Final examinations and duty of care

Examining methods at Oxford and some proposals for reform: an article I published in the Oxford Magazine

Final examinations and duty of care

Is the examination system at Oxford in need of reform?

I sat my Finals exams in 1978. Every year since then, at around Third Week of Trinity Term, anxiety-dreams have recurred for around two weeks of the University’s examination period, taking a number of different forms. I can’t find any black tights in my wardrobe to complete my Sub Fusc outfit, so I won’t be allowed into Examination Schools; I can’t find the right entrance to Schools, so I’m late arriving to sit my papers; I can’t read the papers as they are written in strange impenetrable hieroglyphs; I'm required to attend a viva because my essays are so erratic; I've been given the wrong result and am required to sit all my exams again.. I daresay there are many Tutors and retired academics who have similar dreams, whether or not they are Oxford graduates – out of sympathy with the students, as much as anything else. I wonder how many of them have experienced in recent years, as I have, a noticeable change in the content of their dreams?

For the last five years, my exam-related dreams have taken a specific recurring form: I can’t write the answers to exam questions because I’m unable to hold a pen properly. Either it will not make legible marks on the page, or it makes them too slowly for me to have any chance of completing three essays within the specified time-limit. What is the explanation for these recurring dreams, remarkable for their vividness and consistency? The answer is very simple: my dreams are true to life. I would not be able to take Finals now because I’m incompetent at holding a pen and doing that quaint old-fashioned thing: hand-writing. I can barely sign my own name without its feeling an action out of the ordinary. Writing anything more than a paragraph with pen and ink makes my hand hurt.

I’m no touch-typist, but I now think through the finger-tips of three fingers, accustomed as I am to tapping fast, often all day long, on a lap-top. To write for three hours with a pen would be an extreme test of my bodily resilience, which would put my mind and the fingers of my right hand under immense strain. To undergo this trial I would have to put myself through a special training-course to reverse my laptop efficiency and get me back to where I was in the 1970s.

If this is true of me, a retired academic in her sixties, think of what it must be like for the generation of students who will, in Trinity Term 2018, be traipsing over the High Street to sit their exams day after day. The average student nowadays is computer-literate to an extraordinary degree. Students can use the strong and nimble thumb of one hand to write messages on their mobiles, combining this activity with actions performed by the other hand. Students can write on their laptops at high speed while listening to music or talking to friends. Students can, in a single second, type a whole sentence – the time it would take me to type a word. What they cannot do, unless they have gone through rigorous and prolonged training in the lead-up to Schools, is hold a pen and write for three hours at a stretch. They submit their weekly essays to tutors in type; they take notes in type; they sit in lectures, trains, buses, tapping on laptops; all their emails and messages are sent in type. But they are more or less illiterate when it comes to handwriting; and the strange scrawls they produce under pressure are – as in my worst anxiety-dreams – often illegible.

Oxford University has a duty of care towards every single one of its students. Why, then, does it continue to subject junior members to an extreme test of physical endurance, at a time of maximum stress, when the whole future of these young people hangs in the balance? What excuses can be found to justify this assault on the well-being of the human beings in their care? I’ve heard it said that the ancient system of hand-writing is still in place as a safeguard against plagiarism: hand-written scripts are more reliable than typed ones. But surely this applies only to extended essays, not to work that would be typed under the eye of invigilators in Schools? I’ve heard it said that it would be a sorry world in which people lost the art of handwriting; and this is of course true. But, equally, it seems unfair and illogical to apply scripto-nostalgia in the case of exams, when it is not applied in normal circumstances.

What would be wrong (other than the evident expense) with allowing candidates to use a laptop in their Finals? These laptops could be purchased by the university, and housed in Examination Schools (or other buildings where exams are taken), safe from the interventions of prospective cheats. Obviously, the devices would have to be disconnected from the internet, and they would need to be checked on a regular basis for efficiency. But these are relatively small matters, when weighed against the advantages that would result from a radical change in the system:

  1. Physical strain on the part of candidates would be avoided.

  2. Relative lack of discomfort in sitting exam papers would result in scripts that more truly reflect the ability of candidates,

  3. Greater legibility in scripts would result in more efficient marking.

  4. It would no longer be possible for examiners to hazard guesses as to the gender of candidates, with who knows what effect on the marks they give.

  5. The group of students who currently (because of disabilities of various kinds) have to use laptops in a segregated area would be allowed to sit with their peers.

“What of the danger of repetitive strain injury” the naysayers will object. But the symptoms of RSI are much less likely to appear in students using laptops than in candidates forced by unusual and stressful circumstances to use a pen for three hours a day over a period of a week. Like myself, students think through their fingertips automatically because they are so used to it. If they don't have repetitive strain injury by the time they come to Schools, then it's highly unlikely they will get it in the week of Finals.

“What of the cost?” the naysayers will wail. “It would cost in excess of a million pounds to purchase the number of laptops necessary to allow this reform to go ahead.” The University will doubtless jib at the cost. But what price duty of care? Surely funds could be raised cover the cost of the 2,000 or so laptops it would take to ensure that students are no longer subjected to a macho test of physical endurance? Donors usually like to give money for buildings to be erected in their name: that’s why Oxford University (and its colleges) are forever putting up smart new buildings. But there is surely a genuine philanthropist out there -- possibly a rich old member who recalls the excruciating experience of taking Finals -- who would like to have his or her name associated with this very necessary reform? In this way Oxford would at last have to enter the twenty-first century. The time is long overdue for our University to wake up to reality, and ensure that it performs its duty of care. No excuses, please.

Published in the Oxford Magazine, Trinity Term 2018