In a blog written for Cambridge Assessment’s Learning and Development staff newsletter, Paul Steer, OCR Head of Policy, considers the resilience of the pen and paper in examinations.
The experience of sitting an examination hasn’t changed much in a century. Candidates filter into the exam hall with pencil, pen, and eraser, no smart phone, no smart watch or wearable app and sit in serried rows waiting nervously for the signal from the invigilator - just like so many generations before them.
And yet the way young people live their lives, their aspirations and their approach to learning has changed beyond recognition. The use of technology for social and educational purposes is omnipresent. Young people can access knowledge, skills and interactive learning from the confines of their bedroom. Even when they write long, discursive essays of the type that might be very familiar to students from previous eras, they are unlikely to use a pen and paper.
Great strides have been made in the use of technology to assess what people have learned, how they learn, and to diagnose and profile their achievements and failings. Adaptive testing can respond to the speed and sophistication of a learner’s responses to set questions and tasks; and so-called ‘big data’ is beginning to give us insights into every level of the learning process. There also seems to be potential to assess some of those wider softer skills and attitudes using new technology. And of course, we have had on-screen tests of one sort or another for years.
Yet the attachment to paper-based exams seems incredibly robust. They are hugely familiar, after all, and every generation has experienced them for good or ill and surveys show they are (largely) trusted by the general public and teachers. Processes, and regulatory requirements also tie us to very traditional models. The new, reformed GCSEs and A Levels are based on awarded qualifications with a single assessment opportunity that rather depends on a written exam, and they will be here for at least five years; the same old model is increasingly being attached to vocational qualifications. Such exams are also extremely high stakes for both individuals and institutions in almost unprecedented ways.
Predictions of the demise of the pen and paper exam have been around for twenty years. But it is difficult to see that coming sometime soon.