Students in some subjects are still required to sit traditional, essay-based, three-hour examinations. Those students are thus required to do something they are increasingly ill-prepared for: write by hand for an extended length of time.

Most people nowadays use a keyboard to write. I recently tried to write a longish letter using a pen, and my hand quickly tired – legibility soon dropped. The same decrease in legibility happens to many students – in some cases to the extent that markers cannot read exam scripts. It’s entirely possible some students fail simply because they cannot write legibly for a long period.

There’s another problem with getting students to write essays by hand: it requires them to use a method of composition with which they might have little familiarity. When someone uses a keyboard to write they are likely to get material on screen quickly and then edit individual words for spelling and whole sentences for meaning. When someone handwrites they have fewer editing options; the writing process instead requires that sentences are thought out in their entirety before pen touches paper.

Wouldn’t it be better to permit students to use a computer – or perhaps even allow them to use their own device – to sit essay-based exams? Students could then concentrate on the content of their answer rather than worry about the legibility of their handwriting; markers would no longer have to worry about trying to decipher illegible scripts.

Moodle is already being used to deliver some exams, but these tend to be MCQ-based. Moodle itself is not an ideal platform for delivering essay-type exams. However, a number of companies are exploring options for conducting highly secure, written exams in an online context. Two options we’ve looked at recently are DigiExam and TestReach. If you are interested in the possibility of delivering online exams, please get in touch the the TEL team (elearn@port.ac.uk).