Handwritten exams? We may as well bring back the quill

Our method of examining is 19th century at best – and impervious to any attempt to adapt it to digital technology, says Bernard Trafford

Quill pen, in bottle of ink

Written exams should be phased out by 2025: so says a report by not-for-profit educational-technology body Jisc

You’d expect Jisc to promote the concept of computerised examinations, though you might have difficulty swallowing its extravagant claim that they’d be more “authentic”, encouraging “the learner to integrate knowledge and skills, and act on knowledge”. 

Nonetheless, I can’t disagree with Jisc’s central tenet that pen and paper tests “can appear irrelevant outside the academic world”.

Nowadays I rarely pick up a pen (no longer a fountain pen, either, but the ubiquitous ballpoint: never bought, always provided at meetings, hotels, wherever). 

I use one to do crosswords (dinosaur that I am, I dislike doing them online). I still scribble shopping lists and scrawl my name on birthday cards. 

Otherwise, I physically write only in a letter or card expressing deepest sympathy.

Sitting candidates down with pen and paper

As long as 20 years ago, I recall a former pupil complaining that, at Cambridge, he was required to word-process (as we called it, back then) every single essay, but to handwrite his exams.

He was frustrated by that mismatch, and particularly by the impossibility in exams of doing his usual painstaking redrafting. 

Perhaps Cambridge was (and is still?) clinging, as most of our entire public-examination system does, to the apparent belief that sitting candidates down en masse with pen and paper somehow injects rigour. 

That formality hasn’t changed in centuries: China’s imperial civil service first held written entrance exams two millennia ago. Tradition affords a satisfying hint of, well, standards

Still, tradition to one person is old-fashionedness to another. In Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On, a feisty young teacher says, “Headmaster, I think you’ll find your standards are out of date.” 

The sage replies (preferably in a Sir John Gielgud voice), “Of course they’re out of date. That’s what makes them standards.”

Ballpoint pens: the pinnacle of technology

At least, you may say, we’ve moved beyond quill pens and parchment. Indeed we have. Nowadays we’re so high-tech that ballpoints are allowed – indeed compulsory. 

But the ink must be black, and all answers must be written within the box on the answer sheet: requirements imposed to ensure that exam boards’ far-from-flexible technology can scan them and ping them around the examiners, who must nowadays mark and annotate handwritten answers on a computer screen.

That’s a far cry from using technology for the actual task of examining: it’s merely a mild updating of photocopying and faxing to speed up the marking process. For all the difference it makes to them, candidates might just as well use a quill.

But that’s the point. The real problem here lies in the fact that our method of examining is 19th-century at best, and unsuitable for administration with 21st-century tools. 

The Jisc report envisages a very different approach to assessment, which would be (to use their five principles) authentic, accessible, appropriately automated, continuous and secure.  

Jisc would arguably take us back to a previous age, in which teachers – those who know the student best – would make dispassionate and objective judgements over time (continuous assessment, anyone?).

These would then be validated (or questioned) by minimal formal testing, which might indeed be operated via technology. 

Impervious to attempts at adaptation

But that brings us to the fundamental problem. We’ve lost all trust in schools and teachers, the trust on which Jisc’s model would have to rely.

By contrast, we have a system where every aspect of every subject course must be examined. The resulting exam structure is demonstrably close to collapsing under its own weight, while the pressure on everyone involved is colossal. 

The entire system is impervious to any attempt at adapting it to the digital technology with which we routinely run every aspect of our personal lives and of our institutions. 

These institutions include the very schools in which we perpetuate an assessment ritual that would be recognisable – indeed familiar – to the chief of staff to Emperor Wen of Han in 165BC.

Hell, we might as well go back to quill pens. At least they’d add a bit of quaint character to the whole dismal process.

Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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