What open-book exams do for students and teachers

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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How to leverage open-book exams

In India, at the peak of panic and pandemic, while most universities were mulling what to do, Delhi University decided to move with their academic calendar by conducting open-book exams. Whether such move was inspired by deep insight or sheer courage, one could only speculate. But open-book exams are soon becoming a standard to chase.

Since open-book exams closely resemble how we operate in professional settings, the ways in which we learn (again, irrespective of the age group) are also converging. Or at least, there are greater opportunities now than before. Skills per se, there is increased value on capacities to find answers to questions, or solutions to problems, than merely being capable of a recall, however detailed.

This isn’t to say that recall is not essential anymore. But that limiting the need for recall affords more options in assessing higher intellectual functioning. Research shows that open-book exams encourage behaviours such as consulting references, note-taking and active listening; all skills considered precious by most workplaces.

The risks presented by open-book exams include: one, students underestimating preparation, and two, teachers not setting questions that test comprehension. There is also a wide-spread impression that open-book exams are easier and therefore should not be considered important in overall evaluation of learning, at least in high stakes scenarios such as employment or admission decisions.

However, these are risks of ignorance and can be mitigated with guidance. Here are three things that any teacher could do to make great use of open-book exams:

1. Start small – Create micro lessons and micro assessments. This is a good way of setting achievable milestones for students. Also, designing small tests doesn’t usually become as challenging or time-consuming as designing a test for an entire course.
2. Be consistent – The more predictable the methods of assessments are, the more prepared students can be. To address the risk of under preparation from students, teachers could give instructions on the types of questions they would ask, and clearly define the purposes for which the material accessible could be used and could not be used.
3. Iterate – Developing application-level assessments are not easy. But they are also not unachievable. Being organised and going back to the bank of tests to add questions and reframe questions is an assured way of improving the whole assessment quality and experience for students.

Open Book Examination and Higher Education © The Author(s) 2021 During COVID-19

Is learning by rote the devil?

More often than not, for generations, rote-learning has been the norm. It has been the modus operandi for acing examinations. There has been a flood of complaints surrounding learning by rote- it kills creativity, constrains expression, discourages understanding and so on. However, the method really is only a way of memorisation- through repetition. Like, every other method, it breeds problems when used in isolation.

The thoughts surrounding rote-learning are narrow themselves. The technique is most used in everyday lives, perhaps unknowingly. Knowing one’s own address, phone numbers of family members, capital of one’s country are all a result of repetition. To remember at least two of these is deemed rather important for one’s safety. In fact, the knowledge of English language in the writing of this article itself, benefits immensely from memorising through repetition. How does one know that ‘particle’ and ‘practical’ have different endings if not through repetition? Understanding a language, its colloquial phrases, mannerisms all involve rote-learning.

Imagine the librarian in your school. They are in charge of arranging books based on subjects, sub-genres, and the authors. With every new book that arrives, their memory of this arrangement is refreshed (read: repeated) and the book is placed where it belongs. Then, you can waltz in one day asking for Machiavelli’s The Prince and be immediately directed to the third shelf of the last column in the eighth rack of books on your left. Envision this same arrangement in our brains when we learn anything. Repetition helps us categorize and store relevant information. One may have read a lot of books, but until the information is repeated- through a conversation, or an internet browse- it is an unfiled book, often inaccessible. That’s why, you know about astrophysics but just not in that moment.

Like spellings and formulae, repetition is useful in remembering concepts also. Most standard examinations are criticised for promoting regurgitation of textbook material. Certainly, a pattern of correction which mandates verbatim repetition of concepts is erroneous. That hinders expression, creativity and disturbs learning. But it is not the general prescription of rote-learning. The emphasis on using standard terminology helps brevity in communication. An in-depth understanding of a concept is not negated by rote-learning. In fact, for some, the understanding is strengthened through repetition- increases familiarity and accessibility of learnt information

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Learning for the sake of learning

Imagine the last long drive you went for. There was no aim, just driving and pitstops when you feel like it. A stop for food because you felt like eating at a roadside stall or wanted to admire the sunset. Remember, there is no aim here- it is driving for pure joy.

Likewise, picture yourself as a learner just driving, if you may, into the world of knowledge. There is no aim, again, just a pleasure being pursued. Perhaps you were staring at the glass in your hand and wished to know how the shape came to be. So, you read something online, a possible history of glass design. Thereafter, you overheard a conversation surrounding Existentialism and sat by yourself reflecting upon what it means to exist!

John Green, in a popular TED talk, compared learning to personal cartography- making one’s own map. It is the documentation of one’s explorations- a mental map of ideas explored. It is an adventure one can always set out for- takes the tiniest of triggers. In the instance above, it was the glass and the conversation triggering one’s learning process- the curiosity, if you may. Sometimes, one is even on the edge with only a way back; the pursuit of an inquiry is often a cul-de-sac, an unsolved mystery. One can approach it in multiple ways and yet, converge at the wall. Perhaps, the origin of human life meets this fate. A breakthrough that wall is a discovery.

However, we have been trained to learn with a goal in mind. From a young age, grading systems are introduced and emphasized upon. The threat of passing or failing pushes one to learn quickly and ‘correctly’ regardless of one’s interest. Every subject is picked for the level of intelligence it signals to society. Every internship or job applied to for the value it creates on one’s resume. In all this, learning is undertaken for a purpose- its adventurous-self is reduced to purpose. It hands you a map, detailing the route and the destination- digressions are forbidden.

It is not a horribly made map, just dusted probably- it has been used so much, it is historic. Dust it off, and one may find new routes to the same destination. The teachers may take a seat among the students, and they may dive into knowledge together. Or there are more projects than classes which lead to the same goal of the curriculum but through unique approaches. The core is, to value a subject for the adventure it brings with itself, not for the grades or marks at the end. Studying need not be deprived of adventures.

Think about the technology nerds who work as doctors, the friends obsessed with trivia- there is no productive element to that knowledge. They learnt it because they enjoyed it. That is learning for the sake of learning. It is an adventure created by you and yet automatic.

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Packaged or flexible learning

Formal education, today, is packaged learning. The pedagogy is synonymous to the packaging of a product, while the curriculum is the content. Packaged learning is efficient– it is easy to distribute, a fixed package for every grade. It is easy to monitor and assess how that one package is consumed by the child. But it has serious problems.

It is a ‘one size, fits all’ production and distribution for an immensely varied consumer base. It overlooks the unique needs, abilities, and interests of a child. Invalidating their individuality, it assumes authority over what the child should learn at which age.

When all children are assumed alike, laggards appear. Inherently, there is no comparison between two individual personalities. But, when both are provided the same learning, one may absorb it faster than another- which is a difference in preferences and abilities.

In contrast, flexible learning promotes the personalization of learning, catering uniquely to every child. It moves away from the brick-mortar schooling structure, away from the bells which mark the end of a lecture towards a wonderland where a child learns on their own terms.

At the outset, one can think about flexibility in four aspects:

1. Time and place: Education today is timed, usually mornings, and at school. So, if one prefers to learn at night, it is a problem. Flexibility in this aspect is learning when one is the freshest and where is at most comfort. For instance, lounging on the bed in the middle of night with a cup of coffee!

2. Subject: A typical day at school is laden with classes and subjects already decided for you, like an a la carte. When it is flexible, one can learn what they please. They can learn astrophysics followed by guitar lessons right after- it is their choice. There must be a 24/7 buffet for learning. Change your servings with every visit and try something new if you please.

3. Tutors: Currently, for every grade and every division within it, the teaching faculty is fixed. If Lola studies in Grade-3A, they have Ms. Monroe for Math, for the whole year. Their friend may have Mr. Raman whose classes are more enjoyable but that is not an available choice for Lola. When learning revolves around a child, they can experiment with different tutors before they settle for one. Or, they can pick different tutors for different topics!

4. Media of learning: In a packaged framework, only one medium, for instance- a presentation, is used for the entire class of children. Flexibility implies opting for one’s own preferred media of learning. One could like a video for a topic, an audio for another and a book for yet another. One could want videos through and through. If that is what the child wants, let them have it.

The true potential of any child will be harnessed when they are given the power to do so. Flexibility is of paramount importance today if we want a generation ready for challenges of tomorrow.

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Moving towards the learning journey paradigm

Upon hearing the word ‘teach’, the first image most of us have is that of a class being ‘taught’ by a figure of authority. Inherent to this visual is the dichotomy of a student and a teacher.

It remains an unstated assumption that the teacher and student are mutually exclusive entities, bound by a classroom for an exercise of learning, and/or hints perhaps only subtly that one cannot play the other. It is often a term that symbolizes a knowledge divide. More deeply, it also symbolizes knowledge as a static entity that has been passed from generation to generation.

The setup positions teacher as merely a disseminator of knowledge. Thus, teachers are bound by pressures of knowing everything and also delivering effectively. The teacher’s own learning is in improving on these two dimensions: subject matter and presentation. Or a combination that leads to a new discipline called pedagogy.

The student in this scenario becomes a subject; losing autonomy over thinking, simply being the clay to be molded. The scope of learning is determined outside of his capacities to seek what s/he wants to learn. Institutionally, curriculum establishment confines the stretch of curiosity. The expectation from students is receptivity, ironically a subject on which they are not often trained.

Learning in this model is reduced to an academic exercise. Inspiring curiosity is among the delivery burden of the teachers, and effective learning is a function of students’ hardwork. Definitely. there is something amiss in this model.

In fact, there was one question that bothered several teachers I interacted with: “Why is it that the way you learn the subject is not the exact way you prescribe your students to learn?” Almost all teachers confirmed, positively, that they put in abundant hours into preparing to deliver a class. And through the exercise, they learn not just the subject matter, but also stuff that matters such as what is not subject matter, and what is the best way to reason and articulate. The teachers’ learning is self-directed, objective-driven, and therefore more comprehensive.

Just imagine what might happen if the teachers’ learning journey is tracked as it is, and shown to the students. It is a matter of conjecture now, but I place my bets on the possibility that students would at the least have more appreciation for teachers’ efforts, and, additionally, might learn more than just the subject matter: and that is learning to learn. And then, just imagine if the students had the opportunity to showcase their learning journey to peers and teachers.

If the learning journey is the common denominator for conversation, wouldn’t learning be more yielding? Now, more than ever, technology enables this perspective on learning journey. But to realize the fruit of technology, both students and teachers must embrace the perspective of being learners first, and shed their roles assigned institutionally.

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Think of that time in class when a group project was announced. The teacher said, ‘pick a partner’ and almost instantly you knew who yours was. An idea of fun kicked in and the project activity was certainly looked forward to. While some learners enjoy group activities, some do not. But, beyond the component of fun, co-learning benefits all learners.

Co-learning implies learning with peers and so simply put, group projects. Two types of learning which deal with groups are- collaborative and cooperative. The two differ from each other based on the absence (collaborative) or presence (cooperative) of an instructor. So, group projects as part of curriculum facilitated by teachers are a form of cooperative learning. Collaborative learning rests the authority of the project and its discussion with the group itself. The benefits of co-learning are common to both.

Co-learning breeds new ideas and skills. Working with others exposes learners to different methods and styles of learning. The horizons of learning are widened as new perspectives are given room. The problem at hand is understood more deeply and through different angles. The solutions listed are numerous and more thorough.

To learn with other learners is to place individual learning in the larger context of a group. Every individual’s insight is a contribution to the group’s understanding which in turn, impacts every individual’s learning. Every individual is thus part of something bigger than themselves. It instils responsibility of task, a sense of contribution and

Co-learning promotes development of interpersonal faculties, inculcating among learners the ability to work with others. One learns to listen and empathize with their fellows in times of need. They learn to express discomfort and assert themselves respectfully.

Learners learn to support each other and share responsibilities to attain mutual goals. There is recognition of one’s strengths and weaknesses; our own weakness is someone else’s strength which effectively amounts to learners with varied strengths working together.

Another key learning is resolution of conflicts. The differential experiences, capabilities and preferences of learners may often clash among themselves creating a tough atmosphere. In a group project, with a deadline and an expected outcome, conflicts need to be resolved to make any progress. Hence, one learns to compromise and negotiate.

So, learning in groups is fun and laden with benefits. The playful jest lightens the possible stress, a laugh or two lifts the spirit, the workload is shared, and numerous skills unlocked!

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Learning benefits teaching

Teaching is an act of sharing knowledge about a particular topic. Invariably, this activity involves an audience and a varied audience, at that. It’s the presence of this audience, of learners awaiting new understanding that makes teaching a challenging task. Learning by oneself is easier- we have a fair idea of our strengths, weaknesses, and our preferred medium of learning. The involvement of other learners presents the teacher with multiple combinations of varied capabilities and preferences in learning.

Learning makes teaching more effective. The goal of teaching is to facilitate an understanding. Given a varied audience, the teacher needs to individually cater to the multitude of learning preferences. Assume the topic for the day is Rain. Some may prefer a visual aid like a video of a rainy day, while some may like a graphic novel- a story weaved into the concept of rain with the sky and clouds as characters. Both require the teacher to have learnt to use these media to explain the concept effectively. In this case, to learn is to explore new avenues of explanation. The introduction of projectors and slideshows is a new avenue. To perform a short skit imbibing the fundamentals of a concept is one, too.

Learning enables the teacher to guide different students differently. The preferences in learning are varied to the extent that some prefer to have a basic understanding while some prefer a more nuanced foundation. The heart pumps blood to the rest of the body is a satisfactory concept to some. Yet others may want a closer look into the anatomy, knowing exactly where it is that blood enters first in the heart, what creates the pump and how it is transported to the different body parts through different vessels.

Similarly, a learner may be content with knowing about the six planets in our solar system and yet another may want to explore asteroids and meteors or different facts about the Milky Way galaxy or a new galaxy altogether. These differential needs lead the teacher back to the drawing board to, this time, learn more deeply to guide the understanding in a new direction which the learner may enjoy. A broad and deep understanding of the topic equips the teacher to nurture new inquiries.

Thus, learning significantly improves teaching. Built into this conclusion is the dynamic nature of learning- our understanding of a concept is always evolving, and rightly so. There are hidden treasures of insights under different beds of knowledge. The best teachers are adventurers who are always in pursuit of those.

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