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Could handwriting bias write off exam chances?

Yes…and no. Daisy Christodoulou finds an apparent bias in marking, but also a number of benefits that learning to handwrite brings to students and adults alike

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Yes…and no. Daisy Christodoulou finds an apparent bias in marking, but also a number of benefits that learning to handwrite brings to students and adults alike

Imagine two essay answers that are identical in every way except for the handwriting: one is written out in a messy scrawl and the other in a flowing cursive. Are the two scripts likely to be treated differently by examiners, even though the content is exactly the same?

The intuitive response from many teachers is to say “yes”. Many of us know what it is like to be struggling through a set of scripts on a Sunday afternoon and to arrive at one written in seemingly undecipherable hieroglyphics. Quite apart from the challenge of actually working out what each word means, it can be hard not to feel a tinge of annoyance at the writer for making a tough job even more difficult.

But is there any evidence to suggest that this intuitive feeling is correct?

In a major review of all kinds of marking bias published in 2005, Michelle Meadows and Lucy Billington found plenty of studies that showed handwriting bias did exist [1]. They also found, however, more modern studies of formal exam marking in which such bias did not exist. Weighing up the findings, they concluded that “on balance the evidence suggests that experienced examiners are not susceptible to the biasing effects of handwriting style and presentation”.

What should teachers take from this? Mainly, that the evidence on the extent of handwriting bias is complex. And while it remains so, we should pose ourselves a question: in the interests of securing consistency and reliability, would it be a good idea to introduce word processing for exam tasks? It would mean a more level playing field for students – as all their work would look the same – and it would make the examiner’s job easier, too.

It would also make logistical sense: currently, many exam boards end up scanning all the paper scripts into a digital system anyway. Getting pupils to write the answers on screen in the first place would cut out a lot of the administrative hassle involved in getting question papers and answer scripts to and from schools.

Such a change would mirror changes happening in the world of work and in wider society. Research shows that most adults now rarely handwrite anything lengthy in their day-to-day lives, so requiring teenagers to handwrite extensive scripts can feel archaic. In the US, the 2013 Common Core curriculum requires pupils to learn how to print and use a keyboard, but not to learn joined-up handwriting.

Effects on the brain

People have been predicting the end of handwritten exams for a while now. Given the ubiquity of keyboards and screens, and the declining relevance of handwriting, is the time finally right?

Before we leap into making such a change, it’s worth considering the educational impact. If all exams did go on screen, we would even further reduce the status of handwriting, along with the time children spend practising it. And that could be very detrimental.

There is growing evidence to suggest that handwriting is of value both to children learning to read and write, and to adults who want to take notes. Typing, it appears, does not have these same benefits.

For example, in 2012, a study by researchers at Indiana University asked young children who were learning to read and write to form letters in three different ways: writing the letter freehand, tracing a dotted outline of the letter, and typing it on a keyboard [2].

They then placed the pupils in a brain scanner and showed them the letter again. The children who wrote the letter freehand showed increased activation in the areas of the brain that adults use to read and write. The researchers speculated that the act of writing a letter helps to build the mental representation of it in ways that typing does not do.

Similarly, a group of French researchers found that pupils who learned to write by hand had a better recognition of letters than those who learnt with a keyboard. The same researchers followed up with a study that required adults to learn Bengali or Tamil letters, and found a similar result [3].

Handwriting appears to bring benefits to adults in other ways, too. Studies on note-taking have shown that when we take notes on a computer or laptop, we are able to capture more than if we write by hand. But this apparent benefit can actually turn into a hindrance.

A study by Mueller and Oppenheimer in 2014 asked some students to take lecture notes with a laptop, and others to write notes by hand [4].The laptop group wrote more, but they tended to transcribe what the lecturer said word for word. The longhand group wrote less, but they made more of an effort to organise their notes meaningfully. Afterwards, when the researchers tested both groups on their conceptual understanding of the lecture, the longhand group performed better. It appears that taking notes by hand forces you to think about the content more than typing them does.

Of course, none of this is an argument against using word processors in exams. But examinations are one of the last places in society in which we have to write by hand for any extended length of time. If that changed, it is not too far-fetched to imagine that pupils would have less practice at handwriting, with the result that their skills would deteriorate.

We might want to make sure that if such a change does happen, pupils still have the chance to learn and practise writing by hand. Unfortunately, that may mean you still have to mark near-illegible papers on a Sunday.

Daisy Christodoulou is director of education at No More Marking and the author of Making Good Progress? and Seven Myths About Education. She tweets @daisychristo

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