On Writing By Hand

Earlier this week, I was working on my requests for rooms for final exams. I’ve been fortunate to be able to use the computer lab as an “extended time suite” for the past few years, and it’s worked well as a large space for many students to test. The computer lab is perfect for most exams: the tables are big, the computers are big enough to block students’ views of one another but slim enough to be pushed aside.

The trickiest exam to organize is always the English test: we have some students who have an accommodation to do all of their writing using a computer, so they definitely need to have computers. However, if the English faculty decides that they want students to type an essay for their final, things suddenly get complicated. While every student has an iPad, very few students are adept at using them to type at length. There are a total of 86 computers available: 40 in the lab, 40 on laptop carts, and 6 desktop computers in the library. We have almost 200 students. 

When I surveyed the English faculty about their technology needs, it started to look like every sophomore, junior, and senior was going to need a computer, leaving us still at least 50 machines short. I went to our head of school, Rachel Simpson, to discuss this. What should we do? What would be most beneficial and fair to our students?

Rachel had a great idea: she suggested we take a step back and think about what we’re really trying to do here. As a college-preparatory school, what obligations do we have to our students as we prepare them for college-style exams? If we know that all of them will have to write essays by hand on the SAT and ACT, is it worth giving them practice on this skill while we can?

We know for sure that the SAT and ACT are going to still have handwritten components for at least the next year (see yesterday’s post), but we were less sure about the state of affairs in college. So I went to Facebook and asked:

Stay tuned to get notifications all day long.

Stay tuned to get notifications all day long.

The results were astonishing. For those of my Facebook friends who’d recently been in graduate school, computers were the order of the day. Everything was written on computer, and most exams were of the take-home variety.

For my cousins and former students who responded–all of whom graduated from high school in 2007 or later–the results were overwhelming. Every single person said they had taken exams exclusively by hand with paper and pen or pencil. This was remarkable to me because of the range of schools represented in this sample. They included:

  • Biola University
  • Boston University
  • Michigan State University
  • Princeton University
  • Purdue University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Trinity University (TX)
  • United States Naval Academy
  • University of Central Florida
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Michigan
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Notre Dame (IN)
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • Vassar College

Additionally, the range of majors represented weren’t just a bunch of English majors. (Though I definitely tried to influence all of them to be English majors in the first place; believe me.) There were engineers, pre-med biology majors, history majors, business majors, and music performance majors. For all students, the answer was overwhelming: everyone wrote every exam by hand.

As a college preparatory institution, one of our obligations is–very simply–to prepare our students for the academic challenges they’ll face in college. While we may transition to a digital solution in the future, the state of the art right now is that students are still using pens and pencils to record their responses for cumulative written exams in college. Additionally, the essay portion of the SAT will remain handwritten at least until the spring of 2016. We owe it to our students to given them some practice with those experiences.

For students who have the accommodation to use a computer for writing, they’ll be using computers–that’s non-negotiable. However, for students without that accommodation, we’re choosing to make their exams a learning experience both in terms of content (the information they’re being tested on) and in form (the way that they’re being tested).  For now, our students will write their essays by hand.

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