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Walking around a university campus recently – and poking my head into the odd lecture hall – I was struck by how much technology has taken over from pen and paper for the vast majority of students.  Students no longer make notes in exercise books, like I did as a student. Some students barely attend lectures, as they watch the podcasts and read the lecture notes all seemingly independent from any human interaction.

And whilst this shift towards digital learning has been embraced by students, there’s one aspect of university life that hasn’t kept up, and it’s critical to their educational progress.

Many higher education exams are still handwritten as opposed to being computer based assessments. This is especially true for the humanities subjects where students are asked to write long essays during a three hour exam. The ability to structure a sound argument is an important part of the assessment.  And yet completing this crucial task, without the help of basic word processing functionality disadvantages some students significantly.

How hard is it for students to complete their exams, when they are required to handwrite essays and short written answers only every six months or so?  The thought process for writing exams answers online compared to with a pen and paper is vastly different. For starters there isn’t any cut and paste function to allow you to simply reorder content as required. The overuse of online tools has probably trained our thinking to be less structured and less exact than during my university years in the 1990s. Now it is easy to type the conclusion last and totally work backwards with minimal effort. It isn’t necessary to even to be able to spell correctly as the spell checker picks up basic typos.

But alas not with handwritten papers. With handwritten papers, words are crossed out or corrected for everyone to see – leaving a visual record of your work and its creative stages. A visual record remains of all those misspelt and misformed words too.

Interestingly Cambridge University announced in September 2017 a consultation on this topic as part of its digital strategy. They had piloted an exam typing scheme in the history and classics departments after noticing a large increase in illegibility of students’ handwriting.  Whilst other educators are noting the difference in mental challenge when structuring essays on paper compared to on a computer.[i]

This transition of assessment and examinations from traditional paper based exams to online exams is firmly underway at most institutions. And whilst, if you are one of the students that has a strong preference for one assessment mode over another, you can take comfort that everyone on your course is assessed in the same way.

At Speedwell we are seeing an acceleration in the adoption of computer based assessment across higher education institutions – and at the same time, we can hear (perhaps) the collective celebration from the IT literate youngsters of today.

Rob Dear, Speedwell
Updated on 12 September 2017