Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hand engraved examination scripts

What strikes me as I wade through Part II tripos papers (well, the thing that strikes me that it wouldn't be out of place to comment on, here and now) is that students are tending to write less than they used to. And I suspect that part of the explanation is this: few students actually ever write at length by hand any more, from one examination season to the next. Weekly essays are invariably word-processed; note-taking in lectures is a dying art (since people often give copious handouts, and students can then just make short scribbles on those); more and more students take their laptops to the libraries to make notes there. So the business of sitting down for three hours pushing pen across paper, fast and furious, must be an unaccustomed physical challenge, for a start. And it’s no doubt even more of a challenge to compose something straight onto the page in a quite different way to what students are now used to. I certainly wouldn't like to have to do it.

But of course the shorter an answer, the more difficult it is to shine (especially if an answer starts with a bit of routine exposition). Heaven knows what we do about this: but we are surely -- sooner rather than later -- going to have to come up with a system that doesn't quite so favour those who have happened to acquire the philosophically irrelevant antique skill of being able to write fast.

6 comments:

Lee Walters said...

One suggestion is to tell students that it is ok to leave out the expository stuff yo mention and dive straight in.

Further if you think essays are too short to include a good discussion, tell students this too: it is usually necessary to write 4-5 pages to get a top mark, although not sufficient. Impress upon them the importance of practicing this under exam conditions.

Peter Smith said...

Oh, students get told all right. Repeatedly. But that doesn't seem to hekp, for whatever reason.

Matthew said...

Lee, surely a sound grasp of the problem is something we should want to see? Setting up the problem clearly, and perhaps even interestingly, requires the kind of grasp of a topic that we should surely be assessing.

I can think of three options (not exclusive): (i) ditch written exams and assess by pre-submission; (ii) use take-home exams; or (iii) examine students on a computer. (I'm not taking a stand on which of these is best.)

Peter Smith said...

The trouble with option (i) is that you really have no certain knowledge of how much is the candidates own 'unaided' work. And not because of downright cheating (though that perhaps happens more than we like to realize), but because supervisors give very different levels of input, because groups of friends can organize circles to comment on each others' work, and so on and so forth. Option (ii) has similar problems. The logistics of option (iii) don't bear thinking about. Sigh.

Anonymous said...
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Paul said...

Since my handwriting is awful this was something I had to consider when applying for an MSc at LSE. Coursework doesn't count for grades; they have 3 hour written exams in each subject at the end of the academic year.

(God help anyone who isn't feeling well during the exam period!)

I enjoy your blog. All the best.