Writing for recognition

I look at the pile of answer booklets with some sense of anticipation — and a little trepidation. There’s always a tinge of hopeful excitement at the beginning of a new academic session, when we are on the verge of welcoming a new group of students and research scholars into the department. One group is screened on the basis of machine-read optical-character-recognition sheets, unmediated by humans. Another is evaluated in the old way, by people reading answers written out in longhand.

Apart from the usual difficulties that teachers face in evaluating subjective essays, there is an additional problem that we often face, and that has nothing to do with the substance of an answer, but its appearance. Some of the submissions are written in a script that is near impossible to read, the writing is an impenetrable scrawl, or the letters are so tiny that I wish I had a magnifier to make them visible.Often, dense writing covers page after page, with no paragraph breaks or markers to tell me that the writer is moving from one point or idea to the next.

Balancing act

I do get that students are tense and anxious, wanting to put down everything they know (or disguising what they don’t know) in the limited time available in an examination. By and large, evaluators are a tolerant lot; they understand the pressures examinees are under, and take a charitable attitude towards answer scripts — but at minimum, they must be able to figure out what’s in them.

Writing an examination is a delicate balancing act; you have to understand the question, pull out of your mind the specific bits of information that the answer requires, figure out the level of detail needed, and then fit it all into the time given. But writing an exam is only half the process. The person at the other end — the reader — completes the other part. They need to know that you have understood the question and its scope and have provided an appropriate and adequate response. If the writing and organisation of the answer does not allow for easy reading, it would be difficult for even the kindest and most charitable evaluator to rate it — let alone rate it high.

In recent years, the quality of handwriting (what used to be called “penmanship”) has received less attention, partly because of the entry of the computer. But all through school, and most of college, we are still required to write by hand. We don’t need to be calligraphists, but it would help to develop a clear, strong hand, one that can be read without too much effort. Keep in mind that the person who is reading the script is most likely faced with a big pile of similar answer books, and must have the ability to decipher several different styles of handwriting, while also looking for whether the key points and arguments have been made. The higher the level of the examination, the more crucial it is that the writing is clear in style, content, and appearance.

So, as you prepare to write that exam, make sure you work on achieving a reasonable level of clarity — in what you write, and how you write it. Remember, there’s a person at the other end who needs to understand it!

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus. [email protected]

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