Why should assessments be hard? This is a perennial question from students of all generations alike. Students are not implying to make assessments easy or trivial, but they are pointing to a flawed prioritisation in what aspect of our learning is tested. Assessments on recall are hard. So are assessments of application! The hard that students refer to is often that of recall burden, and not necessarily that of burdens of thinking far, wide and deep.

There are differences in purposes and priorities of different types of assessments. Often they are what divide teachers and students, and to a large extent even bystanders. The debate ranges from choosing a type of assessment to the methods of executing it and declaring the outcomes of assessments.

While not all conflict is bad, a misalignment between the pedagogical objectives and assessment types can really cause distasteful learning experiences. How do teachers and students avoid this? One solution is to anchor pedagogies around open-book exams.

For teachers, open-book exams afford great flexibility in creating challenge at different levels of cognition (let us anchor this, for example, against Blooms Taxonomy). Another indirect benefit for teachers is increased participation of students in open-book exams.

But why do more students participate or students in general participate more in open-book exams? Modern research shows that student relate open-book exams with at least four things:

1. Less stress – Knowing that there is reference material reduces anxiety for students. The burden of recall is greatly reduced. For students, this translates into one less fear.
2. Greater Fairness – Although students do not mention, a common question that students keep asking is why their teachers can refer materials to set questions, while they can’t refer to materials to answer them. Providing access to materials to prepare for the assessments dispels this notion, and anchors both teachers and students to the material they share in conversations.
3. Motivation to learn – Since the materials are available, more students would like to learn how to operate with materials. In the process they pick skills such as referencing, note-taking and active listening. It is common to see high-performing students annotate much more than others.
4. Learning during assessments – With material being available, there are now increased opportunities for students to refer to the materials in new perspectives all the time. That implies that even during the exam, depending on how the teacher crafts the assessment, there are chances that students learn something new while the assessment is happening. However slim the chances of this happening are, the joy from such an experience is great.

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