Under current rules, students must request special permission to use a laptopLouis Ashworth

It is a familiar sound, heard at the beginning of almost every examination.

“You may begin,” says the invigilator. Immediately, the noise of rustling paper is heard throughout the room, settling down as students put pen to paper.

Soon, however, it may be a thing of the past – replaced by the frantic clicking of keys. A University committee is investigating the possibility of allowing all students to type their exams, instead of writing.

Among the reasons for the proposed change is a marked dip in the quality of Cambridge students’ handwriting, forcing exam markers to wrestle with barely-legible scripts.

“Student exam scripts are without question becoming harder to read,” said Dr Sarah Pearsall, former academic secretary of the History Faculty. “Handwriting is becoming a lost art.”

The proposal comes as part of wider efforts to harness technology across the University, dubbed the ‘Digital Strategy’. Development and promotion of the strategy is being led by the Digital Training and Learning Sub-committee (DTLS), chaired by Graham Virgo, pro-vice chancellor for education.

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Students have been able to apply for permission to write their exam answers on a computer for some time – reasons include unforeseen injuries, as well as conditions such as chronic pain and some instances of dyslexia. The regulations under consideration would mean all students could access a computer if requested.

CUSU are carrying out a new consultation on behalf of the DTLS, aimed at all Cambridge students, which asks participants several questions about typed exams – including whether they feel typing would have an effect on their wellbeing or results.

“The consensus seems to be that it would be beneficial for most students, especially if it is optional rather than compulsory,” Florence Oulds, CUSU’s disabled students’ officer, who sits on the committee, told Varsity, “but of course [CUSU] will stand by student response and feeling surrounding typed exams rather than our own opinions and experiences.”

“I think the option to type exams for all students would be fantastic,” she said. “It will be beneficial in avoiding instances where students have had to type out their exams when their handwriting has been illegible or difficult for examiners to read, but it will also reduce stress for disabled students.”

The move would reflect the broad shift of students away from handwriting and towards typed notes and essays, meaning that being required to handwrite again often comes as a shock to students.

The University has embraced this reasoning, with the Digital Strategy saying “after producing work electronically throughout the majority of their studies, handwritten examinations are increasingly difficult for students to manage, and scripts are increasingly difficult for examiners to read”.

Pearsall, who helped the University run a pilot of typed exams this year, said that modernising exams methods would benefit students and faculties.

“When handwritten exams were instituted, really all the writing that students did was by hand,” she said. “Even 15–20 years ago, most students wrote their notes and weekly essays by hand, so they had practice in writing, and writing quickly, virtually every day.”

“Students write almost nothing by hand now, so that when they do have to do so, under timed conditions, they do so with difficulty. As a result, it is harder and harder to decipher student exams, and more and more are having to be transcribed centrally.”

She said typed exams would be a “great help both to those sitting exams, and to those marking them”.

Despite the stated benefits, the scheme would produce several fresh challenges for exam invigilation. One of the biggest logistical hurdles is the provision of laptops themselves. If adoption of typed exams became widespread, it could mean hundreds of students requiring computers simultaneously during exams – with all the fresh security and logistical challenges that would pose.

Oulds said that the DTLS is “considering multiple options” to this problem, including seeing if there is any way students can be allowed to use their own computers.


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“Students using their own laptops would present some problems, especially concerning plagiarism and cheating,” she said, “but also would provide a familiarity that may reduce stress and ensure that students don’t have to waste exam time figuring out how to use a computer that they haven’t used before.”

In 2012, researchers the University of Edinburgh ran a trial of typed exams with a group of Divinity students, concluding that it is “simply not fair to insist that students (who have perhaps not handwritten any essay since their last examination) should handwrite their next exam when there is a practical alternative”.

If laptop use became widespread, dedicated software might be the solution Cambridge opts for. At present, students who type exams often use a conventional word processor, usually Microsoft Word. Varsity spoke to two students who typed their exams last year, both of whom said spell-check had been left activated on the laptops they were provided.

In their pilot scheme, the Edinburgh researchers used Exam 4, a software package which has already found widespread use in Canada and the USA among students taking bar tests. It can be installed on a candidate’s computer, and allows examiners to prevent access to a hard drive or internet browser. It can also take a snapshots during an examination, to prevent cheating.

The study at Edinburgh found typing exams made a “negligible” difference to marks awarded, with the biggest differentiating factor between grades given being the examiner. Pearsall said that the neutrality of typed text could go some way towards eliminating unwanted subjectivity in marking.

“There is a greater chance of gender bias with handwritten exams, if examiners, even unconsciously due to implicit bias, favor certain styles over others,” she said. “Typed exams would help to limit the implicit bias problem.”

Oulds rejected any suggestion that typing exams could confer an advantage.

“Research shows that having students type exams gives no advantage,” she said, “and students who have exam arrangements such as extra time or typing their exams perform no better or worse than their peers who handwrite their exams. The emphasis is on respecting and catering to different styles of learning and writing, rather than enabling an advantage for one group over another.”