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A common rule in exams is to require them being written with permanent (non-erasable) pens, which includes usually ballpoint pens and fountain pens filled with special ink. The rule forbids using fountain pens with erasable ink, ink erasers, pencils, correction tape, or fluid.

What is the point of such a rule?

I’ll give my answer according to my own research and understanding below, but I am interested in anything that adds to it or refutes it.

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    I don't believe I have actually seen this restriction, at all levels ...
    – Allure
    Feb 25 at 23:29
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    Kind of bizarre to see this question. Is this a question anyone ever asked? Is it not obvious it's to prevent altering the marks after the fact?
    – user541686
    Feb 26 at 7:22
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    @user541686: It is not obvious to some of my students for sure. Since I could not really find a comprehensive resource on this, I thought I might as well create one.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Feb 26 at 7:56
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Really? I don't think I ever took an exam where I was required to write with pen. Indeed, for many exams I was required to use a pencil to accommodate ancient automatic scanners that relied on the reflectivity of pencil marks and would report an exam with answers written in pen as blank.
    – A. R.
    Feb 27 at 13:46
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    "A common rule in exams is to require them being written with permanent (non-erasable) pens" - Is it? I'm currently attending classes at a university in the US and all of my professors require my tests be taken with erasable pencils. Is this more common in other countries, perhaps? Feb 27 at 22:30

4 Answers 4

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I see three reasons for this (roughly sorted by relevance):

  • The forbidden tools increase the opportunities for the student to tamper with the exam when they get to review it and remark marking mistakes.¹ While examiners can make a point by completely ignoring anything using forbidden tools, this would be disproportionately strict and also just creates extra work for the examiners. However, examiners have good reason to refuse to correct their markings on an exam or part thereof where forbidden tools were used.

  • Most, if not all of the forbidden tools are more susceptible to accidental damage: Non-permanent ink dissolves better, correction tape can be rubbed off, some correctable ink is susceptible to light and temperature, etc. Should any of these things happen and not using forbidden tool could have avoided the loss or distortion of answers, the examiner can more easily (and often justifiably) refuse any claims based on this. For example, anybody can claim that correction tape with relevant content written on top somehow rubbed off during the correction of the exam.

  • It is more difficult for the correctors to tamper with the exam and thus it is more difficult for the student to demonstrate that this happened. (Thanks to Federico Poloni for adding this point.)

So, from the examiner’s point of view, students use the the forbidden tools at their own risk.


¹ Of course, it is never possible to fully exclude that somebody improves their solution by simply adding something, but such things can only be done with suitable mistakes and corrections. For example, a student may fix a mistake by changing “x” to “x²”, but only if the latter happens to be correct and the correction wasn’t adding a “²” in red (or whatever colour is used for correction). On top, the exam review should be surveilled to spot if anybody is writing in their exams.

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    You are missing a third reason: it makes it harder for the teacher to tamper with the exam. Feb 25 at 12:15
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    As @yo' said, you see the student's thought process. This can be useful if there is a suspicion of cheating
    – toby544
    Feb 25 at 14:19
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    @toby544: While this may provide some counter-evidence against cheating, I would not rely to much on it. Some students prefer to perform the thought process mostly in their heads and they should certainly not be punished for that.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Feb 25 at 14:27
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    "exclude that somebody improves their solution by simply adding something" - we had exams where TAs were encouraged to cross out any space left free during correction (just a swipe across the page), to make it easier to detect such tampering. It was a large class and students were allowed to write during review, on separate sheets for their remarks or personal note-taking.
    – Bergi
    Feb 25 at 19:47
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: One purpose of the event is that the students get to remonstrate grading mistakes, so there is some incentive to tamper with the exam. While surveillance and the prohibition of pens also serve to prevent tampering, forbidding correction tools in the exam adds another layer of security here. None of these measures is very good on its own, but taken together they are.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Feb 27 at 11:16
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The answer by Wrzlprmft focuses on exam integrity reasons for this instruction. I'm more familiar with an academic system in the US that does not treat most exams quite as seriously as is common in Europe, so while I think everything in this answer is accurate I've also heard reasons related to the type of work expected and practical issues with erasing.

If the instructor is expecting a stream-of-consciousness sort of answer and not an edited manuscript, they do not want students to go back over and erase and edit their work because this will cost them time "improving" things that don't matter for the grade at the cost of time not spent on those that do.

Practically, erasers (particularly for pencil) often do not work well and it can take substantial effort to erase and the results may not be legible. A simple strike through and re-write in ink, if necessary, takes less time and is more legible anyways.

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    I don't find this argument very convincing. Surely, part of education is also that the student learns in which situations to be cautious about cosmetic details of the written text, and in which to avoid wasting time on this! Regarding erasers specifically, they can send vibrations through a whole row of tables, distracting other examinees, so there's that at least... Feb 27 at 9:17
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    @leftaroundabout There are a range of views on those sorts of "meta instruction" goals; many educators would say "my job is to teach Physics, therefore my assessments should be strictly on students' knowledge of Physics" and anything else is noise. In that context, the instructor wants students to focus on specifically what they are being assessed on rather than testing whether they know to avoid cosmetic details when not necessary. It can be painful to see a student who knows the material perform poorly on a test for reasons not relevant to the course content.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 27 at 13:20
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    "does not treat most exams quite as seriously as is common in Europe" [citation needed] Feb 27 at 16:27
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    @CaptainEmacs Maybe "formally" would have been a better choice of word. And, yes, it's probably a mistake to ever say "Europe" as if it refers to one place.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 27 at 20:35
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    @BryanKrause Ok, I take it back. Then the US is like Germany (at least as it was 20 or so years ago). Feb 28 at 0:45
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In addition to concerns about cheating, I think there are more mundane practical concerns:

  • Correction fluid can create a mess, including melting/sticking pages together/getting ripped off.

(I think correction tape may suffer from similar problems but to a lesser extent.)

On Cambridge International exams (example), the instructions contain this line: Do not use staples, paper clips, glue or correction fluid.

Putting correction fluid together with staples, paper clips, and glue strongly suggests the concern is less about cheating and more about the above practical concern.

  • Pens are often clearer than pencils

Also from the Cambridge International exam instructions: Write in dark blue or black pen.

We know markers use red pens. But the above also specifically prohibits pens of any other colors (e.g. light blue/pink/purple/green), suggesting there is a desire for exam-takers' writing to be clearly legible.

Also, nowadays, exam scripts are sometimes scanned (where again any writing in pencil might be less clear than writing in dark blue/black pens).

  • Some teachers/schools/academic systems treat any writing in pencil as the student's own rough work for herself that will be ignored and won't be marked
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    Green pen is sometimes used if there's a 2nd marker - and that accounts for all the common colours when the rules originated. Now you can get any colour you like, it's still clearer to stick with blues and blacks for work to be marked. I have seen professional exams being marked on photocopies - blue and black copy well unlike some colours (at least in the past)
    – Chris H
    Feb 26 at 13:19
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    I occasionally had to use a different colour than red to mark an exam, because the student wrote their exam in multiple colours of pen, including red. When this happened I would make a note on the front of the script explaining what colour I had marked in and why. So the requirement that students write in blue or black is not just for legibility, it also allows markings made by different authors to be differentiated.
    – kaya3
    Feb 26 at 15:42
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All our exams (a Norwegian university) that's still conducted on paper are done on triplicate carbon copy paper. This means that erasing isn't possible, so using erasable tools are just asking for trouble if the student try to erase anything (or use correction tools like tape or fluid). And ballpoint pens work better for getting a proper copy on all three layers than pencils do.

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    That's an interesting fact - do the students get to take a copy? Or does everything get processed with in the system?
    – Joe
    Feb 28 at 12:10
  • @Joe: 1 copy for the student which they get immediately, 2 copies for the institution, usually intended so both the internal and external examiner can get a copy each. Then, after correcting, 1 copy is stored in the archives (the top form in the triplicate, the one the student actually wrote on)
    – Remy
    Feb 29 at 10:59
  • that's super interesting, I'll be telling my students that immediately.
    – Joe
    Mar 6 at 14:20

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