Are open-book exams more suited to the future of assessment?
Traditionally, when you think of exams, you might imagine students sitting in an exam hall with just a few necessary items to complete the test – a pen, exam script, ruler, calculator… but no notes. As assessment providers experience a necessary shift towards evaluating softer skills and work-ready capabilities, an open-book format is being adopted more widely. Open-book exams enable students to have access to notes and other resources to help them to apply the knowledge learned as opposed to simply knowledge recall. But is it a superior approach? How might this shape assessment moving forwards? Let’s explore.
Open-book exams encourage learning on a deeper level. They enable students to engage with the subject material in a way that moves beyond rote memorisation to a more comprehensive and immersive understanding of the subject matter. The question turns from what into how. Providing students with access to their textbooks, notes and other resources online and offline incentivises them to think more critically and analyse the information presented to them, rather than rinse and repeat. Engaging students in these higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of information from several sources is exactly what the modern workforce is calling out for to differentiate candidates and add value to organisational processes. Promoting the development of these skills through open-book exams can help students from a younger age feel more prepared for the real world where they will often be faced with complex problems that require creative solutions.
The structure of traditional closed-book exams can be stressful for students, leading to test anxiety and impacting overall performance. Open-book environments can be more relaxing for students by allowing access to notes and resources – ensuring they can focus on the task at hand and demonstrate their capabilities. But don’t be fooled! Open-book exams “require as much preparation as traditional exams” and there is often only time to check basic facts in the exam itself (Dale et al, 2009). This can be quite overwhelming for students who struggle with organisation and prioritisation as open-book exams require students to prepare their notes and resources as comprehensively as possible to ensure they have the key information to hand. Once sitting the exam, if students spend too much time looking up information, they might find they run out of time or submit incomplete answers. With this, it’s good for exam providers to give an estimate of how long students should spend on each question and stress the need for good time management and preparation.
The potential for open-book exams to negatively impact academic integrity of assessment is something that the approach is scrutinised over. In the absence of invigilation and with access to notes, there is an increased risk of malpractice such as copying and pasting of information, colluding with peers or seeking help from contract cheating companies (UCL, 2021). Educators should provide guidance and strong deterrents to discourage malpractice. They must provide students with clear guidelines on how to use and cite sources appropriately, what the implications of malpractice are, and should communicate the materials allowed in the context of the open-book exam (UCL, 2021). The design of the exam can also help to offset potential collusion by randomising the order of questions and answer options in each paper to make it more difficult to discuss externally. The timing of the exam is also crucial here – ensuring the overall exam time given is long enough to complete the questions but not enough to collude with others.
As the future of the workplace and skills needed changes, assessment must evolve with it and open-book exams are a valid way of promoting deeper learning and critical thinking and evaluating a student’s understanding of a subject. Providers that opt for open-book format must communicate clearly with candidates what is required so that they can take the test to the best of their ability. By incorporating a mix of open and closed-book exams, students can showcase their cognitive range from knowledge recall to problem solving (Dave et al, 2009). Ultimately, chosen formats need to fit the purpose of the assessment in question, so that students can be assessed more holistically on their capabilities and understanding.