Writing your way through the Leaving Cert

Opinion: Could the keyboard be mightier than the pen when it comes to exams?

‘Rather than discussing how technology could ease the endurance test, we could just have shorter but deeper courses, and have exams where it is normal to pause, gaze at the ceiling and really think, rather than just frantically scribble.’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘Rather than discussing how technology could ease the endurance test, we could just have shorter but deeper courses, and have exams where it is normal to pause, gaze at the ceiling and really think, rather than just frantically scribble.’ Photograph: Getty Images

Sat, Jun 14, 2014, 00:01

Leaving Cert exam diarist Sean O’Callaghan asked plaintively this week, “Is it really reasonable to expect the tech generation to write for five or six hours at a time?” Of course it isn’t.

Acting as a scribe for just one exam for a student who had had an accident made me realise what a physically demanding exam the Leaving Cert is.

The word “scribe” has a wonderfully medieval ring, and the art of handwriting is in danger of becoming just as outdated. For example, I would find it very difficult to compose this article in longhand. Ease of editing and not having a page that rapidly becomes a mess of arrows and crossing out has something to do with it.

My handwriting has deteriorated from constantly typing, not a good outcome for a teacher. It led to an awkward moment when a student asked me what I had written on her homework, because she could not read it. I had to admit that it was an instruction to improve the presentation of her work.

Luckily, the student had both a highly developed sense of irony and a forgiving nature.

No one denies that the Leaving Cert is an endurance test. Middle-class parents speak about it in terms that might normally be reserved for soldiers entering a war zone. Students keep going by burning adrenaline and necking caffeine.

Financial bind

It might seem obvious that increased use of computers, particularly during exams, might ease some of the pressure. Except that it would require a massive investment in education by the State.

When Minister of State Ciarán Cannon suggested that Leaving Cert students should be allowed to use computers during the Leaving Cert, I was surprised officials in the Department of Finance did not spontaneously combust in outraged fright.

Aside from the initial investment in devices and software, maintenance and regular upgrades would be very expensive – even keeping them charged would be costly. It would be impossible without having at least one dedicated computer technician per school.

‘Laze and gaze’

If I sound like a Luddite, in fact I would like nothing more than to see every student with a tablet or laptop. I use a computer in every class, and there are exciting learning possibilities using technology.

However, during the 1980s, teachers were warned about the “laze and gaze” syndrome if you used video. Students automatically switched into a relaxed mode once the video player was wheeled out, because they associated video with leisure, not learning.

The same is true with newer technology. It can be very difficult to ensure that students are on task. Some schools attempted to get around the fact that students don’t have access to information technology in every class by using what is called BYOD – bring your own device.

One teacher said morosely to me that it should stand for bring your own disaster. Some apps function on some devices but not on others, but the teacher was supposed to solve all the difficulties students experienced using everything from iPhones to older laptops.

Strangely enough, there are studies showing that students learn less well if they take notes by typing rather than writing by hand. The most recent one that I am aware of is by Mueller and Oppenheimer, published in April in Psychological Science.

Even when students used computers purely for note-taking, and the possibility of net-surfing was eliminated, they did less well on conceptual questions than those who used handwriting. Typing allows people to take notes more or less verbatim, which means the brain can skip the process of assessing what is most important.

Being instructed not to take notes verbatim but to focus on recording the essentials made no difference. Other researchers suggest that the physical act of handwriting facilitates processing and recall at a deeper level.

Printing and cursive even use slightly different parts of the brain, so the death of cursive may also be alarming. As far as I know, no one has tested the effect of apps that allow you to use a stylus to handwrite on a screen, which would seem to provide the ideal balance between better intellectual processing and an editable record.

Crash and burn

Exams are very different to note-taking. In the US, many candidates for the bar exams have the option of handwriting or typing using software designed to prevent cheating, which they have to purchase and install on their own computers. But some computers crash, causing incredible stress.

Intriguingly, examiners tend to mark typed work just slightly more harshly, perhaps because they think typing conveyed an advantage.

Rather than discussing how technology could ease the endurance test, we could just have shorter but deeper courses, and have exams where it is normal to pause, gaze at the ceiling and really think, rather than just frantically scribble. To use a dreadful pun, all of this is academic to our poor Leaving Cert students taking the exam this year.

Hang in there, people. It will all soon be over, and those brown calluses from clutching a pen will be proof of your survival of this antiquated rite of passage.

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