Handwriting and Exams

Exam season is (finally) starting to wind down. Actually, I had an exam myself this week for an English Literature module I’ve been doing with the OU. As with many people, it’s been some years since I have handwritten anything more than a sentence intended for eyes other than my own.  As I left the exam hall, with aching and inky fingers, I wondered why our methods of examination seem to be so disjointed, not only from the reality of everyday life but even from classroom experiences.


A large proportion of students do the greater part of their revision on computers or tablets, if not their actual classwork. This has been the case for many years – even 10 years ago I wrote most of my school essays on the computer.The use of technology in the classroom is advancing in exciting directions and constantly developing – assessment (formative and summative), videos, simulations, showcasing of student work, iBooks, MOOC’s – the possibilities are endless. So, if students hardly handwrite in the classroom, I am not convinced of the purpose of examination through this means. If nothing else, a typed essay is significantly quicker and easier to mark. A typed submission also enables easy editing – no more angrily crossed out misspellings or arrows squiggling across pages to insert further thoughts, no bringing five pens, a pencil, two rulers and a calculator just in case. And won’t somebody please think of the trees?


I am in no way against the value of handwriting, especially in Early Years. Handwriting has been demonstrated to assist in the development of fine motor skills, memory and other cognitive gains. Additionally, several studies have demonstrated higher levels of retention and comprehension when written notes are taken rather than typed notes. For recalling factual information, writing is a quick and easy way to solidify memories. So, for the sciences, handwriting may always have an important role, and not only because there is, to my knowledge, no quick way of noting equations digitally. However, for essay-heavy subjects such as English or Philosophy, where the emphasis is so much more subjective and interpretive, digital notes are quicker, easier and tick all the boxes.


Nonetheless, penmanship is an art – my grandfather creates calligraphy that is beautiful to behold. Not only is it an art, but it has vital cultural connotations. Different scripts with different languages or even accentual details communicate cultural and community identities. So, yes, handwriting is something to be preserved and valued. If handwriting is an art, or is deemed culturally significant, perhaps a debate regarding its place in the curriculum is in order.


However, it appears to me that we have two options – students continue to come out of exams in physical pain from the quantity of writing they have to do, or lose valuable lesson time teaching handwriting purely for the purposes of an arguably outdated form of examination. Not to mention the lost marks due to an indecipherable scrawl – some of the most able students are the most frustrating in terms of legibility.  It is also worth noting that the recent headlines about the importance of handwriting were evidenced primarily by a survey conducted by BIC, with a clear vested interest in promoting the declining art. Exams are hugely stressful and demanding experiences for students, teachers and examiners already, without insisting on an increasing outmoded form of notation. Exams should reflect and assess what is going on in the classroom. Handwriting is no longer an automatic part of the learning process and its use in the examination process therefore must be re-evaluated.






Distance Learning I

After the epicurean excesses of Christmas dinner, I have returned to my studies. In addition to my PhD, I am studying for an English Literature degree with the Open University. Although distance learning is by no means new, it remains revolutionary in several senses, most especially in terms of individuality, openness and technological advances.


Distance learning, in the form offered by the Open University and indeed by many other providers, gives more breadth and scope for individual interests. As there are none of the timetable clashes that inevitably happen in traditional universities, a distance learning student can tailor their choice of modules to suit their interests and personal and career commitments. You could take a module in Japanese, then look at Philosophy, then Astronomy – in whatever combination the individual student wants. So, education is opened to people who may find it difficult to fit study into their everyday lives, or who want a more broad education.


The Open University, in common with many distance learning institutions, differs from traditional universities in that it does not select or refuse students based on academic qualifications. While academic selection would not worry some of the attendees of the OU, this openness encourages more students to return to study and to use education to improve their career or just satisfy their curiosity. Not every teenager feels able or suited for a university course at 18, whether for financial, academic or personal reasons. Distance learning enables them to return when they feel ready, at a pace suited to them. The mean age of OU students is somewhere in the 30’s, but the youngest graduate was only 16 when he completed his mathematics degree.

The OU fee’s are also generally much lower than traditional university fee’s – my English Lit degree will have cost me approximately £4,000 spread out over the 5-6 years it will take me to complete the course. Not chicken feed, but more manageable than £9000 a year, you will admit. The OU fees also include textbooks, DVD’s, audio-materials and access to forums and tutorials. No worrying about how to afford the £120 book your lecturer decides is vital to the module. There are also the bursaries and loans to help struggling students. So, distance learning really is democratically open both on a financial and academic level.


Since the earliest examples of distance learning in the 1700’s, distance learning has utilised technology to promote learning. First correspondence courses then radio, followed closely by television and finally the internet. The internet offers synchronous learning tools such as Blackboard Collaborate or Skype and asynchronous possibilities through VLE’s (Virtual Learning Environments e.g. Moodle, Frog etc.), forums, blogs and so on. This use of technology encourages communication between learners as much as between learner and instructor. Learning is a social pursuit and technology based communication is not only a useful motivational tool, but also fulfills valuable educative goals.

The advent of tablets and sophisticated mobile phones has opened other avenues for distance learning. Apps such as OU Anywhere, Duolingo, Notability, Google Drive and iTunes U have transformed learning. Now you can learn a new Russian phrase, edit an essay or complete a quiz while waiting for a bus, sitting in a dentists waiting room, wherever and however you choose.

My next blog post, inspirationally called Distance Learning II, will look more at apps for learning, particularly iTunes U and the design and evolution of iTunes U courses to support learning in the classroom, at home or wherever life takes you.

Happy New Year!