Preparing To Use A Scribe For Exams

For students who really struggle with putting thoughts to paper, one of the things we usually recommend for VCE and university exams is the use of a scribe.

There are many reasons why a scribe is particularly helpful for some students. For students with specific learning disorder in the area of Reading (dyslexia) and/or written expression (dysgraphia) writing is a burden and causes anxiety.

Similarly, there are many students who experience slow processing speed (skills in the speed of mental problem solving, attention and hand-eye coordination). Generally, these students have difficulties completing work within expected time limits and they write very slowly.

Slow processing speed is a part of many clinical presentations (including specific learning disorder, AD/HD, and autism spectrum disorders), but it also affects people who do not have any diagnosable disorder.

For example, some students with slow processing speed have a high IQ, or are even gifted, but writing answers on paper is not the best way of capturing their skills. Rather, they might learn better by listening to question, and explaining themselves verbally.

For exam considerations, slow processing speed in itself is not a classifiable disorder, so students are unlikely to be able to get special consideration for exams, unless it’s part of a specific clinical presentation.

Our society still places quite a bit of emphasis on what is essentially clerical skills, but research is indicating that this will likely improve over time. For example, a recent article in New York Times indicated that slowly but surely many hospitals and medical centres in the USA are employing scribes to assist health practitioners with note taking in consultations.

Use of a scribe is a great opportunity for any student who struggles with writing. However, this particular style of communicating does come with some extra considerations that are worth exploring.

If your child has never worked with a scribe before, then it’s absolutely essential that they have several practices before the exam. Your child needs to be able to get used to the novelty of the situation so that in the actual exam they can focus their attention on answering the question.

Firstly, they need to get used to the idea that the scribe is just there to write, and other than giving minimal encouragers for clarity (e.g., nodding, smiling, saying ‘uh huh’) they are not supposed to actually engage in the content. This can be off-putting because it can feel quite unnatural to sit alone in a room with someone who doesn’t really respond to what you say. There’s also the temptation to look for subtle feedback on your answers, or too spend too much time concentrating on self-monitoring (‘do I sound ok?’, ‘do I look stupid?’) rather than on the exam question.

Generally speaking, A scribe will:

  • Read what they are asked to read and repeat where asked
  • Write down exactly what the student says
  • Read back what has been dictated, if requested
  • Make alterations to what has been written

A scribe will not:

  • Define words
  • Explain any questions
  • Suggest when to move on to the next question
  • Give comments about the content of what has been written

Preparation tips:

  • Figure out which method you prefer to organise information (mind-maps, bullet-points, short sentences etc)
  • We don’t write in the same way that we talk, so practice speaking slightly more formally, in well-formed sentences so that your answers are clearer.
  • It’s a good idea to practice with someone you don’t know well, because with family and friends it’s actually quite difficult to remain formal. Rather, you’ll tend to fall into traps of using shortcuts like saying “you know what I mean” or “just put down something about X” which is not helpful in the actual exam.
  • Use old exam questions and practice answering them
  • Keep time limits the same as your actual exam

In the exam:

  • Take 5 minutes to plan. If you’re able, write any mind maps and dot points you think of before starting the dictation, and tell the scribe what you’re doing.
  • Think about what you want to say before you say it. Try visualising it in your head, or quietly rehearsing to yourself under your breath.
  • If you get stuck for a word, don’t panic. Take a breath, close your eyes and start your thought again.
  • If you lose track of what you were thinking, you can ask the scribe to read back what has been written, or ask to read yourself.

Further reading:

The University of Western Australia has quite a good manual on use of scribes and how students who are using one can best prepare.

New York Times article:


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