Enough with the Handwritten Exams, Universities Say. But Commenters Say Otherwise.

This article in the Times, brought on the 4th of November, approaches a sensitive subject – handwriting.

The basis of the article is that fact that more and more universities are implementing some form of digital exam, meaning students type their papers and use on-screen examination instead of writing them by hand on paper.

Opposing a possible discontinuation of handwriting altogether, the main argument put forth in the article is reasonable, citing evidence that handwriting might have some positive side effects: “There is evidence that learning to write by hand speeds up learning the alphabet, is associated with absorbing information in classes better, and helps to develop dexterity.”

Just as reasonable is the counter argument for parting with handwriting, at least in the circumstances of exams: “…universities try to reduce their use of paper while also making it easier for academics to mark students’ work without having to struggle to read their often poor handwriting”.

We might add that aligning the actual learning circumstances with the testing circumstances will be a significant advantage as well, since a rapidly increasing number of courses use some form of digital learning scenario.


The Less Reasonable Arguments

What is less reasonable is the amount of anecdotal evidence and just plain nonsense several places in the comments. We will take the time to address a few of them here:

While the love of fountain pens and luxurious ballpoints is understandable, it is also very much romanticised. Yes, it is a very aesthetic tool, but there are fewer fond memories of the ink stained fingers, sheets smeared to the point of being unusable or the cramp that often possesses your hand after two hours of continued writing – which is exactly the scenario that makes up an exam.

And yes, more mature students might experience that they initially type slower than they can handwrite. We recognise this as a legitimate issue, but turning things around, how many students are currently able to type faster than they can write by hand? The playing field will never be completely level on this point.

But that fact is that more students type than handwrite: 64,4 percent of UK university students use digital tools, rather than pen and paper, to take notes. Why would they prefer pen and paper in an exam?

And lastly, if we reach the point where we “run out of power” as a society, we sincerely propose that exam papers are not the primary priority and that clinging to a fountain pen will bring neither sustenance nor salvation.


Writing Exams Is About More than Pen and Paper

Of course, there are other arguments present, both for and against, and some valid points on both sides. But it begs the question why it is always pen and paper that becomes the lynchpin in the debate on digital exams?

Switching from paper-based exams to on-screen examination will impact far more than just the medium through which students answer exam questions. Changing from pen and paper to typed exams affects both the administration and assessment of the exams, and it can even change the creation of exams itself, allowing for new ways to conduct exams and support learning opportunities. It can propose both challenges and opportunities and will require universities to change some of their other practices as well to be successful.

A choice of how to write exams is more than a choice between keyboards or fountain pens. Let the debate reflect this.



If you want a broader perspective on what digital assessment as a whole can offer educational institutions, you can book a free demonstration.



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