Handwriting and Examinations

This story from the Daily Telegraph, which claims Oxford finalists are little better than A-Level students, strikes me as a little over the top. Though examiners’ reports are typically well written, they are also an opportunity to vent on frustrations that have built up over a month of demanding work for the examination board. Spelling or factual errors that are seen once a week in a set of tutorials appear far more serious when you’ve been ploughing through thousands of scripts in quick succession.

There is one point, though, that is worth further consideration.

“Handwriting was so poor that “scripts from dyslexic candidates proved a welcome relief because they were typed,” one added.”

Something I’ve noticed, both in invigilating and marking scripts over the last couple of years, is the effect of the increasing reliance on computers in producing written work. The speed at which students can write in exams appears to be slower than was the case even in my generation. I can look around half an hour into an exam, and I’ll almost certainly find a number of students shaking their arms to relieve the pressure of writing.

Similarly, I suspect that my expectations for the amount of writing possible in an hour are quite different from those of my students. Not in the sense that teachers always have higher expectations, but in the sense that students these days are simply not equipped to write that quickly by hand.

I’ve been wondering what is the right way to respond to this. There is a value to closed-room examinations – real life demands an ability to recall information and think clearly under pressure. But the value of a written exam diminishes if you can’t expect sufficient depth in an answer. Allowing for someone to write 15 words a minute in a 50-minute midterm gives about 750 words to play with. That’s long enough to stretch candidates and get a good idea of a candidate’s ability – in other words, it’s just long enough that it’s hard to bluster.

But what if the expectation should be 10 words? 500 words might also be enough to screen the good from the very good. It may, on the other hand, mean it’s easier to hide significant gaps in knowledge. Yet there are also practical constraints on how long an examination can be – often defined by university policies. And the less comprehensive an exam, the tougher it is to reward the good students, or to encourage a real depth of learning.

I’m not sure what the answer is here. It seems impractical to expect students to learn to write quickly in an increasingly digital world. Yet there is a value to handwriting over typing in exams (the greater speed of typing, for example, will encourage students to rush through their answers even more than they do at present). How should I account for this in my teaching?


About Ken Owen

Assistant Professor of History, University of Illinois at Springfield
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