I Brought a Keyboard to a Pen Fight: Why Everyone Should be Allowed to Word Process Exams
It’s exam season again and across the country students fill sports hall, heads down and furiously scribbling answers to questions they’ve spent countless hours preparing for. However, there’s something fundamentally wrong with this picture.
We live in an age of social media, smartphones and most importantly computers. In this digital age we are constantly typing. Yet, this is not reflected in exam practice, with most papers completed by hand. Not only does this waste lots of paper and create many logistical complexities, but it also disadvantages many students who may struggle to write as quickly and freely as they would be able to type.
I am one of these students, but thanks to special provisions I have been using a word processor for my exams since the beginning of my A-Levels. This has been truly transformative, not only to my grades, but to my attitude towards learning.
Prior to this, the physical act of writing an answer or writing up some notes created a barrier to my learning. It felt like a chore, and the amount of effort I had to expel focusing on shaping the words strongly reduced the amount of focus I could give to the work. This meant I was never giving 100% and I felt stupid for not being able to keep pace with other students.
Sadly, this was then re-enforced by a minority of comments by teachers and classmates telling me I should be capable of writing much faster and much neater. It wasn’t until I received special support and was eventually allowed to use a laptop for all my work, and word processor for exams, that I truly started to engage with school.
If it wasn’t for this I don’t believe I would be at university and I don’t think I would have ever started to fulfil my academic potential.
While I have benefited from the ability to use a word processor in exams, this is not an option open to everyone. To me this seems ludicrous. I am certain there are many students out there who haven’t had the same access to support I have had.
These students are essentially being systematically disadvantaged, by an education system which claims to support them, due to the lack of a basic skill which isn’t reflective of academic ability. Not being able to effectively express your thoughts by hand doesn’t make you stupid, even if it sometimes feels that way. It doesn’t make you less intelligent than your friend who can write twenty words a minute when you struggle to get down five. These people need to be recognised and helped, as the current system isn’t doing enough.
This said, I still don’t think a wider system of special provisions to allow more students special access to a word processor in exams goes far enough. Instead I think we need to raise two wider questions: is the ability to handwrite at speed in a high-pressure situation something we, as a society, value above allowing students a fair chance at success? And, does providing special provisions, allowing some people to use a word processor in exams while forcing others to handwrite, create a double standard?
When raising the argument to allow all students to word process exams, the most common response I have heard is that the ability to write things by hand is a vital skill for success in adult life and this is a skill which would not be preserved if it wasn’t used for exams. This is a claim which definitely has legs; many social and professional occasions arise when you need to write something by hand. But the retention of this skill should not inform judgements about academic achievement.
I also believe that the move away from hand writing in wider society towards word processing is a more significant cultural shift which our education system needs to adapt to. If handwriting skills are important to our future professional careers, then typing skills must be vital. As such, these are skills which need to be honed from a young age. Not only would allowing word processing in all exams provide motivation to learn these skills, but also an application for them.
Further arguments have also been made about the inequality some feel allowing all access to word processors in exams could cause. This argument rests on the central thesis that while some may be privileged enough to have had access to computers all of their lives, others haven’t had this privilege. However, I feel this argument fails for two reasons. Firstly, while there is a question of access to be considered, these boundaries are rapidly falling down, and at University level at least the majority of course work is word processed and electronically marked. Doing the same for exams seems to be the natural progression.
Secondly, suggestions that some may be more capable typists than others is no stronger than an argument that some can write faster than others. By not just allowing word processing for all in exams, but allowing the choice as to whether to handwrite or word process exams, the impact of this inequality is something I feel would be reduced as opposed to increased. Particularly as at present, I believe those who, like me, are eligible to use a word processor in exams, are unfairly advantaged over other students.
Much of the thought about the inequality caused by allowing some to word process exams and not others came to me in a political theory exam while writing about the work of Brian Barry. He claims that where a rule disadvantages one group then there shouldn’t be an exception to the rule. Instead he suggests the contestation is either strong enough to void or amend the rule, or the rule should stand the same for all. In this instance I believe this thought process is correct. All should be entitled to use a word processor in exams to reduce the barriers to academic success.
By Max Modell