All about computer-based exams.

Digital and mobile learning have created a world of opportunities and computers are part of most classrooms across the world. Education is certainly no exception to the technology revolution.

But we seem to be lagging behind in one aspect… examinations.

Computer-based exams.

Perhaps we might have expected that computer-based exams would have replaced the traditional pen and paper by now. They haven’t – but they will do in the coming years. So, what are the pros and cons of computer-based exams?

Paper-based exams

There aren’t too many advantages to paper-based exams. Most people who support paper are likely to be of an age that can only remember doing exams on paper themselves, and also prefer holding hard copies of documents in their hands rather than on a screen.

Hard copies are having something of a resurgence – the sales of book on e-Readers has slowed in recent years, for example. However, the children of today who will be sitting examinations are totally comfortable doing everything on screen (even the small screen of a smartphone). They don’t feel the same comfort with paper that their mums and dads do.

A paper exam allows the person sitting the exam to flick through a paper. This is potentially an advantage for examiners too. But, again, scrolling through a digital page is something that the younger generation is familiar with.

The pros and cons of computer-based exams

Many educationalists would argue that a computer-based exam has a distinct advantage over its paper-based equivalent because it is easier to test the whole of a syllabus by this method. Similarly, different aspects, skills and rules can be tested by a computer exam. Software enables the exam to adapt to challenge a student according to their level of ability and in it is a more accurate method of assessment as any areas of weakness that a student has will be exposed. Paper-based exams are also easy to predict. Computer-based exams need not be – again, making them a more accurate test for students to take.

Another great advantage of computer-based exams is that the editing process of writing is much easier on a computer than on paper. Most students find the writing process much less onerous than pen and paper. The tedium of crossing mistakes out and starting again is not an issue when writing on a computer. Whole paragraphs and sections can be reorganised with the use of copy and paste, in seconds.

What does the future hold?

It is perhaps surprising that computer-based exams have yet to completely take over and replace paper-based exams in schools. In the professional world – in sectors such as accountancy, for example – computer-based exams are well-established. But in schools, far less so.

One issue is the practicalities. In a country such as the UK, it’s not uncommon in large schools for 250 students to sit an exam at the same time in one large exam hall. Even if a school had 250 computers available, the logistics of making them all available at the same time simply isn’t practical.

Still, many predict that pen and paper exams will be axed within a decade.

Essentially, the methods used in examinations – the sitting of them and the marking of them has changed little since Victorian times. Paper-based exams are out of step with technology.

And change is afoot. Some private school entrance exams in England now use online adaptive testing, where a child’s skill can be analysed as they progress through a test. If students cope with easier questions, students are presented with more challenging tasks.

For any exam that requires typing, touch typing is a highly useful skill for any student who is sitting a computer-based exam. Furthermore, for a subject such as English, where extended writing is required, the ability to touch type becomes even more of an advantage.

Examinations need to keep up with examining

It is the developments in examining which are actually driving forward computer-based exams. Examination boards have moved to online marking – choosing to scan millions of exam scripts and distribute them online to examiners to make the assessment process quicker, more secure, and more accurate.

On-screen tests are a logical step. Take-up has been variable, however. In the US, PARCC assessments for students from Grade 3 to Grade 11 are available as computer-based and paper-based exams. Interestingly, students who took the computer version initially scored lower than those who took the pen and paper version.

It has been argued that the effect of digital reading could be, at least in part, to blame for this. Studies have found that students only skim a text (or stop reading it altogether) when it is on a screen.

Similarly, other skills need to be developed if students are to meet the demands of computer-based exams. Some computer-based exams offer a completely different experience to paper, such as adaptive testing. However, Cambridge (one of the world’s leading examination boards) now provides computer and paper versions of its exams.