Students to use laptops in exams to avoid 'strain' of pen and paper

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DISCUSS: is it a burdensome task which unfairly penalises stressed undergraduates? Or a dependable method which has proven successful over the centuries?

One of Scotland's leading universities is considering breaking with the age-old tradition of forcing students to write their exam answers in longhand by allowing them to use their own laptops.

Senior officials at Edinburgh University believe it is unfair to expect undergraduates to resort to pens and paper during critical assessments when most of their coursework is done using a keyboard.

The institution currently allows divinity students to type on their own computers in exams and a consultation has now been launched to consider extending the "e-exams" across other subjects.

The plan has won the backing of student leaders, who said it acknowledges that "times are changing" and would lessen the strain on students.

But the university said safeguards would have to be built into the system to prevent cheating, such as software that prevents access to other networks during exams.

The consultation at Edinburgh is being led by Dai Hounsell, professor of higher education at the university and vice-principal for academic enhancement.

He says students today face a "dual strain" in providing handwritten exam answers: both physiologically, as they are unused to extended bouts of writing by hand; and strategically, given they plan and write essays on computers.

"We've got to look at alternatives to the handwritten exam," Hounsell said. "Looking ahead ten years from now, I'm not sure there will be any long handwritten answers in exams in certain subjects, but how we get there from here isn't easy."

Any change is expected to impact mainly on courses in the humanities and social sciences, where undergraduates predominantly answer using the written word.

"The scheme doesn't apply so much to science or engineering subjects where students have to use complicated diagrams and mathematical formulae. There isn't technology at the moment to allow them to do that via computer," said Hounsell.

Key to any overhaul, he added, was the approval of students, given the significance of exam results as part of their overall degrees. "We don't want to put students' futures at risk by experimenting, as there are technical things which can go wrong. There could be a power failure."

Edinburgh already has the ability to allow small numbers of students to use computers during their exams. Its Adam House building, for example, has 63 exam seats with individual power supplies, while a dedicated software package known as Exam4 is available for students to download onto their laptops. The software, used in US universities such as Yale, takes regular snapshots of a student's answers during an exam to prevent work being lost and can "lock down" a computer to block access to other applications.

The set-up is available to undergraduates at the School of Divinity, where pilot studies found "no demonstrable difference" in the scores given to those students who typed their answers as opposed to writing them longhand.

The school continues to offer students the option of using laptops, collecting their final answers at the end of an exam using USB sticks. However, the take-up stands at less than 10 per cent, although just over 50 per cent of students said they would consider the method in the future.

Nora Mogey, head of learning services at the university, explained: "A lot of students are not yet confident enough to make that step in a high-stakes exam situation. They don't feel they've had enough practice in writing on a computer with a time limit in a high-pressure environment, and say they think better with a pen in their hand than they do at a keyboard."

However, Jennifer Cadiz, depute president of NUS Scotland, said the fact students were being offered the option was to be welcomed.

She said: "It's great to see universities recognising that times have changed and students do now work differently. Exams can be a really stressful time for students and offering the flexibility to complete exams in the way that works best for them will undoubtedly help."

No other major Scottish universities are intending to follow in Edinburgh's footsteps as yet, while the Scottish Qualifications Authority said it has no plans to roll them out on a general basis.

The Debate


AHMED ASIF: third-year student at Edinburgh Napier University

There is a range of emotions that overcome you after leaving the examination room; joy that it is over and worry in that you have not written enough because of time shortage. There is also the literal pain in the hands from pages of frantic writing.

Laptops offer students the opportunity to get more written in the time frame as it has been proven that those who have a laptop can fill more pages than those without.

Students without laptops face the challenge of not only submitting their answers within a tight time limit but also ensuring the writing is readable, otherwise marks are usually deducted.


JANE MOLINEUX: graphologist

Handwriting develops from childhood along with a person's character, and their style gradually matures and becomes their own from the age of about 11 or 12. Should it not develop through use and practice, a young person starting out in life could well be left showing a childish personality to the world.

I consider that the loss of handwriting skills, which would surely happen should computers take over in schools and universities, would be detrimental. Perhaps not to universities, who would be able to process exams faster, but to others who make use of character analysis in job selection, psychiatry or police work.