The end of paper based exams?

All UK exams sat on computers by 2023?

“By 2023 pen and paper will be a thing of the past.” That was the prediction from David Hansen of the Independent Association of Prep Schools in 2013.

The idea that computer-based testing will drive assessment forward has been around for a long time, but the pace of uptake to new technologies has been slower than expected.

With great advances in technology and most students using digital devices in everyday life, are assessment systems falling behind?

Other countries lead the way

Well no, not everywhere. In Norway, Georgia and New South Wales it is now standard for subjects such as English, Reading and Maths exams to be sat digitally. The US has also widely adopted computer-based testing, particularly in law schools. 

But when it comes to e-assessment, we are lagging behind. Although digital solutions are being used in the UK for marking, moderating and then publishing the results, computers aren’t used to deliver the exams. Either students use pencils to mark answers on machine readable paper sheets for multiple choice examinations or have cramped hands from hours of writing essays.

Various government backed strategies to drive e-testing forward have failed. In 2007, for example, a national ICT exam for 14-year-olds that cost £26m to produce was aborted because marks were not comparable to teacher assessment.

Why is this a problem?

The fact that assignments have to be typed and submitted electronically, but we ask students to complete summative high stake exams with pen and paper, is backwards. How does asking students to complete a handwritten examination prepare them for the work place? Never mind the poor marker who then has to interpret various handwriting styles. 


Slow marking
Paper-based testing is a hugely inefficient process when it comes to marking. The common practice of students marking their answers on a bubble sheet which is then scanned by an optical mark recognition (OMR) scanner is a slow process. Adopting a digital system massively reduces the marking time. For example, it was found that for one exam sat by 330 medical students it would take 10 hours to mark with an OMR scanner but only two seconds if marked using a computer-based system

Slow feedback
Students often have to wait weeks or months to receive their results but with digital exams lecturers can know who has passed before the candidate has even left the building. Not only can students receive feedback quicker but the item analysis that can be produced by using online assessment software means questions can be improved to create quality assured exams more efficiently. 

What does the future hold?

It’s unlikely that the prediction of paper-based exams being replaced digitally by 2023 will come true. But there is potential for universities using OMR sheets to quickly deploy digital exams and reap the benefits. This could happen if there is a raised awareness of how high stakes exams can be delivered digitally both securely and practically to drive e-assessment forward to a technology able generation of learners. 

Look out for our next blog on how to overcome the main barriers to switching from paper to computer-based testing.