The increasing illegibility of students’ handwriting has prompted Cambridge University to consider ending 800 years of tradition by allowing laptops to replace pen and paper for exams.
Academics say that students are losing the ability to write by hand en masse because of their reliance on laptops in lectures and elsewhere.
Sarah Pearsall, a senior lecturer at Cambridge’s history faculty, said: “Fifteen or 20 years ago, students routinely wrote by hand several hours a day, but now they write virtually nothing by hand except exams.
“As a faculty we have been concerned for years about the declining handwriting problem. There has definitely been a downward trend.It is difficult for both the students and the examiners as it is harder and harder to read these scripts,” she told the Daily Telegraph.
The university has launched a consultation as part of its digital education strategy after piloting an exam typing scheme in the history and classics departments earlier this year.
A similar scheme was implemented for first- and second-year divinity students at Edinburgh University in 2011.
At the time, Dai Hounsell, a professor of higher education at the university, told the Scotsman that students faced a dual strain in providing handwritten exam answers. Physiologically, they were not used to extended bouts of writing by hand, and structuring essays on paper presented a different mental challenge to writing on a computer, he said.
Such concerns led Edinburgh to take steps to give students the option of using a laptop in exams, although the idea has not been rolled out across the institution.
Cambridge’s move comes as the Harvard academic Eric Mazur, known as the father of the “flipped classroom”, says he now encourages students to bring their laptops and smartphones into exams.
Permitting devices in the exam room allows students to “look up whatever you want, whenever you want” and test their creative and analytical skills, rather than their ability to recall information, he told the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit this week.