Illegible handwriting? Huge letters? Strange grip? Poor posture? These are just a few of the issues which many pupils suffer. Learning to write is a complex process which is not always straightforward and leaves many students struggling with poor or illegible handwriting. In view of this, I believe that access to laptops should be a student right!
Exams should be about testing knowledge, not handwriting
Students spend many years preparing for examinations, and many perform poorly because of their handwriting, rather than their knowledge. Schools must help to change this. Why? Because students who struggle with handwriting are not given the support, they need to achieve their full potential. Poor handwriting can drop a paper from the 50th percentile to the 10th or 22nd percentile even when the essay contains the same content (Graham, Harris, & Herbert, 2011).
It is easy to find first-hand evidence of this by looking online, ‘The Student Room’ website is full of heart-wrenchingly sad comments which show a universal lack of support for students who struggle with handwriting. Comments include “After my History modules in June, I received the scripts back from the exam board to find ‘poor handwriting’ scribbled in the margin.” There are many reasons that a student should do well in an exam, but handwriting should not be one of them.
Other shocking example includes: ‘My writing skill is always messy no matter how hard I practise.” “In classes, my teachers have continuously been telling me that my handwriting is quite hard to read, and I have been informed that they may refuse to mark my paper because of this.” Any parent can empathise with how terrifying this must be for a student to hear before exams. Letter formation is a key component in reading and writing skills: The Magic Link Handwriting Programme teaches handwriting in a clear and structured way to both primary and secondary school children. If schools do not have the time or resources to teach this to their pupil there is no other option but to allow them to type.
Students may also suffer a loss of self-esteem because they are seemingly outpaced by their peers who complete classroom written work more quickly (Feder & Majnemer, 2007).
Universities should help, not hinder, students to benefit from using a computer
Universities differ in their policies towards students and sometimes place the financial burden of word-processing upon a student. In many cases, this further inhibits access to university from lower-income students. The University of Exeter states that “where a candidate is not able to produce a transcript in person, word-processed transcription will usually be created by a scribe, and should be at the candidate’s own expense.”
As if £9,000 tuition fees per year was not enough to provide this base-line service, a student in Exeter will pay even more to complete their examinations. Perhaps worst of all, universities are aware that students will pay the fee, should they be faced with the options of doing so or writing an illegible script.
The issue of student access to computers is widespread. In 2018/2019, there were 2.4 million students at UK higher education institutions. Most full-time students are studying first degrees. There are proportionately more overseas students studying postgraduate courses. The vast majority of these courses are part-time UK students. The total number of applicants in 2020 was 568,330, up by around 6,900 or 1.2% on the same point in the 2019 cycle. To think that 25% suffer from bad handwriting is a mind-boggling number.
The difficulty in attaining examination allowances
While many secondary schools have a handful of pupils, who are allowed to use a laptop for GCSE and A level examinations, it is not always easy to gain these allowances. Permission to type is obtained by the examination officer or a recommendation from an educational psychologist. The assessment process is time-consuming and often too expensive for a student to self-fund. Schools do not usually have the funding to pay for an educational psychologist report, which can cost £600+.For many students writing quickly, under times, conditions can make handwriting scruffy and illegible. It should not be the case that pupils with recognised ‘disabilities’ get the opportunity to use a laptop, while students who struggle but do not yet have the medical proof struggle.
Mark Steed, the headmaster of Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire, said that while schools taught using 21st-century technology, they were forced to revert to outdated methods for exams. Thirteen of his pupils spent the past two years using only laptops in subjects such as English, history and religious studies, rather than taking handwritten notes. This means that exam boards must allow them to use laptops, Mr Steed said, as it is recognised as their “normal way of working”.
The same is true for institutions of Higher Education: An article in The Independent 2017 states that ‘Cambridge University set to scrap written exams because students’ handwriting is so bad’. Examiners find it ‘harder and harder’ to read internet generation’s scripts. They say that “The problem has become so bad the university is preparing to switch to examinations on laptops – ending 800 years of handwritten exams.
Difficulty defining “disability”
A pertinent point arises when students enter the university system. This privilege is not received automatically, and the onus is suddenly thrust upon the shoulders of the student to prove they have a “disability”. In many cases, universities require the students to be assessed to meet different disability criteria. Consequently, it is common that students panic at the mere thought of having to handwrite an exam for the first time, impacting anxiety and stress levels. It is also the case that students do not have the automatic right to complete their exam on a computer. They are required to apply for Individual Exam Arrangements (IEA to prove they have a disability, specific learning difficulty or a long-term medical condition that may affect their ability to take exams.
In practice, applying for IEA leaves the student no option but to go to the ‘Disability Team’ to disclose the widely common problem that their handwriting is messy. Consequently, it is often humiliating and unnecessary to subject oneself to such an extensive and misappropriated process for merely having bad handwriting. The disability team then take over the investigation, whose aim is to see if bad handwriting is associated with a formal diagnosis, which can be an intrusive and length process.
Many of these students do not have a label and find this process humiliating and unnecessary. The words “Disabilities Team’ in itself has a shocking stigma which provoke unnecessary stress and humiliation. If this were called the ‘Learning Support Team” it would sound less intimidating and more supportive. Having to make an appointment to see a member of staff in the disability team often causes unnecessary stress, embarrassment and anxiety in a situation where simply having messy handwriting is the norm. It costs hundreds of pounds and takes weeks for the consent report to arrive.
Access to Laptops
Bad handwriting is so frequent that it should, in some ways, be considered the norm. Resources are stretched, which means that examiners often have little time to read scripts. Studies show that direct instruction, as demonstrated in the Magic Link Handwriting Programme, measurably improves students’ handwriting legibility and fluency through Grade 9; in addition, the overall quality of writing and the length of writing passages also increase (Graham & Santangelo, 2012; Pontart et al., 2013). Many schools do not provide this direct handwriting instruction, leaving their pupil’s messy handwriting at the mercy of an examiner.
Consequently, the only solution is for all students to have the option to type their examinations. This would prevent lengthy, expensive, diagnostic tests required for students to succeed. In sum, it would put all students on an equal footing, allowing students to focus on their knowledge, rather than handwriting. In the 21st century, word-processing is the usual method of working, and I support implementing this in schools. Access to laptops should be a human right and this change would truly benefit all students.