Monday, May 15, 2006

Open or closed book exams?

Thanks for the responses to the last post, especially anonymous's. You gave me lots to think about, but I don't have time to respond tonight and have to go out of town tomorrow. But I promise I'll respond more fully. Again, thanks!

The short identification and passages sections of my exams are always closed books/notes. But I give my students a choice about whether they want to have open books/notes for the essay section. I think it's a wash, except for students who'll find having books and notes available comforting somehow.

Here's a little story: when I took my very first Shakespeare class, the professor said we could use our text(s) for the essay part of the exam. She also gave us three potential essay topics, and said that two of those would be on the final, and that we'd choose one for our essay. Being just a tad obsessive about school stuff by that time, I checked with her to make sure that it was okay to write notes in my books. She assured me it was.

So, I spent DAYS brainstorming about the essays, and finally wrote a thesis statement for each, along with an outline in the inside cover of my texts, and indexed the texts so that I'd have good examples at hand. (Did I mention I was a bit obsessive?)

And, of course, I barely cracked the books writing the exam (I think I used one once for a quotation), and did pretty darned well. I didn't do well because I had the text, though; I did well because I was incredibly well prepared to write all three essays. (Yes, I know, I could have prepared only two of the essays, but I wasn't sure which I'd want to write, and did I mention the obsessive thing?)

I pretty much always have students brainstorm possible essay questions during our review session, and adapt those to the real exam, so they should be able to prepare well. I don't limit their brainstorming to three questions, but do try to provide guidance during the review session so that they hit the big, broad issues we've been discussing during the term.

Here's the issue as I see it: Taking an open book/notes exam, someone who's unprepared stands a good chance of wasting a load of time looking for some information they want. Someone who's done an obsessively good job preparing should do well in either case.

The big question for me comes with those in the middle; someone who's fairly well prepared can mess themselves up by looking for some piece of information rather than paraphrasing and moving on. Or they can find the information quickly enough and look way smart.

My students always choose to have open books and open notes, though I do warn them about the searching and time issue things. And every semester, I inevitably see some student with my kind of indexing and such, who really wouldn't need the text or notes. It's the students in between I worry more about.

So, what do you folks see as the upsides or downsides to open book/note essay exams?


  1. We don't set exams for our English courses, assessing two essays instead. While I personally prefer this approach, since it allows students to conduct detailed research and produce (well, ideally) essays with some depth and allows for revision.

    On the other hand, an examination (especially closed-book) would lower instances of plagiarism. I am so sick of trawling through Wikipedia entries...

  2. I always have the essay portion of my exams open-book/open-note, and I also give them a list ahead of time of questions (usually like 7) from which I choose the exam questions (2 or 3). I think that doing it this way, students do prepare more, and I also think that it eliminates the potential complaining about the essays being impossible to prepare for. Ultimately, I don't think that open-book/open-note makes a difference in the grade - but I do think that it makes students feel more at ease. In my intro to lit class this semester I noticed that most of them didn't even bring their books with them, though they did have outlines and notes that they got out when it came time to answer the questions. The fact that they'd considered what they would write ahead of time made my experience reading the essays much better, I'm sure.

  3. I have a two part exam: quote analysis (like quote IDs, but I tell them where the quote comes from, and ask them to explore the significance of the passage) and an essay.

    I ask them to do the quote analysis without their books, which they then turn in to receive the essay. Once they've gotten the essay, they can pull out their books, because I expect them to use quote evidence. I find that essay exams in a lit class are useless w/o quote evidence, but when I supply a passage in the quote analysis, there should be no need for any other resources.

  4. Anonymous12:22 PM

    Thanks, Bardiac, for the compliment; I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the issue. Take it easy,

  5. I usually give the qustions in advance. In the past I have allowed students to pre-write (type) and turn in the one I want.. I have also done open notes / open book exams in the past. I found that many students would assumen open notes aslo means they didn't have to prepare, so they didn't.

    I currently use a notecard --- I let them have a 3 x 5 card with the notes they think they'll need. This prompts them to prepare what they think they'll forget wihtout putting them in the "search for a fact" quandry.

    When I teach logic I've moved to a standard formula "cheat sheet". They get a copy at the beginning of the unit and are able to use an identical one during every quiz and exam. This works because they learn to use the formula instead of memorizing it.

  6. I always give take-homes and have very strict word and time limits--in order to try to stop from taking too long.

  7. I think open-book exams are more realistic, in the sense that it's more valuable to train students to know how to access, consider, organize, and present information than it is to memorize stuff. You're right about the pitfalls for the "medium" students, but I rather like philosophy factory's notecard idea - that makes sure they do some good prep in advance.