Will Handwritten Exams Soon be a Thing of the Past?

If you type out your lecture notes, you soon might be one step ahead of the competition – some universities are now opting for the use of computers, instead of the more-traditional pen-and-paper, for exams.

Rather than “Please put your pens down!”, invigilators soon might be shouting “Please close your laptops!”

The Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge are now trialling the move from pen to processor, despite some controversy over whether spell-checker should be allowed.

Simon Kent, Director of Learning and Teaching at Brudel University, said the use of computers and spelling/grammar check would not detract from the value of the assessment.

He told The Times:

“In the real world, students will have access to spell-checkers in their everyday work, so it is reasonable to allow them to use a spell-checker in the examination. We don’t award degrees for good spelling. Of course if the spelling and grammar become so bad that the answer is difficult to understand, then this would impact on the grade.”

The increasing illegibility of student’s handwriting has prompted over 60% of universities to start using “e-exams” in at least a few modules, whist one in five have introduced them into entire departments, according to the survey by the Heads of eLearning Forum.

The use of laptops to take lecture notes has made it increasingly difficult for examiners to read hand written exam scripts according to Sarah Pearsall, a senior lecturer at Cambridge’s history faculty.

She told the Daily Telegraph: “As a faculty we have been concerned for years about the declining handwriting problem. There has definitely been a downward trend.”

Dai Hounsell, a professor of higher education at the University of Edinburgh, told the Scotsman that students face two problems when hand-writing exams: they are not physiologically used to long periods of writing by hand, and structuring essays on paper creates a different mental challenge to writing on a computer.

This embrace of using laptops in exams comes as Eric Mazur, the Harvard academic who is famed for being the father of the “flipped classroom”, encouraged his students to bring their devices into exams.

He revealed to Times Higher Education that he even urged students to “look up whatever [they] want, whenever [they] want”, in an attempt to test their analytical abilities rather than their memorising skills.

However, the initiative has been met by criticism. Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said that, by allowing spell-checking and typing in exams, they are ‘de-skilling’ young people, conditioning them to lose their manual dexterity.

The trial has also faced its fair share of problems. Some students have arrived with uncharged laptops, and one student even began to watch a wrestling match after finishing their exam, which distracted other students.

Although many universities are not changing their examination methods to this extent, the general trend shows a willingness within universities to cater to different learning styles, and not just stick to tradition.

Tali Fraser

Image: [Pixabay]