Gone the Way of Chalk and the Slate: Is Handwriting Headed for Extinction?
Hello, readers. As you can tell from the title, I am going to be talking about handwriting in this post. This is a topic that I happen to be particularly interested in having recently taken a course on language assessment that dealt a great with test validity. Confused as to how the two relate? Let’s jump right into the discussion.
I will be using the work of Mogey et. al. (2007) as the basis of this discussion, but this very subject was also raised as part of an in-class discussion on the validity of the testing practices at the institution where I am earning my masters degree months before I even read this article. The idea is that, despite the fact that a large percentage of students use computers or other electronic devices to take notes in class, type up assignments and papers, and communicate with their professor and classmates, when it comes time for students to be tested, the assessment is often in the form of a handwritten test that may require students to write long, essay-style responses. The question is whether or not this is still a valid form of testing as students are being asked to produce in a format that is different from that which they have been using in the course prior to the assessment. If you still are not sure what the problem is, picture it this way. You are taking a course on the fundamentals of swimming. You learn everything from the actual physics involved (the three types of drag that affect speed and all of that) to all of the various strokes. You cover a plethora of theories and learn about many of the great swimmers throughout history. Unfortunately for you, the final examination is 16 laps (across and back) around an Olympic-sized pool, which will be timed. At no time during the course of your class on the fundamentals of swimming did you actually get into a pool. Now perhaps you understand the concept of testing validity at the heart of the matter here (p. 39).
I think this issue of validity is the most important one raised by this article and it is good to see some institutions taking it seriously. Other articles that I have come across have gone as far as asking whether handwriting and penmanship should even be taught anymore as most people do everything digitally nowadays. While I do not think that it will ever come to a point that we no longer write anything by hand, I do believe that the days of receiving physical mail and filling out paper applications are numbered. Despite this, for those rare times that we do wish to write something by hand, it will still need to be legible and so knowledge of handwriting and penmanship will be necessary. Think of how many artists and even children use words as part of their drawings. No, I cannot yet say that it is time to abandon handwriting as part of the curriculum in primary schools as it is still necessary in several areas not yet completely dominated by digital devices.
Back to the issue of testing validity, the research by Mogey et. al. utilized a tablet PC and conducted an hour-long simulated test in order to gather feedback from participants on using the technology in place of a standard handwritten test. The tablet allowed for students to type their answers as well as draw in diagrams, charts, etc. as needed. One complaint about this aspect was that the tablet needed to be rotated when switching between typing and drawing, which served as a distraction during the simulated test. Of course, this is really only relevant to the tablet PC and software used in the research as I personally use an application on my iPad that allows users to switch between typing and free drawing with a touch of an icon (p. 44).
One of the more interesting issues raised by one of the participants was that being able to go back and edit answers was a distraction. They argued that a lot of time might be wasted on rewriting answers, attempting to reorder sentences and come up with the best choice of words for what was already written, an option that is not as feasible with handwritten tests. Still another participant felt that handwritten essays were graded by instructors more leniently and that constructing a proper argument was not as important as getting as much information down on the paper. They argued that if tests were allowed to be typed, instructors would likely grade those tests against a higher standard similar to what is used for papers and reports written for the class (p. 44).
One issue still remains for further research, although it is likely to be a factor of whether individual instructors are more lenient with students having to handwrite a test in one go without any real chance for revision. That issue is whether allowing students to use electronic devices to type up their tests will result in a different score than if they did it by hand and, if so, whether that score is a better measure of the student’s ability. I believe that if such research is conducted, it will show that students who choose to type their test will likely deliver a better performance than those who would prefer to type their test but are forced to do it by hand. Note that I am taking preference into account and not saying that all students will perform better given the chance to type out their responses. I, personally, can type faster than I can write and my hand quickly tires during the course of a three hour essay test. If it is the case that such tests are about putting down as much information as you can on a given subject, than I am being limited by how fast I can write and may not have time to write down all that I know about the topic. I have found that I often pause during such tests due to muscles in my hand cramping and that my writing speed slows as the test progresses. Several of my classmates similarly complained during the discussion that took place during one of the classes for the language assessment course (p. 45).
It is good to see that some institutions are starting to allow students to use technology to type answers to test questions, but I agree that more research is needed. Despite my own preferences, I see the need for ascertaining whether the format of the test has any impact on students scores, whether from bias in the form of leniency on the part of the grader for responses that are handwritten or simply because the student is able to perform better given that they are being tested using the same medium with which they performed all other tasks for the class. What do you think of this particular subject, readers? I know I primarily focused on the topic of the validity of written exams, but I am just as eager to hear opinions on whether handwriting should still be taught in schools if you should happen to think there is no need. Sound off in the comments or feel free to share this post with others that might find it interesting and worth considering.
Mogey, N., Sarab, G., Haywood, J., van Heyningen, S., Dewhurst, D., Hounsella, D., & Neilson, R. (2007). The end of handwriting? Using computers in traditional essay examinations. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 24, 39-46. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2007.00243.x