The Case for Open-Book Testing
Written by Erin Thomas, Communications Coordinator and Student Office Assistant for Manitoba’s Flexible Learning HUB
I’m a student, and I’ve never really liked how conventional closed-book testing seems to emphasize memorization over understanding. In most cases this emphasis is unintended, but it exists, nonetheless. I’ve always been pretty decent with memorization, but it put me under a lot of pressure, especially during midterms or exams when I was trying to memorize two different classes at once.
I can’t speak for all students and I can’t speak with any authority here. What I can do is share my experience, which mirrors that of many of my peers. In this post I’ll let you in on this experience, share my opinions, and offer some suggestions for how you could implement open-book testing in your course.
The COVID Experiment
In March of 2020, we all had to make a sudden pivot to online learning. While some instructors resorted to invigilation software for testing, all of mine went for an open-book method instead. For the first time, I felt like all of my classes were testing me on understanding, not memorization. If summative assignments are supposed to test my understanding, why hadn’t this happened before?
In short, it took a global pandemic to force us into trying something new. Closed-book testing has been the norm for so long that the possibility of open-book testing seemed outright preposterous for both students and instructors alike. If you’re one of the rare few who used open-book tests pre-COVID, I salute your innovation. For everyone else, COVID offered a silver lining: the opportunity to be forced into an online learning experiment! While this might not be everyone’s idea of a silver lining, it was certainly informative.
Instructors everywhere figured out how to teach and how to test differently. They sought advice from colleagues and gave it themselves, working together to keep the semester alive. They made mistakes and came back stronger for those mistakes. They took risks and tried new things including (but not limited to) making their tests and exams open book.
In a refreshed exam season, my studying was a little different. I re-did all of my assignments and spent time looking at my notes like I usually do, but I didn’t spend all night making sure I had every definition memorized down to the word. I didn’t panic because I knew that I understood the material, and if I wanted a word-for-word definition, I had my notes!
Beyond testing understanding over memory, open-book testing also significantly reduces stress to a student’s mental health before a test or exam. I can speak to this personally: I’m a high-achieving student, and the thought of getting a bad grade because of some missed vocabulary or an incorrect formula absolutely terrifies me. Even though I’m confident that I understand the course content, I can’t memorize the textbook and that will always leave me feeling really anxious – and I usually test well!
For students who often test poorly, this anxiety can be much more extreme. The panic makes them less able to recall the information that they knew right before the test, reducing their ability to perform. The resulting low grade that they receive will only further amplify their existing stress around testing. Open-book testing can help to break this cycle. When taking an exam feels like freefall, having your notes feels like a pretty good safety net. You can’t suddenly gain an understanding by reading all of your notes during an exam (no time for that!), but you can double-check your work and feel more comfortable knowing that your memory doesn’t need to be perfect.
The question types that you usually use on a test can significantly affect how easy it is to make your tests open book. Long answer questions tend to be better-suited to open-book testing, but a well-written multiple-choice question can be just as good! The important part is trying to test students on their understanding of processes, concepts and their application – not just facts.
Having access to resources during a test can actually be a great exercise for students. In the workforce, they’ll likely have access to information when they encounter a problem. Their issue won’t be having to have everything memorized, but having to choose a resource (notes, textbook, internet, co-worker?) that can provide them with the information that they need within their time constraints. However, a no-internet open-book structure is often the best option for both students and instructors. If everything I need is in my notes, why would I even want to Google a question?
Open-book exams can also relieve concerns about academic integrity. When students aren’t as stressed and aren’t trying to memorize a textbook, there’s little incentive for dishonest practices.
Quick Note: Many instructors allow students to write open-book exams within a limited time period so that they don’t have time to look up every answer in their notes. This is an appropriate strategy, but be mindful to keep it reasonable. Time-crunch exams can unfairly penalize students who read, write or type a little slower than others.
For those who hesitate to make their tests open-book, a halfway point could be a good compromise or a jumping-off point for future exploration. What’s this halfway point? A cheat sheet! Despite the unfortunate name, ‘cheat sheets’ can be really useful tools for learning. Consider offering students the option to bring in an 8.5×11” paper of handwritten notes, either single or double sided. This will give them the option to write down definitions and formulas that they may have trouble with.
In my experience, being allowed a ‘cheat sheet’ has not only made me less stressed about a test, but also more prepared. Almost every time I am allowed to use a cheat sheet, the same thing happens: I spend hours writing the perfect cheat sheet with all of the important stuff that I need to know, then don’t end up using it because I’ve retained everything that I rewrote!
I’ll be the first to admit that open-book testing doesn’t work for every situation.
Large classes can be one of the most notable exceptions. If you can make a multiple-choice midterm that’s suited to open book that’s great, but I’m not here to tell you to grade a midterm of long-answer responses for your class of 250. That’s just not practical!
Aside from class size, subject matter can significantly influence whether open-book testing is appropriate for your course.
Open-book testing can be used relatively easily with number-based subjects like math, physics, and some sciences. Problem-solving questions are already common, and I can demonstrate my understanding by applying course concepts to new problems or applications. In these courses, providing a formula sheet is already a common practice. Why print out formula sheets when notes can serve the same purpose with less paper waste?
On the other hand, open-book testing can be applied to some of the most word-heavy subjects like English and philosophy with relative ease. Long-answer and essay question formats are already common, and written answers usually go far beyond what’s in the course notes. If students are constructing answers from their own understanding anyways, what’s wrong with letting them reference a few definitions from their notes? In these cases, course notes will probably act more like a safety blanket or comfort object than like a resource; I’m not likely to rely on them for significant concepts, but the fact that I have my notes available as a backup will significantly reduce stress.
The most difficult subjects to convert to open-book testing seem to fall in between these two ends of the spectrum. For subjects like biology where students can best demonstrate their understanding by providing definitions, making open-book tests can be especially tricky.
I’m just a student, and I don’t have all of the answers. If you teach a tougher subject, consider working with colleagues or seeking out external resources for assistance.
Try it Out
Personally, I think that open-book testing has revolutionized my educational experience. I’m learning more and stressing less. I’m learning to apply concepts and show my understanding in new ways. For this reason, I hope that this is one of the positive lessons that we learn from COVID.
If you tried out open-book testing this year, consider making it a permanent feature of your course. If you went for invigilation instead, think about consulting a colleague who could help you rephrase questions to open up your testing.
If you’d like to talk to someone about how to best apply open-book testing, reach out to the HUB.