Tory Hartmann ’11: Blue book exams are the way to go

Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Christina Domenico, a regular opinions columnist for the Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote a column that described the benefits of implementing Securexam, a word processing program that allows students to take in-class exams on their laptops.

The program will shut down if the student attempts to open any other file or program on the computer, thereby barring him or her from looking at saved notes or the Internet.

There are some obvious advantages to using a personal computer, one of which is that it would reduce the stresses inherent to a blue book exam. Like Domenico, I am always somewhat fearful of writing in blue books because I do not know whether my TAs will be able to understand my somewhat illegible handwriting. Typing exam responses will alleviate this concern. 

Domenico also points out that this program would be helpful because it would give students the chance to clearly organize their thoughts. Rachel Wexler ’11 agreed, saying, “The motion of typing makes my thoughts flow.” In an age of computers, this is unsurprising. After all, students are required to type take-home essays and exams, so it is a skill that they have already developed outside of the classroom.

Despite the program’s apparent benefits, I do not like the idea of using Securexam. Call me a Luddite, but I believe that the benefits of hand-writing one’s own responses far outweigh the convenience of a computer.  

Although she believes that she is “a much better typist than a writer,” Kathryn Wiseman ’11 also asserts, “There is something to be said for going in with a pencil and writing yourself.” I agree. When I write out responses to exam questions, I feel much more connected to my work. The physical distance between my pen and my paper and the feel of my hand forming the letters as opposed to typing them adds a degree of intimacy that would disappear with Securexam.

Computers are also inherently distracting. Even though Securexam shuts down if a user attempts to open another application, using a computer during an exam will be distracting to many students. I can imagine now the irritating sound of loudly clicking keys. These added sound effects will only heighten the stressful environment of the examination room.  

Moreover, I am uncomfortable with this potential development because it assumes that all students have access to a laptop computer. Some students choose to use a desktop or library computer when writing take-home papers, and that option would not be available to students if we used the Securexam program.

Domenico contends that this program could still be used so long as the school made laptops available to borrow for exam day. The University does provide laptops for borrowing at the Rock, so a decision like this one would not be unprecedented, although ensuring that laptops are available for every student who might need one would surely be costly.  

Furthermore, students who get to use their own computers will be at an advantage in an exam administered electronically because they will have had extensive experience using their particular brand and model. Students who have to borrow computers miss out on this familiarity and will probably be less comfortable with the
new option. 

Any introduction of this program, mandatory or not, will make students feel obligated to use it. Since the typed-out exams will be more legible, graders might have an unintentional inclination to favor such exams. Because certain students are more computer-literate than others, they will have an unfair advantage over students who have not had the same level of exposure to computers. 

Although one might argue that disparities like this one already manifest themselves in blue book exams between students who have different educational backgrounds, the disparity created by Securexam will be even greater.  

Instead of being a great convenience, Securexam will prove to be a hindrance to many students. Perhaps it will decrease some amount of stress in certain instances. But I can picture computers malfunctioning on exam day. This type of situation is nearly impossible to imagine happening on a written exam. 

Ultimately, the unfortunate circumstances in which a computer may malfunction or students may not have their own laptops to bring on exam day are not the only things that make me feel that implementing this program would be a poor choice.

It is important that we leave certain things in school as they are and that we avoid computerizing everything because being able to write coherently without the aid of a computer is a valuable skill that should not be forgotten.  

Tory Hartmann ’11 is a political science concentrator from Hillsborough, New Jersey. She can be reached at


  • Robert Cohen

    I am confident that this will fail if students are allowed to run the software on their own computers. Just off the top of my head, I’ve figured out two probable solutions for getting around the program:

    1. Run a virtualization program like VMWare Fusion on your Mac, run Secureexam inside of a virtual machine.
    2. Print screen your notes, then set them as the background image. Or set them as the screensaver and set the timer to 1 minute.

    I can find other ways to do it, but this obviously woundn’t work unless the computer itself was owned by the university and locked down super-hard.

  • Dave Wilson

    I wrote my senior thesis on Technology in the Classroom and have researched Securexam and similar options quite extensively. A couple corrections to your article – the program does not shut down if you try to access outside materials, it simply blocks them. You cannot get to the internet, open files, access a USB key etc. Once you are in the exam you are locked in.

    To Roberts point, having your notes as your background is useless because you cannot see the background. Also the program does will not run inside a virtual machine, and will not run with any remote access programs running. (I tested these personally)

    I also surveyed 150 students across campus and 93% of them would prefer to have the option of typing exams instead handwriting, so I believe your opinion is that of the extreme minority.

    I do not believe there is any tangible advantage to using your own computer as opposed to a loaned, or different one as the author suggests. Do you have trouble using the computers in the library because they are different than yours? I highly doubt it.