A recent conversation with a colleague, who genuinely believes that students are more creative when they write with a pen, really made me wonder about the future of pen & paper examinations in NSW and the rest of the world.

As you likely know, the students sitting the Higher School Certificate examinations in 2012 were issued with Lenovo laptops as part of the Digital Education Revolution when they were in Year 9, back in 2009. It is likely that many, if not most, do not use a pen and paper in their personal lives, preferring computer or mobile device, so teachers will be trying to prepare them for a skill that increasing looks like candle-making. As one colleague remarked, you wouldn’t ask someone to use a Penny-farthing for the ride that is to be their life. My favourite quip relates to scrolls and many of you may remember this amusing video.

The Essential Secondary Science Assessment (ESSA) for Year 8 students in NSW is now online and the School Certificate Computing Skills Test has been for online a number of years. There are other trials taking place, including teachers marking HSC exams at home online. You may wish to listen to Isabel Nisbet‘s recent call for an end to pen & paper usage in written exams in the UK.

I feel passionately that we not just need to make the exams paperless but need to completely reassess how we assess and report achievement. Does anyone have any updated information on this project with Barry McGaw that was reported two years ago to be overhauling ideas on measuring skills?

*Your thoughts on how we might make the changes that seem so logical, urgent and neccessary, sensibly, would be appreciated?

But, before you do, perhaps the time is rife for revisiting Michael Wesch‘s most famous video:

Images sourced here.



  1. Well Darcy I have only heard rumours much like everybody else I assume, that the BOS in NSW is going to take advantage of the DER laptop situation and develop electronic exams for next years HSC and this years SC. Personally I will believe it when I actually see one. This to will come as a huge shock for English faculties I also assume based on what I see being taught at my own school, the English faculty place a lot of emphasis on students being able to write by hand for hours on end to satisfy the exam process.

    My own experience last year (http://themolisticview.wordpress.com/2010/03/) was a good one. Students who normally never wrote full responses completed full responses, which also were more accurate then they had been in the past.

    Hopefully the system will generate an answer sooner rather then later.

    • chungerz

    • 13 years ago

    I believe that a handful of HSC subjects are going to be tested on the laptops/computers. Software Design and Development is one that is in pipeline, well last I heard.

    • Stu

    • 13 years ago

    In real life, i.e. beyond high school, the only thing I use a pen for is to:
    1. Take down phone messages
    2. Leave notes on the fridge
    3. Fill in paper forms
    4. Sign documents
    5. Reset electronic devices

    Of those, the only one that needs real skills is point 3. Yet that’s the one we don’t seem to teach in school. As for students being more creative with a pen than with say “multimedia”, I say “baloney” (in the nicest possible way).

    • Random Yammerer

    • 13 years ago

    I think it’d be great if we could get to a point where assessment could be multi-modal and geared to the student’s personal preference. For example, some kids are speakers, not writers. Imagine if they could respond to assessment questions using speech to text? Similarly, while some kids may skate over the keyboard like Torvill and Dean on ice, others with less proficiency may be impeded by the extra cognitive load and prefer good old pen and paper.

    • Troy

    • 13 years ago

    Totally agree Darcy. Add to this idea the move beyond hard copy of texts- that’s I’ve suggested no more copies of Macbeth please, there are free hyperlinked online versions- and we have a dual move beyond 20th century thinking. I like the approach you can take in the new English Studies course- all have laptops, instead of taking notes we are doing something. Filling in the passport application online for the unit On The Road was a true experience for this group. We are beyond handing out large assessment schedules as well, all emailed/ on school websites.

    This, as with any changes, begins with teachers. The DER wave is a great example. So many people thought it would die, yet it is getting stronger and stronger with that slogan Create Collaborate and Connect. The teachers, this where it begins and lives and breathes.

    • David Chapman

    • 13 years ago

    Just a question though – what is the laptop situation in the non DET schools? I am lucky enough to work in a 1:1 school – but I know many that are not. Will that cause issues is mandating a online examination setting for an entire cohort?

    • Ian

    • 13 years ago

    The BOS is definitely talking of having computer based exams across the board in 2012. How they can overcome the issues involved is anyones guess. There are two issues that need to be answered, firstly just why is the BOS moving that way, apparently it is to do with costs . They want to eliminate the cost of hiring the showground and other such venues by moving to marking at home. Secondly there will be the issue of parity. DET schools were forced to take machines that cost the department around $200 or less. Many non-government schools gave students macbooks or a pc equivalent worth around $1000. Such machines have a bigger keyboard, are faster and easier to view with higher resolutions. I don’t see how they overcome this one. This is to say nothing of the technology gap that will exist due to the difference in machines used over three years. The x factor is what a change of government will produce given that the Libs will probably clean out some high ranking bureaucrats and look for cost cuts against the narrative of a bankrupt state that the LNP and the media have been running.

    • Peter McAsh

    • 13 years ago

    Personally, I am now giving all tests, quizzes, exams are distributed to my students as a Google Doc (view only). Students make a copy, then complete the assessment. They export the final copy as a PDF document then submit it to turnitin.com where I assess their work, and provide feedback.
    All assessments are open notes, students keep their notes online (usually Google docs). I am also trying to move towards using any resource (looking at previous lessons, internet searching, etc). This requires me to change the type of assessment from the traditional “define this”, “what are the five reasons for…”, to open-ended questions that allow students to demonstrate skills and knowledge rather than copy/paste facts.

    • Jocelyn

    • 13 years ago

    Why does it have to be all or nothing approach? Isnt there inherent skill and flexibility in being able to do both equally well? Or at least not feeling paralysed by being asked to pick up a pen and use it to distill thoughts, rather than just the finger tips. Even if every push possible was made by the DET to create a paperless world for students, what do they do when they go to a job interview and are asked to complete a form by hand? OK so maybe there is a different depth to writing and essay to filling out a form, but we have a long way to go before BIC is out of business! In fact look at all the fancy stationary shops out there (memo, kikki ki, smiggle etc) selling jazzy pens!

    • KJ

    • 13 years ago

    Some interesting comments.
    At our school, pretty much the whole Standard English Preliminary cohort begged us teachers to not use the laptops. They want to use pen, paper and books!
    I currently have two year 11 students who regularly submit their work electronically. I was hoping to move into this brave new world … we are yet to fully understand the reasons why students are not interested in working with laptops.

    • Jenni

    • 13 years ago

    Most of the responses here seem to be about teaching humanities based subjects.
    What about maths, physics, chemistry and any other subjects that require equations to solve problems?
    Writing equations using document processing packages is slow and requires sophisticated knowledge. Surely in exams, students need to manipulate equations quickly.
    You could write directly onto the screens of computer tablets but is it really any different to pen and paper?

    • Darcy Moore

    • 13 years ago

    Thanks for the thoughful comments, folks. Much appreciated!

    The franchise owner of an Angus and Robertsons store kept telling me about how much she disliked ebooks. She understood all about the convenience, environmental benefits and cheaper price but just could not believe people would prefer this medium over driving their cars to her store and paying much more for a book. That was last year. With everything we get to a ‘tipping point’ and businesses, which are much different to school systems, can deny all they like but the bottom line looms large and reality encroaches upon nostalgia or woolly thinking.

    In NSW big trucks drive around the state delivering exam papers to schools and testing centres. The candidates regurgitate, in ink, their carefully memorised answers onto the paper. The big trucks return and drive the papers to marking centres where teachers (who have driven their cars from far and wide) assess responses. This cannot continue for too much longer for a whole host of reasons. The HSC is about to turn 50. I hope we have some birthday changes beforehand. They are desperately needed.

      • Cameron

      • 13 years ago

      To me a debate about holding examinations with paper and pen or on a computer is an outdated argument. Why the need for examinations at all in 2011? What are we seriously achieving by standardising learning and teaching to the test? We do not need this model anymore. Bring on the revolution.

        • Darcy Moore

        • 13 years ago

        Which is my point:

        “I feel passionately that we not just need to make the exams paperless but need to completely reassess how we assess and report achievement.”

          • Cameron

          • 13 years ago

          Yep, agree entirely. Anyone know what did happen to that McGaw project? It sounded promising and then vanished…

            • mark

            • 13 years ago

            Paperless offices were forecast ten years ago and although we have the technology, more paper is used in offices these days than ever before. This generation being taught now are the last hope for millions of trees in the future.

  2. Darcy
    I actually don’t think this is a technology versus no technology issue. Rather this is a deeper issue of egocentricity in the light of mis-education. Educators have been mis-educated, to be educators, we may have been educated for the period but that period has passed so now we stand infront of a class miseducated. We are also bound in a spiral of we must educate them as we were educated. I suspect that these feel of we must ‘do to them as was done unto us’ is because if we question what was done to us we are questioning our very education and implied intelligence certified by that education.

    Your colleague “believes that students are more creative when they write with a pen” because they are more creative with a Pen. Leonardo DiVinci was more creative when he made mistakes, Lewis Carroll when he took LSD, William S. Burroughs when he was between Heroin benders and D. H. Lawrence when she was entertaining ‘friends’. I using some far out examples to point out that we are individuals, creativity comes from within not from hardware (ironically iPad2 is released today and many are reaching for their credit card in the false belief that they are about to become more innovative, post purchase obviously). The system under which we where educated was about conformity and assimilation under a hierarchical power. Our students live in a world that they can peronalised to almost infinite extents, except when they come under our control.

    So, the real issue is… Pens, laptops, iPads, LSD or satin sheets?… No… The real issue trully personalised learning. Please do not confuse this concept with low level ILP where students sit some multiple choice sudo intelligence test to identify if they are visual, kinesthetic, mathematical, literal, musical, multi-grain, lo fat, high fat, soy, latte blah blah blah giving their teacher a list of boxes to tick. I’m talking trully personalised learning, what does the student want to learn (within a framework) how do they want to learning it, how do they want to demonstrate their learning and at what speed.

    Open technology enables this, which is why many seek to exclude it or force it to conform to how we where educated by deploying LMS’s, desktop control software, filters and if some could electronic shock collars.

    Once day I hope we realise that most offtask behaviour is deeper learning than some of our ontask behaviour.

    Ben 🙂

  3. […] a comment » In a recent blog post Darcy Moore titled Pen & Paper exams. At the time I commented on my personal experience last year when I chose to have my HSC Multimedia […]

    • Unkle Cyril

    • 13 years ago

    It really shouldn’t matter whether it is the pen or the computer, students should be taught to do both…

  4. Often I feel that we teach students to do pen and paper exams just so they can do pen and paper exams in school and really for no other purpose. Therefore, they are completely pointless as an modality of communication of meaning/understanding outside of school. However, when you watch a small child draw freely with pens or pencils there is a sense of unrestrained creativity that is perhaps lost with digital analogues. Every modality of expression and way of leaving our unique mark upon the world should where ever possible be given a try and often the results can be digitized for wide distribution and further derivative works.

  5. […] 3. technologically savvy digital citizens in a global economy They do not need ‘pen and paper’ HSC exams […]

  6. […] is an inherent irony that, regardless of what changes are made, students will have to write fast, in a pen and paper exam, just as their grandparents […]

  7. […] has taken up the cudgel against pen and paper HSC exams. For many years this has seemed one of the elephants in the room. What forms of summative assessment will replace it? Surely not merely the reductive measure of […]

  8. […] tell us about education in Australia. In every educational jurisdiction, Australian students still sit pen and paper examinations in the same manner as their ancestors did in the century before last. The self-proclaimed […]

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