From our work in schools and with teachers, it has become apparent there is a Halo Effect in relation to neat, cursive (joined-up) handwriting and a pupil’s academic ability.
All too often, we assess handwriting on a positive quality or feature that stands out the most, usually neatness. This halo effect is a form of cognitive bias which influences how the writer’s handwriting is perceived.
This has a significant impact across the education system when it comes to exam performance – a detrimental and unfair assessment of a pupil which has the impact of inflicting lasting damage.
Can handwriting be too perfect?
It is imperative that we remember that handwriting is a form of communication – there is a clear purpose of handwriting and that is to communicate with someone.
Presumed academic ability related to the neatness of handwriting
From speaking with teachers and educational professionals, there appears to be a conscious or unconscious bias by markers or teachers marking when handwriting is not perfect or perceived as “neat”.
Why is there a perception of poor handwriting = lack of effort or knowledge?
This has a detrimental and unfair impact on children, their marks, and performance in the classroom.
It is astounding to find exam markers are making assumptions about academic ability based on handwriting. When we talk about markers, this could be teachers marking for internal assessment.
Pharmacist and Academic Paper Anecdote
The size of the problem became apparent when speaking to a Pharmacist who was asked to write a paper with another student, only to receive a lower mark than the other student despite the content being identical.
Following an investigation, the Pharmacist had been marked down as the marker had struggled to read the paper in comparison to the student with “neater” handwriting.
If this is happening in academia – what is going on in our primary and secondary schools when it comes to SATs and GCSEs?
Review of Moderation
At a time of the school year when pupils have just completed their SATs and GCSEs are in full swing, the quality of handwriting moderation has to be called into question.
I am keen to understand the training moderators receive as there appears to be a huge disparity between regions and moderators.
I spend a great deal of time delivering training to teachers in schools as handwriting doesn’t feature during teacher training. If you haven’t been taught how to teach handwriting by a handwriting expert, how do moderators know what they are looking for?
There also seems to be a misconception amongst moderators that the lead-in stroke is a statutory requirement for Key Stage 1 SATs. It’s not!
It is essential that markers (external and teachers) have a full understanding of what legibility is and remove the presumptions around perfection, neatness, and cursive with the lead-in stroke.
We require standardisation to training for moderators to ensure there is consistency across the UK.
The negative Halo Effect
The Halo Effect can influence how teachers mark handwriting and how students perceive their handwriting.
However, it’s the reverse halo effect that worries me. The phenomenon whereby the positive perceptions of having neat handwriting can yield negative consequences where the writer only focuses on neatness and not the content of their writing. The writer becomes upset when ‘neatness’ cannot be achieved.
What is its impact of it when it comes to exams?
Is marking too focused on looking for the ‘perfect’ letter formation and cursive handwriting?
There are many different styles and types of handwriting, therefore searching for perfection is impossible to define.
Are pupils being unfairly judged as a result and; therefore marked down based on their handwriting before the marker has even read the content of their answers?
The focus has to be on legibility. The definition of legibility is “the quality of being clear enough to read.”
If a marker is able to read the handwriting in an exam paper, there should be no impact on how a mark is awarded.