why do we sit exams with a pen?

hand writing

In secondary school, i always used to say i was quicker typing than writing and that put me at a disadvantage when it came to exams because my hands could never keep up with my brain plus my hand writing was terrible because it was never ‘practiced’….


Handwriting? What is this, 1999? Writing down anything on paper these days is just creating clutter and encouraging disorganisation. It’s very frustrating for me having to think and write by hand… i’m so used to thinking and typing – at lightening speed. I don’t have to worry about whether something is readable or not.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Prehensile Eye

I kid you not after every single sentence i write by hand, i re-read it making sure it’s readable. I’ll often try to make certain letters more defined by adding flicks or re-writing over them – it’s instinct because when typing, every letter is perfect. When typing sentences on a computer, i reread them to make sure they make sense and there are no grammatical errors, i don’t have to worry about the physical appearance of my writing.

These days the only time i sit down and write with a pen for 2 hours straight is when i’m sitting exams like i am at the minute. It’s a real challenge and i predict it’ll become an even bigger challenge in years to come. What does somebody do when they can’t read handwriting? – that will be the dilemma.

You can’t edit

If you were to look at any of my notepads, you’d see a scrawl of notes from all sorts of different subjects mixed in with my own random ideas and things to keep myself entertained. I once spent a class writing down notes about how not to present – taking notes on how the lecturer was presenting material because it was such a good example of how not to present.

I did that purely to wake myself up because i was getting bored and it was a two hour lecturer. I’ll often do that – start writing or thinking about off topic things because they’re more interesting. There is nothing worse than wishing for time to pass, so i try to make use of it all…

Use the Alt key
Creative Commons License photo credit: Rob Ketcherside

One big problem i have with writing those is that it’s so permanent. You can’t backspace, you can’t rephrase things because it takes too long and looks too messy. In other words, you can’t make mistakes… what you write down must be your ‘final answer’. In reality, i don’t write like that. As an example, i have over 100 draft blog posts here on this blog which i’ve started and in some cases finished, but for whatever reason i haven’t published them. After writing anything, i always leave myself a bit of time to ask myself “Should i publish this?”.

I do the same when writing with a pen but the problem is, if i’m half way through an answer and want to start it over, i have to start messing about with stars and comments or big x’s or leaving gaps between answers… it’s all a big mess and i hate when my own writing doesn’t look visually attractive. That’s why i add a picture at the start of every blog post. That’s why i generally space things out with headings and my paragraphs don’t go on forever. Is that right? Is it proper? I don’t care. To me it’s easier to read and prettier to look at and i know that if something looks boring, i’ll be reluctant to read it.

What course am i doing again?

IT Management. Computers and stuff. The ‘new’ and improved version of the traditional pen and paper technology. Writing with pen and paper just seems so wrong. I’d imagine people marking our exams would also agree – it’s much easier to print off an answer and read it in times new roman than it is to read it in 20 ‘custom’ handwriting fonts, some easier to read than others.

It’s just convenient to stick us in big hall and use all the old chairs and desks they’ve had for millions of years, then roll in a few supervisors to walk up and down aisles. It’s easier to prevent cheating, it’s cheaper….

Creative Commons License photo credit: chiselwright

It’s a bit like asking drivers to drive a strange car for two hours. They’ll know how to drive and they’ll know how everything works but once you’re used to one type of system it takes a while to adjust to another, even if the differences are subtle. If you’re spending 99% of your time driivng Car A, and 1% of your time driving Car B, you’re never going to be 100% comfortable driving Car B.

Can students who type an answer do better than those who write one by hand? Or can the same student perform better by typing than by writing? I’d love to see some research done on that… especially in a class full of IT enthusiasts.

2 thoughts on “why do we sit exams with a pen?”

  1. Fully agree. I hate writing by hand, my handwriting is atrocious! After every exam i write i just look at the paper and the first thing i say to myself is “God help whoever corrects this”, i hate my handwriting and i truly believe it also leads to loss of marks because the examiner can barely read it and may miss something that was important.

  2. A very excellent point – they could built custom systems with special screens only word processors on them, making cheating nearly impossible – it would be immensely cheap. As a person with horrible handwriting I am sure that I lost marks because the person marking could not make out what I had written.

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