Laptop exams

About a year ago I asked a group of students what they most disliked about their studies. One gripe they all had in common was examinations – but not that they were obliged to sit these, but rather that the answers had to be written out by hand. One of them told me that exams were the only thing for which he now used handwriting. Everything else, even lecture notes, he now did on a laptop or smartphone (or maybe now a tablet computer). He no longer possessed even one notebook; he could not see why he would ever need one. He did possess a ballpoint pen, but he illustrated its usefulness to him by telling me that, since he had been given it three years previously, he had never needed to buy a new refill. So why, he asked, should he be forced to use it for exams? If we were going to be that retro-minded, why not go the whole hog and insist on students using quill pens with ink?

Well, if he were a student at Edinburgh University he might be about to get some relief. According to a report in the newspaper Scotland on Sunday, the university is considering allowing students to use laptops in exams, though with software installed that would prevent them from going online or using other programs during the exam. According to the report, ‘senior officials at Edinburgh University believe it is unfair to expect undergraduates to resort to pens and paper during critical assessments when most of their coursework is done using a keyboard.’ Not only is the physical process of writing by hand now stressful for them, but they are also used to planning their work and executing it on a computer, so that doing it by hand unsettles them. In fact, Edinburgh are not altogether pioneers – secondary school students in Norway have been using laptops in examinations since 2009, as have students in some American universities.

It is probably true to say that we have barely scratched the surface in considering what modern technology may do to change teaching and pedagogy, and how it is affecting the students’ perceptions of study methods and assessment. Right now it looks as if universities will, without any particular coordination, slip into new ways of doing things, though quite probably not consistently. It is time to pay a little more attention to these matters.

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18 Comments on “Laptop exams”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    examples of American universities adopting laptops seem to include mostly Law Schools

    Click to access laptop-exam-faq.pdf
    wonder why, interesting topic for anyone interested in the pedagogical application of new technologies though..

  2. Why restrict them viewing their notes and the Internet? What happened to “learning to learn”? We did open-book exams in our finals in 1978.

    The pace of change in Education is a wonder to see. I think that Bill Gates is reputed to have said that the only place Information Technology has had no significant impact yet is Education. I wonder why. Could it be fear and laziness posturing as “academic freedom”? I always smile when the unions say “Think of the children!”

    • anna notaro Says:

      Gates has also said that today’s society needs engineers rather than philosophers, maybe he should have spent more time in a philosophy class to appreciate its relevance…as for the impact of technology in education i don’t think it serves any purpose to characterize the debate in terms of laziness masqueraded as academic freedom, we need to move beyond divise rethoric in order to bring about the change that is most suitable to the educational needs of our students. The current situation is far from satisfactory and persisting would be insane, to quote Einstein, rather than Gates, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

  3. jfryar Says:

    The answer to the student’s question is simple logistics. Have a look at DCU’s or TCD’s or UCD’s exam hall with 1000+ students sitting at individual desks. With a notebook running software at about 300 euro a pop, that’s 300,000 euro on laptops to be used for a few weeks of the year. Oh, and add to that the fact that different courses will requite different software (english literature versus quantum mechanics, for example), the need to ensure every laptop is charged, has access to power sockets, boots up correctly, keyboard and touchpad works ok, etc. Pen and paper is universally reliable and borrowing a pen is easier than borrowing a pre-configured machine.

    I’ve no problem with people using their own laptops to produce reports, notes, etc. But for an exam the logistics are simply too time consuming and expensive to be practical. Yes, on certain courses (Law, English Literature, History, Languages, etc) but if anyone’s tried to write a mathematical formula on a laptop, you’ll instantly laugh at the idea of laptops replacing pen and paper!

    If we’re going to use technology to enhance education, then it has to demonstrate an advantage. I see no advantage to using laptops for certain exam situations – after all, if you strip them down so they have no internet access, no USB ports, no ability to run multiple software, no networking, no sharing of data and become essentially a keyboard for students to type material then why use a laptop at all? If it’s only because students are used to QWERTY keyboards, then why not a typewriter?

  4. brian t Says:

    I started university as a mature student, nearly four years ago, and assignments and exams were the first time in at least a decade that I had done any significant amount of handwriting. It showed, and may have cost me marks I couldn’t really afford to lose.

    The whole experience has left me wondering just what the point of exams are, and why there isn’t more continuous assessment. When you set an exam, just what is being assessed? The ability to memorise lots of facts and regurgitate them? Memory alone is no substitute for intelligence and experience – but then a poor memory seems to be far more of a handicap in an exam setting than it is out in the real world, since we have all these memory aids, such as books and computers to assist us.

    When the subject is highly technical, memorisation becomes a pointless, possibly even dangerous, goal. I recently had an Engineering-related exam at UCD in which the questions took up less than two pages on the questionnaire, but five pages of additional notes and formulae had to be attached to allow us to answer the questions. We had some continuous assessment, but the exam counted for 70% of the course marks, and I really don’t understand why. If I ever use that subject out in the field, it will be following a well-researched and documented plan i.e. there will be no need for me to recall any of the details from memory. You can’t really trust your memory in e.g. Engineering work, since “winging it” and getting it even slightly wrong can have serious consequences. It’s no place for savants who cut corners. 8)

    • jfryar Says:

      But at the same stage, you don’t want to have to draw a spanner or a hammer every time you mention those tools in case people haven’t remembered what they are and have to look them up on the interweb thingy. A lecture on quantum mechanics shouldn’t always have to remind students of what an electron is, and language courses shouldn’t have to define what a ‘noun’ is.

      The point is most subjects are hierarchical and the farther up the hierarchy you decide to go, the more groundwork people would be expected to recall. Sure, in engineering you might not need to remember the exact formula because you can look it up. But the point of your education is that you know such a formula exists, you have solved it before, and know the sorts of values you might be expecting.

  5. Al Says:

    Why should exams be interview or viva based?
    Or situations where the ‘person’ has to teach or instruct others to prove their metal.
    Not necessarily in first year, but it could be viable in final year.

    I dont buy the rush to IT in exams thing. We have so many calculators and mobile phones now and along with it falling maths standards. It takes decades to be able to write. The more you get of it the better!

    • Al Says:

      “Why shouldn’t”

    • jfryar Says:

      I would suggest that the reason our students are failing maths is because they don’t need good maths marks to gain a college place. Our college entry system is demand led, rather than quality led, and minimum requirements have been set at such low levels that the vast majority of students meet those minimum requirements – a case in point is the Applied Physics course I took in DCU (although the same argument applies to other colleges). 96% of higher level students and about 67% of ordinary level maths student would have met the minimum maths entry standard. The message our universities send out is ‘concentrate on ordinary level maths rather than higher, and use the additional time you have to beef up your overall points tally in other subjects to meet the CAO cutoffs’. Unsurprisingly, if students don’t need to be good at maths to get into college, students are not good at maths when they get to college.

      On the issue of assessment methods, let’s suppose you have a class of 40 students. Each student gives a 30 minute presentation. That’s 20 hours of assessment time. Let’s now suppose there are three academics on the panel assessing the students – a total of 60 hours of academic time – equivalent to an entire one-semester course. And that’s just listening to the students. Add to that the time taken to discuss each student and arrive at the assessment. And that’s one class. And maybe one subject.

      Yes, there are all manner of assessment methods that could be used. The question is, does the implimentation of that assessment method involve significant resources and if so, can the cost-to-benefit ratio be justified?

  6. irisheconthoughts Says:

    To be honest, I don’t see why oral exams aren’t more prevalent. If these could be done in a semi-formal setting, say where the student is allowed to sit/stand/pace depending on their preference, then they could have many advantages – the most obvious one being that it would help students later in life with job interviews, presentations, etc. They also seem like a much better way to seperate good students from bad.

    The obvious drawbacks are the strain on lecturers’ time (maybe it’s only feasible at postgrad level) and that some students may perform poorly due to nervousness but these could surely be overcome.

    As someone else pointed out, laptops could be an problem for some subjects. I’m an economics student and we aren’t familiar enough with typesetting programmes to be able to type all the formulae and derivations that we would have to do in a typical exam. I do agree with the overall point though, there has to be ways to take advantage of modern technology.

  7. Al Says:

    I wouldn’t absolve the system of blame either.
    students at LC level have too much on their plate.

  8. Vincent Says:

    Might be apt for a few of the posts you’ve published here

  9. John H Says:

    As someone who due to a learning difference sat all his exams on a computer I think this should have been in place many years ago. I feel i benefited from the fact i was able to compose work in a environment I am much more used to. I applaud the movement by Edinburgh University and would hope to see it employed in others.

    If we are in the process of preparing people for working life the assessment processes we use in HE should be much more reminiscent of that world.

    Also typed scripts are much easier for markers to mark as the script is clear and easily read.

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