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.






Adrift in drafts

Less than six months into my first year of my PhD and I am on draft number 9 of my preliminary literature review (in Cambridge, we write a first year research proposal of 12,000-20,000 words and have a viva on it before we get such privileges as a locker in the PhD room). As a relative newbie, perhaps I am being naive but the process of redrafting is actually pretty satisfying.

The Merriam-Webster definition of a draft (incidentally, a word that originates in the Middle English word draght, related to the word for drawing) is this:

a version of something (such as a document) that you make before you make the final version. (Merriam-Webster, 2014)

However, I feel that writing drafts is not as linear as implied by this definition. As Elbow points out,  “writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn’t have started out thinking” (1998. p.15). For Elbow, each draft marks a development of thought that may be returned to, refocused and revised. It is an iterative, circular and systematic process of clarification and discovery. This approach is reminiscent of the Vygotskian view of the intertwined nature of thought and language.

My supervisors and my incredibly wise father both gave me a similar piece of advice – keep former drafts. I may have cut a paragraph from my current draft due to word count constraints, but will want it in the extended edition. On a contrary note, I may inadvertently regress my research questions or focus and not remember quite why I altered it in the first place. So, having previous drafts to refer to is an incredibly useful idea. So, instead of just having one document (imaginatively) called ‘Literature Review’, I currently have Literature Review drafts 1.1-1.4 from before my supervisor gave me initial feedback and Literature Review drafts 2.1-2.5 responding to points my supervisor highlighted. There will undoubtedly be drafts 3.1-3.x and possibly even 4.1-4.x. Most of these will be filtered out and archived by the time I submit my interim report, but even now it is rather heartening to go back and see how my thinking and research has developed and refined.

The distinction between drafts is not that I rename it every time I made a slight edit, nor do I label it a redraft for the same reasons every time. Sometimes, I change drafts because I have added or taken away a significant amount of text (usually at least a page). Sometimes it is that I have refocused my ideas. For example, following a discussion with my supervisor, I re-drafted to make my focus much more process-orientated, rather than concentrating exclusively on outcomes. While I may not have added many more references, my approach has undergone a change, so a new draft is justified.

Between each draft, I tend to take a couple of days off to get my mind clear and give some distance. Then, I often print out the document and go through it, highlighting the main points of each paragraph, figure and section. Are they clear? What is their purpose? How do they relate to the surrounding information? Are my references useful and correct? Finally, I ask my long suffering family to read over it to check that it is clear and purposeful for an independent reader.

My tips for drafting

  • Allow more time than you think you need to redraft, always. If you don’t use it, enjoy a brief and guiltless break. Far better to have extra time at the end than to procrastinate and then panic.
  • Due to the healthy fear of losing what I am working on, I save all my drafts directly into Google Drive and, just to make doubly sure, email myself everything at the end of each day. Don’t let your work be lost through carelessness!
  • Are you saying what you want to say? Is it worth saying? Will the intended reader be able to understand it? What are alternative interpretations or arguments? These are simple questions but worth bearing in mind.
  • One of the most memorable pieces of advice I have come across about re-drafting is the piratical ARRR approach. This suggests; Adding, Rearranging, Removing and Replacing. I think that the order in which this is proposed is a useful one, but it assumes that your general focus or approach has remained unchanged. It is, I suppose, a bit granular for a first re-drafting, but useful in the final stages.

Drafting is an incredibly useful process in developing an argument and, even more fundamentally, in identifying exactly what your argument is, why you are proposing it and what evidence you can provide. I try not to approach it as a box ticking exercise or as a self-satisfied grammar check, but as a thoughtful and engaging activity in its own right. Hopefully, I will continue in this happy attitude in years to come.


Elbow, P. Writing Without Teachers. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1973, 1998. p.15

Merriam-Webster (2014) ‘Draft; definition. Available at:  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/draft [Accessed: 2 Feb 2014]

Deadl(ine)y Motivation

I’ve just finished my first draft of my first essay for my PhD. I feel quite proud. Not necessarily of the work itself, which I will probably drown in red ink tomorrow, but of successfully meeting my self-set deadline. The essay is due in at the end of February, but my incredibly wise supervisor wanted to look at it a month before that. So, I decided that I would aim to get it done before the Christmas break so I could choke down some turkey before tackling a second draft.

I am a part-time student, so finding a balance needs some degree of dedication and no little loss of social life. During my masters last year (which was also done part-time), I made some rules for myself to help drive through:

1. Plan, plan, plan. If I had a weekend visiting my sister, when would I make up the work?

2. Allow more time than you think. Sickness, tiredness, social life, just plain procrastination all eats away at unconsidered trifles of time. Don’t say I can get it done in three weeks, say I will get it done in four. Make an achievable deadline and don’t treat it as flexible.

3. Set daily limits that you can achieve. On working days, I told myself I needed to read at least four papers or write 200 words. Non-working days were 10 papers or 500 words.

4. Bribe yourself. From little things like finish reading this paper and you can have a cup of tea and a biscuit, to a new book or ball of yarn for every 1000 words or a couple of days off when a draft is completed. Whatever works for you.

5. Talk to people. Don’t hole up and convince yourself that you are the only person going through this and no-one will understand (we’re not teenagers). My Dad is a life-saver for bouncing ideas around, editing suggestions and so many  other things. People help. Going to that voluntary lecture or writing group might seem like it’s taking time away from writing, but a change is often inspirational.

6. Don’t eat crap. Literally and figuratively – junk food is not going to help long term. Eat a proper meal and exercise and keep brain and body happy.

7. Enjoy it. You started this because it interested and enthused you. It’s still fascinating, still important. Don’t get so bogged down that you forget how exciting your research and writing is.

Relating to several of these is the academic spin-off of nanomo (committing to writing a 50,000 word novel in the month of November), acwrimo. Be your own cheerleader and set deadlines which you then tell people about, therefore making it seem much more solid. If you haven’t already, learn how you work best – in the mornings with baroque music playing, in the afternoon in silence or during the midnight hours with synth-pop howling soullessly.

I can do this and if I can anyone can!