Learning by Any (and all) Means

My teaching philosophy is rather simple: Help students learn by any means. Consequently, I use a variety of instructional strategies such as lecture, small group activities, elements of the flipped classroom (the activities, not the videos), friendly competitive games and case analysis to name a few. One controversial part of my teaching is the “open book” exam.

books-683897_640The “open book” test is often maligned. When discussing the practice, the phrase “back in my day” is followed by a list of ways today’s youth have it too easy. Moreover, students love them, which of course makes open book tests even more questionable in the minds of skeptics.

For my purposes, open book tests are simply another tool to increase student learning. I never ask for definitions, rather I look for my students to apply the concepts we’ve discussed in class or in their textbook. My instructions are always as follows:

  1. You still have to study: I remind the students that studying for a test is still a good idea because it will enable them to take the test faster (thus saving them time for other things). Also, should they need to consult with the book or their notes they will know where to find the information.
  2. Answer what you can without the book or your notes: Go through the test once and answer what you know. There is likely not enough time to look up every question anyway, and this strategy affords maximum time for the most difficult questions.
  3. Be confident: In most cases, changing your answer will result in an incorrect answer.

My observation is that every time a student has to look for an answer, she is learning. In fact, this was supported just last week by a random comment made by one of my students (who is also my advisee). He said, “At first, I hated your tests. An open book test is supposed to be easy! But I figured it out—If I don’t know something going into it, I totally do when I’m done.”

Research also seems to support my use of open book tests. A 2012 study by Gharib, Phillips and Mathew noted that test anxiety—correlated with poor performance—is lower on open book exams. The research, as well as a 2007 study on the effects of testing, shows that learning retention using the open book method is no different from closed book traditional testing.

Yes, you read that correctly. Students learn and retain information with open book tests. Education doesn’t have to be painful, nor does it have to be Pablum. Rigorous open book tests do have a place in the teaching repertoire.

What’s your opinion on open book exams in higher education?

Submitted by Robyn-Jay Bage


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