Different type of problem

Using computers in exams would not make things fairer, says Tim Birkhead

April 15, 2010

At the end of a tutorial some years ago, I kept a student back after the others had left, as I often do, to tell them how good their essay was. However, while the essay was excellent, the handwriting was appalling, so I said that a bit more care with the handwriting wouldn't go amiss, particularly under exam conditions. Most undergraduates take such advice with a grateful smile. But not this one. After a moment's pause, he looked me straight in the eye and coolly said: "If you cannot read my handwriting, then the university ought to be employing someone who can." Then he left.

On another occasion, a colleague came up to a group of us waving an examination script, ranting about its content. Huffing and puffing, he sat down next to me and proceeded to read the essay aloud (OK, this may not be politically correct today, but this was years ago). Certainly the essay as he spoke it made little sense, but looking over his shoulder my mental reading of the script gave an utterly different interpretation. It was as though we were singing from different hymn sheets.

Because of such concerns, there has been a move recently to think about letting undergraduates complete their written examinations on word processors. The logic is that it is unfair to make them put pen to paper (rather than it being easier for examiners to mark word-processed text). The main thrust of the pro-word-processors-in-examinations argument seems be that since no one (including undergraduates) writes anything longhand any more, and because all other assessed work (for example, coursework) is word-processed, having to handwrite examination essays is unfair. The second main argument is that students generally obtain higher marks in tests when they word-process their answers (see Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 2008, 24: 39-46).

There are additional arguments. Planning and composing an essay are easier on a word processor. Word processing allows students to revise (and improve) their text more easily and typing allows students to write more. In a sense that's obvious, and I was reminded of this recently while at Oxford station one cold morning.

I was sitting on one of those perforated metal seats designed to drain every last calorie from your body, next to a young woman working on her laptop. I had never seen typing like it: all digits of both hands moved in an effortless blur across the keyboard creating a torrent of error-free text. I was spellbound and then, to add to my amazement, she turned to face me (without a pause in her typing) and said: "You're Tim Birkhead aren't you?" Psychic as well, I thought, until she added: "You used to teach me when I was an undergraduate."

My own typing is primitive. At a very young age I learned by relentlessly abusing my Dad's Imperial Good Companion (circa 1932) manual typewriter, and the single-finger strategy I perfected as a child is one of several neotenous traits I have retained. Occasionally, I will use a thumb to push a shift key, but basically I'm a pecker. A rapid pecker, but nowhere near as fast as my ex-undergraduate.

What about the costs of using word processors in exams? One is the difficulty of having a system that would also allow students to draw spider diagrams, cross sections of the brain, graphs or whatever. Switching between writing and drawing on a computer is possible, but clunky. More important is the expense of providing a secure system so that if undergraduates use their own laptop they cannot access the web or any of those essays they prepared earlier. The financial costs of a university providing computers for exams could be considerable and the logistics would not be trivial. Any system would have to be completely reliable: "Please, I've just accidentally deleted my entire essay!"

But what do undergraduates themselves think? I asked my first-year tutees assuming that they all loved technology, but to my surprise they were horrified by the idea. They had two major criticisms. First, they thought the sound of hundreds of clicking keyboards would be distracting. (No problem, they simply bring earplugs.) They also thought the sight of candidates who, like my ex-student in the station, can type with great speed and facility would be demoralising. (This criticism is also easily dismissed, on logical grounds: on average, there will be just as many students who type like me, with one finger, and they would be an inspiration.)

My tutees agreed that computers were great for disabled students with genuine writing difficulties, but from their own point of view, whether computers were a good idea depended very much on their typing proficiency.

However, at a recent meeting where the issue of computers in exams was discussed, difference in typing proficiency was quickly dismissed as a reason for not introducing computers for examinations. The solution was to introduce typing courses for first-year students. Great. Along with how to read, how to think and how to get out of bed in time for a nine o'clock lecture.

Handwriting courses? As far as I am aware, there has never been any discussion about the fairness or unfairness of students being able to write at different speeds, or their ability to write legibly. Introducing computers for exams would - at considerable expense - simply replace one problem with another.

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