Infinite Monkeys

Today marks the unofficial end of the school year around here with the last exam being written this morning. It has now been several years since we have adopted exam writing via computer and it is a now the standard. With that standard there are a few changes from the traditional scribbled examinations. Firstly, faculty members far prefer marking word processed exams as they no longer have to obtain special qualifications in hieroglyphics in order to mark exams. That alone is enough of a plus in the eyes of most and it is not really necessary to extoll the virtues of writing law exams by computer. That being said, I have noticed some other, subtle, changes in exam writing over the years as we have transitioned to writing via computer.

Virtually no one finishes early and leaves now, with word processing it is easy enough to go back and insert text into a previously written answer as opposed to having to try and make room in examination booklets. So if a student finishes the exam they will likely go back and insert text into a previously written answer. Which is connected to the next point, which is that in a lot of cases writing exams by word processing has probably led to a loss of structure in answers where students just tend to write everything they can think of, and type, in the time allotted rather than construct a well thought out answer, in short there was been a rise of quantity but not necessarily a rise in quality of the answers.

It is thinking about these changes in exam writing that led me to extrapolate about how these changes likely also apply more widely in our workplaces and lives. When was the last time you saw a story about the paperless office? What a nice sentiment that was (likely perpetrated as a marketing campaign by those clever folks at Wernham-Hogg). I think it is safe to say that the central role of word processors in our lives has led to more text being produced and more paper flowing across our desks. Sure some docs are born digital and remain digital and I do my best to keep documents in digital form whenever I can; however, that does not seem to stem the flow of paper that arrives on my desk. Not coincidentally the end of term is when I get out the metaphorical flame thrower and terraform those mountains of paper, I enjoy the subsequent two days……

So the attendant question is whether the rise in quantity of text has been accompanied by a rise in quality of what we produce? I’m thinking more generally and in our work lives than in the academic sphere which is a different scenario, but I’ll acknowledge that the same principles might apply. I’m not putting forward a hypothesis, it is a ponder-able. The infinite monkey theory posits that a million monkeys hitting keys on a keyboard or one monkey hitting keys infinitely will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare. Even if that were the case would all the detritus associated with the work be worth it? When you sit down to create something with a word processor do you plan out what you are going to write or do you simply start writing and worry about the arranging later? I’m not saying that either method is better or worse than the other, I’m sure that both methods work well for different individuals. What I am saying is that the digital manipulation of text has changed the way we the text gets from our brains to the digital (and then printed) page and I’m not sure if it has had an attendant change on the quality of the text we produce. We definitely produce more but are we infinite monkeys or are we more aspiring Shakespeare-ians?


  1. I have very, very mixed feelings about word-processed exams. I love not having to decipher handwriting, but in my view they tend to lead to overall worse answers from students. In particular, I think they accentuate the already existing tendency of students to disengage their critical faculties when writing an exam, so that they write down tons of stuff from their CANs without really thinking about whether it applies to the facts. I sometimes read 5000 word answers where 1500 was all that was needed, and the other stuff hurts more than it helps. In my ideal world I would have a word limit for each question but the program we use doesn’t effectively allow that.

  2. That is an interesting thought Alice. Could decreasing the time allotted to the exam possibly have the same effect?