Everything you always wanted to know about open-book exams – but were afraid to ask

Creatively constructed open-book assessments are increasingly relevant. Preeti Aghalayam offers advice on how to design them for best effect

Preeti Aghalayam 's avatar
3 Feb 2023
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The magic of open book assessment

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Open-book assessments: dos and don’ts that foster good practice
Open-book exam

Assessments and exams are often the most challenging aspects of a course – for students and instructors alike. Crafting exams that test learning, adhere to institutional requirements and are fair to students is no easy task for the teacher. Moreover, the oft-touted “21st-century learning” presumes that we test students’ abilities in analysis, application and creative problem-solving rather than rote memory or routine formula substitutions. As such, open-book exams have captured our imagination because they provide a means to test learning beyond facts and definitions.

However, getting the tone right on an open-book exam is fairly stressful, and many instructors struggle with how to construct such exams efficiently and effectively. In this article, we will discuss some tips and tricks for open-book exams and assessments with a holistic view, going beyond marks and grades.

Plan exams as part of course design

It’s a good idea to include open-book exams in the context of the entire course and to introduce them early in the term/semester. Recognising that every exam/assessment has a specific and possibly different objective is critical. Open-book assessments can be of different sorts (individual or group work, multiple-choice questions of varying degrees of difficulty, long case studies or short problems, and so on). Getting students comfortable with the idea and focus of an open-book exam at the beginning of the course will serve instructors well.

Maintain crisp timelines

Open-book exams (sort of) mirror real life. You’re allowed to access resource materials, but you need to come up with the answers in a timely manner. A week-long exam seems to be a prescription for escalating stress levels coupled with extended doses of procrastination. Students have busy schedules, so a solitary three-hour window is ideal and will keep them focused. They will soon grasp the idea that studying for an exam during the exam is not going to cut it, and your assessment will be more effective overall, with better-prepared students approaching the test with open minds and creative thoughts.

Think beyond multiple-choice questions (MCQ)

Multiple-choice or other objective-type questions are useful for instructors. We can automate the grading and use our intelligence to make them as difficult or as easy as we wish to by choosing the answer options appropriately. However, students may well use guesswork rather than detailed analysis in such exams, and having access to resource materials could actually increase stress if the direct answer to your MCQ is not available in their materials. While MCQs can certainly have a place in open-book assessments, don’t let them be the entire story.

The sum of several parts

When the concepts from an entire 14- to 16-week semester of a course are part of a big, final assessment, the pressures on students are too much. We have found significantly better engagement with the topics when we break this up. For example, a short, one-hour online evaluation (possibly objective-type) followed by a two-hour problem-solving/application-type written exam, with each of them focusing on different topics or different aspects of the course.

Use games as exams

Well-designed games and game-based learning are very useful in open-book evaluations. The inherent time pressure of a game ensures focus, while the fun of gameplay takes away some of the stress. Tools such as Wordwall, Quizzizz, Kahoot! and others allow instructors to design various games and puzzles that can replace exams. Most of these are best played in a regular classroom (online or physical), with the learners using their mobile phones. These platforms also allow the shuffling of options or questions, short time windows and extra credit for faster answers, which help to inherently disincentivise copying.

Include some group activities

Finally, another organic “open-book” environment can be found in group activities. When working online, breakout rooms (with pre-defined time limits and a cogent set of questions or discussion points to ensure efficiency) work just as well as the team activities in physical classrooms. Efforts to make sure that the free riders are few, and that the responses are as expected in an exam, are needed from instructors.

Final thoughts

An interesting and well-designed assessment will go a long way towards keeping students enthusiastic about learning, without significant or unproductive amounts of stress, and meet instructors’ expectations as well. These simple tips and tricks should help you include the interesting option of open-book exams and assessments effectively in your course. Such exams can be fun and explore creativity in learners and teachers alike, while also ensuring deep engagement, particularly when considered as an integral part of the entire course.

Preeti Aghalayam is professor in chemical engineering at IIT Madras in India.

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