Brandon Robshaw: It's time to ditch written exams for students and go digital

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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 exams in question are modules of the AS and A2 papers, and they continue into February, in subjects ranging from archaeology to travel and tourism; yet this is no more than a precursor, an amuse-gueule to the grande bouffe in the summer, when literally millions of students, at GCSE, A-level, and indeed degree level will undergo the same ordeal. This ritual has gone on, unchanged in essence, since Cambridge University first introduced written exams in 1792. But isn't it time we re-examined the whole notion of examinations?

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. Nobody does that any more. The teachers and academics who will be marking the papers don't do it. Professional writers – novelists, playwrights, journalists – don't do it. Pens are for postcards, diary entries, phone messages, making notes, and doodling in boring meetings. For extended, continuous writing, we use computers.

I last sat a written exam in 2005 – a three-hour paper which formed part of an MA. (All the other examined elements, including the dissertation, were written on a computer, as you'd expect in this day and age). I'm from a generation used to writing with a pen – indeed I didn't use a computer until I was an adult – but at the end of three hours my hand felt as though it was dropping off, and my wrist still ached the following day. Spare a thought, then, for the digital natives of today, who are expected to survive a blitz of handwritten exams on which their academic future depends. We're so used to it that we don't see it as pointless and sadistic. But that's what it is.

The advantages of switching to a computerised system leap out at one. Not only would it 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. Standards would (genuinely) rise – no one writes at their best in an unfamiliar medium. And how much easier it would be for the poor examiners: no more trying to decode illegible scripts that look as if a colony of drunken ants has paddled in ink and marched across the page.

It's not easy to think of a convincing reason why exams should not be written on computers as of right now. Expense? But most schools and colleges have rooms full of computers ready for use. Students might cheat using the internet? Disable it. Students might sneakily use the spellcheck facility? Switch it off – or, better, let them use it.

That's what it's for. As someone who's marked exams in the past, I would welcome a break from "belive" and "percieve" and "enviroment" and "buisness" and "solider", and tactical illegibility in the middle of a word designed to conceal uncertainty over the spelling.

Moreover, old-style written exams placed a premium on memory – which is understandable, given how difficult and time-consuming it used to be to access information. But this is no longer the case. Information is now available at the click of a mouse. Perhaps exams should be redesigned to exploit this; students could be allowed limited use of the internet as a research tool, with the highest marks going to those who are able to quote from, analyse and evaluate sources – a skill every bit as important as a good memory these days.

There are, at last, signs of change. AQA exam board has been researching ways of replacing the old system for the last two years, and a very few exams, such as the multiple choice paper in AQA GCSE science, are already available as online papers, though this option hasn't yet been taken up very widely by schools. Some Open University courses have an end-of-course assessment which is written on a computer and submitted and marked electronically. It's not done under timed conditions, but there's no reason in principle why it shouldn't be. Most significantly of all, on 17 December 2009 Ofqual's chief regulator, Kathleen Tattersall, published a report acknowledging the necessity for digitalising exams. The timescale, though, is slow: in her speech introducing the report, Tattersall anticipated that e-assessment would be fully in place within 10 years.

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.

The writer teaches philosophy A-level at a further education college and is an associate lecturer with the Open University