/ Technology

Should exam halls ditch pen and paper for laptops or tablets?

Student in exam hall with laptop

Apparently, some of today’s students are complaining that they’re so unused to writing by hand that they can’t keep it up for a three hour exam. So, are laptop- or tablet-friendly exam halls the answer?

I finished my university exams over six years ago, and I’ve only just about worked the cramp out of my hands since. I’ll readily admit; it wasn’t fun to sit in a drafty sports hall scribbling my mental ramblings for three hours.

That said, I never thought to question the process as anything other than what’s expected at the end of a semester. It seems students these days are bolder in standing up for their beleaguered digits, as increasingly universities are bowing to requests for laptops to be allowed in exam halls so students can type rather than write by hand.

Is the pen mightier?

I can see one advantage to this option, but that’s only because I felt a great swell of pity for any examiner forced to try and understand my handwriting. In the six years since I finished uni, this has further devolved into a rudimentary hieroglyphic known to me and only me.

Apparently laptops can be made exam-ready with some handy software which disables any capacity for cheating (blocking access to any other files, for example), so the system should be just as fair as writing by hand.

The main question is, in this world of keyboards and touchscreens, does a three hour hand written exercise actually have any relevance to the world of work that students will (hopefully) be moving on to?

Still a place for handwriting… for now

For me, I’d argue that there’s still a place for the pen in general, but probably not in university exam halls. After three years of delivering essays that had to be typed up to exact specifications (right down to the font and line spacing), it was curiously anachronistic to go back to writing an exam by hand at the very end of the course.

Even one of my lecturers admitted that he thought the entire exercise was pointless and students should only really be judged by their year-round performance and dissertation. Saying that, I quite fondly remember comparing ‘writer’s claws’ with my classmates as we stepped out of the exam halls and tried our best to lift a celebratory pint glass with our mangled hands.

Since starting work, ‘writer’s claw’ has been replaced by ‘typer’s wrist’, not to mention elbow, shoulder, neck, eyes and all the other body parts that suffer from a deskbound work life.

For me, the pen still matters, and I’d never advocate dropping handwriting as an essential skill to promote throughout schooling. I still love to receive a written letter, and tell myself off for not writing them more often. I’ve made my way through more notepads than I can count in my years at work, and learning to scribble like mad when you’re taking notes in a hurry is a skill that’s never left me.

Fond as I am of writing by pen or pencil, I’ll concede that a laptop- or tablet-led exam isn’t the worst idea in the world. But I dread to think what it would feel like to wake up on the morning of an exam to find that you hadn’t charged your computer overnight…

Would you support laptops or tablets in exam halls?

No – students should have to use pen and paper (45%, 113 Votes)

Maybe – it depends on the exam/subject (34%, 86 Votes)

Yes – it’s time to move into the 21st Century (20%, 51 Votes)

Total Voters: 253

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Profile photo of wavechange

This is an interesting topic, Rich, and hopefully we might get some input from students and recent graduates. I am amused by the survey asking if it’s time to move into the 21st century. We should have been asking this question in the 20th century.

At the university where I worked until recently, disabled students were offered the option of using a computer for their exams. Not many chose to do this, but some were very keen on this option even though it meant drawing diagrams on paper, to accompany the answers.

There are resource implications for providing every students with simultaneous access to computers for an exam and some lecturers are opposed to dealing with lots of computer files and marking on the screen.

I do not know the answer, but by the 90s I had already become less than keen on handwriting and would do drafts of handwritten documents on the computer and then copy them from the screen! I still do this, though the only handwritten letters I write are those expressing sympathy following a death.

To avoid cheating it is best to provide a computer that has no users’ files on the hard drive, remove internet access and disable input (e.g. from USB, CD/DVD drives, Bluetooth). Let students use their own computer and trying to cheat could take priority over doing well in the exam.

If I was a university student I would be pushing to be allowed to use a computer in exams and tests. Perhaps it is right to stick with handwriting at school and college, because handwriting still has its uses.

Profile photo of Florence Buswell

Is there a way to disable internet access easily on laptops and tablets? I’d question how easy it would be to cheat if you brought a laptop or tablet into an exam – I remember how vigilant my teachers and exam invigilators were with us when we were just using paper and pens.

Profile photo of wavechange

You could try to disable Internet access but that simply presents a challenge for those determined to cheat. I cannot see any reason why a student should use their own computer. If they have a disability and use special software, this can be provided on a desktop machine managed by the institution. The mobile phone and other electronic devices pose great problems for invigilators.

I expect that we will soon see a move to exams that allow students to make use of online resources, but these exams would test higher level skills such as synthesis and evaluation rather than knowing or being able to access information.

Mikhail says:
1 February 2012

I’m surprised about the voting results. I always thought that universities have to teach students how to apply their knowledge in situations close to reality.

The current system of examination tests nothing apart from your memory and this is really sad and stupid. Make the questions more difficult, but give to students all the advantages of the 21st century, including the Internet, Google books, online databases, etc. Information changes all the time in all aspects of life and business. Teaching students something that was accurate in a certain period of time is absolutely idiotic (except History). I remember a couple of years ago my exam work was marked down because instead of using information from the recommended book I used up-to-date information from the Internet that I read the day before the exam. I couldn’t believe that it was happening. Therefore, I can’t say anything good about the education system.

The status of our economy is a good example of my words, we are governed by the people who have learned a certain number of ‘tools’ (fiscal polices) some time ago, unfortunately, nobody taught them how to think out of the box, therefore they can’t come up with a better plan than moving eggs from one basket to another. I’m also sure that for some percentage of the population my words will call nothing more but the anger, unfortunately, in every system, there is a small percentage of the population satisfied with their being, but every year the number of unemployed students goes up by 2% and nowadays graduate unemployment is at the highest for over a decade. The government response – increase of tuitions fees = fewer students = better unemployment stats.

Profile photo of ArgonautoftheSeas

A. In US, certain professional exams (taken at graduate or
post-graduate level) have four or five possible answers supplied
only one of which is correct, you merely tick the correct one;
use of computer seems ideal.

B. Certain questions require a short, sharp and fairly precise
answer originating from you, again use of computer seems ideal
but maybe not.

C. But not as to essay type answers required of in the same
exam, old-fashioned pen and paper seems more appropriate
IMO.(allows for a bit of waffling so beloved of students that
experienced examiners can smell a mile off!).

D. Internet to be disabled in all cases and of course no
mobiles around (or hearing aids unless bona fide, or any
other portable electronic devices of any

Peter G says:
3 February 2012

When students spend all year typing notes and essays on their computer it does not make sense to demand that in exams a completely different – slower – method should be used.