and energize the tone of teaching.

The purpose of proactive, positive outreach is not comparable to the maligned “all students get awards” philosophy. Struggling student writers see the praise as an incentive to do better, and those who do improve should be recognized, albeit with the emphasis on continued improvement. The student writers who receive direct, individual positive reinforcement earn it through performance.

Most educators do want students to do well; they just need a more systematic way to communicate their support.  According to Hart (2012), “Almost unanimous agreement exists in the literature that communication with the instructor, motivation, and peer and family support can be used to overcome barriers to persistence.” Composition faculty can encourage and facilitate three out of four factors. A proactive strategy to encourage and reinforce strong learners ticks all three interaction boxes – perhaps heading off the need to remediate and certainly creating a higher sense of satisfaction with the course.




Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11 (1), 19-42.

Holder, B. (2007). An investigation of hope, academics, environment, and motivation as predictors of persistence in higher education online programs. The Internet and Higher Education, 10, 245-260. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2007.08.002

Ivankova, N. V., & Stick, S. L. (2005). Collegiality and community-building as a means for sustaining student persistence in the computer-mediated asynchronous learning environment. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 8(3).


You Want Color With That?

A call for careful color consideration in the classroom

Dr. Tamara Fudge, professor in the School of Business and IT Kaplan University


Color can be exciting and fun, but identifying content in the classroom through “color coding” can be a real problem. In our quest to reach each and every student, we must be very careful where we apply color.

First, you are at this moment looking at what we call an interface; it is the screen that allows the human to interact with technology and the content contained therein. There are universally accepted design rules for this screen, which include accessibility, or developing the interface so that “people with disabilities can perceive, understand, navigate, and interact with the Web, and … they can contribute” (“Introduction to Web Accessibility”, 2005). Visual disabilities are included within this definition.

Using text in various colors can make reading a chore for students who have color blindness, also known as color deficiency. Some colors might look far too light to read easily or might make it difficult to distinguish different shapes or letters (Bailey, 2015). Since there are several kinds of color deficiencies, too, it is impossible to choose one set of colors that will work for everyone. At least 8% of all men of Northern European ancestry have some kind of color deficiency according to the National Institutes of Health; only .05% of women are thus afflicted (as cited in “Color Vision Deficiency”, 2015). While not everyone has that same ancestry, that’s still too many people to ignore, and other populations may have similar percentages.

For the sake of readability, we must also consider the contrast of background color compared to the text color. The W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG) Success Criterion 1.4.3 explains that larger text can be treated somewhat differently than small text, and bold versus regular font styles can also be considered; logo and decorative text does not need to be compliant (“Contrast Minimum: Understanding SC 1.4.3″, 2014). The higher the light/dark contrast, the better the readability, with the caveat that it works best with a light background and dark text. The opposite – light text on dark background – is known to cause eye fatigue (Gabriel-Petit, 2007).

The image below shows some commonly available colors. The yellow is pretty obviously a poor choice for text readability, but a check of the others for WCAG compliance shows that only the dark indigo blue #002060; was fully compliant (Snook, 2015). For people with “normal” color vision, this may be surprising.

©2015 TFudge

©2015 Tamara Fudge

Where could faculty apply color? It’s possible in announcements, discussion forums, documents, and even seminar chats – pretty much anywhere we present words. Should we apply color? The previously stated facts suggest that keeping it simple and using black text on very light background would be the most appropriate choice to ensure content delivery to everyone and to meet the concerns of accessibility. It should also be stated that some institutions have specific guidelines that need to be followed, too. While it is admittedly fun to add color, identifying content through color-coding has the real potential of excluding some of the people we are trying to reach.



Bailey, G. (2015, February). Color blindness. Retrieved from

Color vision deficiency. (2015, January). Retrieved from

Contrast (minimum): Understanding SC 1.4.3. (2014, September 14). Retrieved from

Gabriel-Petit, P. (2007, January 20). Applying color theory to digital displays. Retrieved from

Introduction to web accessibility. (2005, September). Retrieved from

Snook, J. (2015, January 11). Colour contrast check. Retrieved from