Click to the future: exams to go digital to better prepare the workforce of tomorrow

Published: Tuesday 17 Oct 2023

Digital exams will help young people develop the skills they need for the future, a new report by leading exam board AQA says. This news comes just two weeks after the Government said that, with the Advanced British Standard, it would consider adopting digital exams to assess students in innovative ways.

'Making it Click: The case for digital examinations in England' says that we should move to digital exams in an evolutionary, not revolutionary, way.

In the report, AQA is announcing that the reading and listening components of its GCSE Italian and Polish will, subject to regulatory approval, be assessed digitally in 2026. AQA is aiming to continue introducing further components in other subjects at GCSE and A-level, until at least one of the large entry subjects (eg GCSE English) is partly assessed digitally in 2030.

Students' devices will be offline in the exam hall; they will not be able to search for information on the internet, nor will they be able to access artificial intelligence tools.

The model for exams hasn't changed much since AQA, an education charity that is England's biggest provider of GCSEs and A-levels, was founded 120 years ago. Although paper-based exams continue to be one useful way of assessing students, AQA believes it's time to widen the range of media we use.

The case for moving to digital exams is strong. Digital exams:

  • allow young people to use their digital skills;
  • are better for the environment;
  • are truer to the digital world people are growing up and working in;
  • can help students with special educational needs;
  • don't make students worry about handwriting bias.

Longer term, digital exams could be a more engaging way of assessing what a student knows, understands and can do. For example, for modern foreign language students, there could be interactive video and audio with conversations in parks, restaurants and town centres.

AQA's polling and focus groups with teachers, students and parents show that most people welcome the prospect of digital exams:

  • 68% of young people surveyed agreed that digital exams would be better preparation for future work, education or training;
  • 63% of 11-18 year-olds felt comfortable using a computer for longer than an hour – only 36% felt comfortable using pen and paper for more than an hour;
  • 68% of parents agreed that exams need to move with the times.

A student who took part in AQA's pilots of digital exams said: "I feel like it's quicker to type my responses rather than write which gives me more time to develop more ideas."

AQA has been trialling digital exams for several years and will continue to do so. We anticipate a system where paper-based and digitally delivered exams coexist – but not for the same exam paper or component. Either all students will sit a paper exam, or all will sit the exam digitally.

Colin Hughes, AQA's Chief Executive Officer, said:

"Technology and change are two constants in education. After all, we went from quills to fountain pens to biros, and from scrolls to books. Moving to digital exams is the next step of this evolution.

"We cannot and should not change the way we conduct exams overnight. AQA has spent several years trialling and piloting digital exams and we will roll them out over many years. Our ambition is that students will sit a large-entry subject – that means, in our case, hundreds of thousands of simultaneous exams – digitally by 2030.

"In the meantime, we'll continue to talk to teachers, school leaders and exams officers about how they want to make these changes. The benefits are substantial."

Find out more about AQA digital exams

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