The novelties of pen, paper and isolation

My recent experience of marking exam scripts has been thought provoking, to put it mildly.  A number of students who had regularly attended and participated in classes and submitted well thought out assignments, seemingly fell to pieces when faced with their end of module exam.  They had turned up to the revision sessions.  They had studied the past papers.  They had told me that they felt prepared for the exam.  So what went wrong?

I’m certain that it wasn’t the layout of the exam paper.  I had talked them through how many questions they needed to answer and which sections were compulsory or offered a choice.  With one or two exceptions they had taken this in their stride.  I’m fairly confident that it wasn’t the questions.  There were no surprises.  Yet at least half the students left the two hour exam after one hour.  I spoke to as many of the early leavers as I could but, other than generally saying that it had been a horrible experience, they couldn’t identify the issue.

After a chat about this with one of my PhD supervisors I revisited some of the low scoring exam scripts and could see a lot of sense in what we had talked about.  The students aren’t used to writing (with a pen), in an environment which isolates them and subjects them to a time pressure.  Writing essay style answers in a quiet room is a long way from the always-on information overload of modern life and the rapid fire, concise channels of communications such as Facebook, Twitter and SMS.  This showed itself in the brief, bullet point answers given to some questions.  In one extreme case barely two sides of A4 had been written in an hour.  This isn’t a criticism of the students but a suggestion that we’re failing them by not providing the tools they need to tackle the task at hand.

So, when the opportunity next arises, I’m going to encourage the students to practise writing.  In short bursts, in a quiet space, with nothing more to hand than a pen and paper.  I don’t think it particularly matters what they write about, to begin with at least, or how “good” the writing is.  This isn’t about spelling, punctuation and the clause structure (based on most of the assignments I marked this isn’t the issue).  Whatever they write I suspect it will be the most time some of them have spent putting pen to paper since they embarked on their degree studies.  Hopefully they might even get to like it…

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