Thursday, December 21, 2017

The End is Nigh for Hand-written Exams?

In the age of emailing letters to Santa instead of writing physical letters, Laura McInerney of The Guardian asks "why must students write exams with a pen?". Hardly any of us write letters anymore. Indeed, other than signing your name - when is the last time you actually wrote by hand? I note very few students in my classes actually taking notes with pen and paper. This is unlike when I first came to the College in 2002 when I had to wait to move on slides until students had taken down everything. In fact the only time I see students writing for more than a few seconds is in exams. Some exam papers are extremely difficult for me to read as they are hand-written by students not used to writing for two hours at a time. 

Image source: Huffington Post.

I'd hate to see the skill of hand-writing being completely lost. I agree with Catherine Pearson writing in the Huffington Post about "The Benefits Of Writing With Good Old Fashioned Pen And Paper" - she articulates that as handwriting is slow, it "can be particularly useful during goal setting, brainstorming... — all pursuits that require time and deliberation.". Some famous writers, such as Quentin Tarantino, claim to write all their material by hand as it makes them more creative.

So - should we make students write exams by hand in this day and age? For some subjects, such as programming, practical on-line exams are clearly the best. Many students would prefer to use a computer to write their answers (though I often find that responses are on average a lot shorter than hand-written answer). There are technical challenges, but these are being overcome everyday. Even the great Professor Sugata Mitra (of Newcastle University) "imagines an alternative education system with no need for memorisation or teaching to test" and suggests that a "tablet connected to the internet to be brought in to the examination hall" (see his article in The Guardian "Should students be allowed to use the internet in exams?"). My mind is still open on this, but I see myself favouring computers to be permitted in all exams within a few years. After all, it is the computer that most of us are using at work - not pen and paper!

The good news for old-fashioned lovers of pen and paper is that pen sales are still increasing in the digital age. Sales are expected to reach $20.2 billion worldwide by 2019 according to the Chicago Tribune article "How the pen industry hangs on in a digital world". While this will come under pressure from electronic pens and styluses, the pen is still keeping its "mightier than the sword" status!

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