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.