Why do students write exam essays?

July 14, 2009 at 3:40 pm | Posted in useful links, waffle | Leave a comment
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The question here is why they write them using a pen rather than type them using a word processor. These days, the University insists that they type all assignments so that tutors can read them (no more deciphering illegible handwriting) and also to enable online submission and/or plagiarism checking using Turnitin. My guess is that most students have few opportunities for handwriting practice, other than the scrawled notes they may take in lectures  – although they probably just download the lecture notes. But come exam season, suddenly they are expected to write solidly for hours at a time – ouch! I write so infrequently these days that it gives me ‘writers cramp’ quite quickly.

Some students with specific physical disabilities or learning differences have what is known as ‘additional exam requirements’ (AER) which mean that they are entitled to type their exams using a computer. I was involved recently in a project by iSolutions to make their standard workstations quickly suitable for exams involving students with AER. Logging on using a special username and password places the workstation in kiosk mode, with a very limited set of software – essentially:

  • a cut-down version of Microsoft Word with no spell-check or similar features;
  • absolutely no Internet access of any kind.

I had an entertaining time finding all kinds of loop-holes that enabled Internet access (a win was displaying a Wikipedia page) which iSolutions then blocked, but eventually I admitted defeat and was confident that the system was secure enough in an exam room context.

The iSolutions page about the AER facility is here, and the instructional video for students that I created is here (on EdShare)

Of course this points to a future in which all exams are typed, thereby not placing students unused to writing at a disadvantage during exams. There are some challenges to be overcome:

  • it is difficult enough to find enough large rooms for the rows of exam desks, so where will these large computer rooms (and all their computers) be found?
  • what happens if one or more computers fails during the exam? The more heavily they are used, the more likely this is to happen sometime.
  • what about the noise of all those clattering keyboards? Do students get to wear earplugs to help them concentrate?
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