Adventures in Universal Design: Handwriting Notes and In-class Exams

Last night I had a long twitter argument about universal design in the classroom. Here’s my position:

I do not intend to ever give another in-class exam, even though I acknowledge there is research that being forced to memorize and study may have beneficial results on learning. I will also not ban laptops in the classroom (I have experimented with turning off wi-fi in the classroom, but I’m not convinced that’s the right away forward), despite the research suggesting that handwriting is better for learning than laptops.

The problem is that we, as teachers, make these decisions based on surface-level reactions to highly mediated studies. We see – handwriting better! We respond – ban laptops! And since we don’t really like our students clacking away on keys and using Facebook, having a study to confirm our pre-existing biases against laptops. And similarly many of us found the process of having to study for exams then sit them in a classroom clarifying and powerful

But there are problems – First, technology is becoming so deeply embedded in our lives that it’s increasingly unlikely we can hermetically seal the classroom from it. Sure, we can ban laptops. But not “fingernail computers” or “eye contact computers” or whatever the future holds.

Second, whatever comes next tech wise, right now there are millions of disabled students for whom handwriting is either sub-optimal or impossible. The ADA gives people with clearly diagnosed conditions the power to accommodate, and that’s an awesome power indeed, but first it leaves people out, and second it suggests that disabled students are doomed to a “second-best” pedagogy. That’s not acceptable to me.

Importantly, I think these studies (if true. Remember the replication issue in psych) do not demand we limit our pedagogy to reward one type of neurotypical student. Instead, these studies say figure out WHY in-class tests have advantages and figure out WHY handwriting and has advantages – then work very hard to achieve those advantages in diverse ways.

For my take home exams, I try to replicate some of the pressures of the in-class exam, because my understanding of the research is that the in-class exam is a useful way to push students to internalize information. For note-taking, I discuss why and how

For note-taking, here’s Josh Eyler (a man who knows vastly more about the scholarship of learning than I do):

There’s nothing magical about a pen and paper. What happens is that when using a pen and paper, students can write less, so they think harder about what to write, and thus take better notes and begin the process of internalizing what’s important. This can be replicated with laptops.

We can do this. We can focus on ends – better learning – and not the means we figured out in eras past to achieve those ends.

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