Down with written exams!

I want to marry this opinion piece and have its babies.

In UK paper The Independent yesterday, Brandon Robshaw writes that It’s time to ditch written exams for students and go digital. I couldn’t agree more, if for no other reason than:

It seems obvious, but is seldom remarked, that students are being obliged to do something that they never do or need to do in real life: write with a pen for two or three hours non-stop.

To be honest, I don’t even care if exams don’t go digital…but putting an end to pen-and-paper exams must surely become a priority as the skills of extended handwriting and unaided recall of extensive amounts of facts go the way of the dinosaurs.

Robshaw argues that a computerised examination system would not only “be far kinder to students, it would also be far more useful, requiring them to employ a skill that is used outside the exam hall.”  Amen to that. The most salient point for me, however, is not the usual evangelising about digital learning.  In my experience, while many teachers can be convinced of the benefits of using digital technologies, the reality of poor funding and resources at both the school and system level make this utopia seem like a distant dream.  Or, at best, an unholy uphill battle and minefield of ‘teething problems’ that we’re just too tired to contemplate.

No, for me the point that really needs to drive this campaign is that as extended handwritten work becomes more and more antiquated, the continued use of pen-and-paper exams becomes an increasing barrier to learning, as well as a significant equity issue.  Fact:

no one writes at their best in an unfamiliar medium.

How can we, in good conscience, continue to set our students up for failure in this way?  If we know that students are not going to do their best in a written exam, why do we persist with them?  Especially when the impact is going to be felt most heavily by students with already low literacy skills.  It’s no exaggeration to say that

Change can’t come too soon. The present system is akin to forcing candidates to write on slates with chalk, or chip away at stone tablets with chisels.

Thanks to @principalspage for the link to this article.  It made my day!


  1. #1 by Jan on January 15, 2010 - 3:14 pm

    Agreed. Pen and paper exams need to be phased out. Sooner rather than later.
    But it can only start with the 2009 Year9 cohort. There is a guarantee with this cohort, on a statewide basis, that every student has access to:
    a) a computer;
    b) equity with respect to the hardware and software; and
    c) similar opportunities to develop and practise skills related to using their computers.

    Love the black and white shot of the inside of our hall at MFHS. Sadly, after the fire, it will ever look that way again.

  2. #2 by darcymoore on January 15, 2010 - 4:35 pm

    I loved the opening missive:

    “All this week, all over the country, students have been sitting in serried ranks, crouched over desks, manually driving biros over screeds of virgin paper, to the accompaniment of the stifled yawns and squeaking shoes of invigilators.”

    The kind of exams the Western World forces on citizens are so anachronistic that one suspects an uprising could be coming our way.

    I agree with your sentiments Kelli, that it is not so much that the exams are not digital but that they should have some relevance to skills needed outside the exam hall.

  3. #3 by paralleldivergence on January 15, 2010 - 4:41 pm

    I’ve just got one question:

    Is this in the test?

  4. #4 by Ben Jones on January 15, 2010 - 5:16 pm

    Dear Managing Director of University Admissions Centre

    I would like to first thankyou for supplying us with data on student performance in the High School Education System.

    This year we have decided that we no longer require your data. This year we will be personally interviewing students and assessing them on real world criteria including skills, knowledge and attitudes. We have already sent a letter to schools asking students to forgo the UAC forms and submitt a professional portfolio of there education.

    Kindest Regards

    The Association of Universities

    Simple economics demand will always control supply. However it is essential that we lobby to make effect from the supply side the critical point for us is that if we call for ‘digital exams’ the answer may just be multiple choice answered with the click of a mouse and the same questions answered with the type of the board. We must call for real world assessment in digital or otherwise.

    Just my thoughts 🙂


  5. #5 by Paula Madigan on January 15, 2010 - 7:24 pm

    I totally agree with the need to phase out hand written exams. At HSC marking this year the number of virtually unreadable scripts multiplied significantly. Why? Because they don’t write their essays and assessment tasks – they type them. Even the skills involved in planning, composing and editing are different with typing compared to hand writing. Strudies have consistently shown that typing their work actually improves the quality of their responses, so why are we holding them back? Why do we expect tasks to be typed if we are expecting them to write effectively (but only in the exams)?

    We will (?) need to make sure they can all type at a mimimum speed for faireness and of course there are the logistics problems mentioned here but maybe n 4 years time those problems cann be ironed out ready for the first L4L graduates. Her’s hoping…

  6. #6 by Simon Borgert on January 16, 2010 - 7:37 pm

    A great post Kelli.

    While we are looking at the manner in which students undertake the exams perhaps it would be useful to look at the type/style/meaning of this “assessment” that is the final HSC exam. I agree with Darcy – the final exam (why have one?) should have relevance outside the exam hall, the end of school should do more than just pander to the admission requirements of universities (partiuclarly when only about 20% of our Yr 12 cohort go to Uni.

    Allowing technology makes it far more real and could put a nail in the most common reason the naysayers are still using.

    Paula, we can teach them to type – probably more easily than to write fast. my handwriting has always been appalling so my mother made me learn how to touch type when I was 10 (hated it then, but love it now!)

    Bring it on!

  7. #7 by Troy on January 17, 2010 - 6:01 am

    Once, in the deep dark past, it must have been 2003, I was ordered by my head teacer, to make all assessment tasks for my year 12 class handwritten. I ignored the directive.
    Aside, once my father hired someone by making them write something. He has told me that story since I was about 10. Now he has a laptop on his desk, logs into the RTA website and spends time researching new methods for fixing cars. If he didn’t use technology to fix cars, people wouldn’t come back. Yet, some teachers in some places (some times with experience of the lack of funding etc) will refuse to use technology to enhance education.

    But while that final exam stays firmly entrenched in 1967 (I think that’s a good year, pop culture changed, from the Beatles ‘I want to hold you hand’, to their Revolver album, yet education has been, generally, systematically, remained stagnet) the teaching will stay directed at that final outcome. Assessment and learning, or learning and assessment needs to change from an early age. Some teachers will not change their methods while the assessment remains the same.

    Interesting Paula, “We will (?) need to make sure they can all type at a mimimum speed for faireness…” Do we assure fairness in written exams? I’d prefer portfolio type tasks, with an oral and aural elements, that considers understanding, not just knowledge. I know in my school female students make up about 80% of Advanced English students and generally, males do not write as quickly or as neatly.

  8. #8 by Libbie on January 19, 2010 - 12:06 am

    I tend to agree with this more:

    …but putting an end to pen-and-paper exams must surely become a priority as the skills of extended handwriting and unaided recall of extensive amounts of facts go the way of the dinosaurs.

    Tossing pen-and-paper exams in favour of typing them out on computers is only half-way there. How exams are conducted should be modernised as well.

    I don’t see any real value in computerising exams if students are still expected to memorise passages of text for their assessments. Sure exam papers they might be more legible, but if you’re really bad at memorising quotes, whether or not you’re staring at a blank piece of paper or a blank screen makes no difference.

    I hope that digitisation of assessments and wider introduction of computers to classrooms doesn’t mean the end of (pen-and-paper) writing as a compulsory skill that should be picked up in school though. It’d be sad to lose something like that and you should have backup plans in case of power failures :p

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