May 18th, 2015

Why Open-book Tests Deserve a Place in Your Courses

By:

Group testing

With the proliferation of learning management systems (LMS), many instructors now incorporate web-based technologies into their courses. While posting slides and readings online are common practices, the LMS can also be leveraged for testing. Purely online courses typically employ some form of web-based testing tool, but they are also useful for hybrid and face-to-face (F2F) offerings. Some instructors, however, are reluctant to embrace online testing. Their concerns can be wide ranging, but chief among them is cheating.

Of the many obstacles that web-based technologies present, combating academic dishonesty is among the most challenging. For many it is hard to envision a scenario where a student completes an online quiz (or test) without using their smartphone, tablet, or other device to look up the answers, or ‘share’ those answers with other students. Those of us who use online quizzes have experimented with lockdown browsers, randomized questions, and anything else we can find to try to ‘defeat’ the students in their quest to cheat. One potential solution is worth exploring: open-book testing.

Instead of wasting valuable time to deter cheating, open-book tests shift the onus of responsibility onto the students themselves. They are the ones who must track down answers and page through online notes. That doesn’t, however, mean we should wave the white flag. Random question generation and randomized responses are still good techniques to employ. When coupled with an open-book test, they can challenge students and reduce the relative value of cheating.

If you can’t beat ‘em, don’t try!

Cheating becomes an appealing option when the response to a question is one that can be easily Googled. A student need not read a single chapter or attend any classes, if they know their smartphone will come to their rescue. An open-book test, with challenging application questions that relate directly to the course material, can help minimize the problem. Here are some tips:

  • Draw specifically on course content/lectures. Asking students a basic identification question will send them straight to Wikipedia. Instead, ask them to analyze the author’s argument on page 34, or interpret the results shown in a diagram.
  • Keep the time tight. When time is limited students won’t be able to blindly scavenge the course notes for the answer. They will recognize the need to prepare and have some familiarity with the material or they will simply run out of time.
  • Make the questions tough. Use distractor questions that closely resemble the correct answer. Students will need more than a passing glance at the material to locate the correct response. Use application and analysis questions that challenge students to fully understand and synthesize the concepts related to the learning outcomes.
  • Recognize collaboration. The effect of randomized questions is that two students, sitting side by side, will receive different sets of questions. This ostensibly eliminates the benefit from working together. However, if we encourage students to complete the quiz with a classmate, they will find themselves navigating their notes together and collaborating to identify the correct answer. Well I hesitate to mention it, but that sounds a lot like studying!
  • Tell students you know they have access to their resources. Now it’s out in the open. It is puzzling that if students know that a test is open-book, they often assume that there is no studying required. By communicating your expectation, practicing a few questions with them (online or in-class), this tells them they need to study. Anytime I can encourage my students to interact with lecture notes, videos, and textbook chapters, it’s a win for me (learning outcomes) and a win for them (they study).

“But they aren’t learning anything that way!” you say. Aren’t they? It is true that they aren’t memorizing things and recalling them later. But that isn’t necessarily our ultimate goal. Our goal, when it comes to assessments, is to measure our student’s achievement of the course learning outcomes. If open book tests can help, why not give them a try?

Matt Farrell and Shannon Maheu are professors in The School of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario.


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  • Carl Isaacson

    I use online testing exclusively for my courses. I have de-emphasized the role of the test and emphasize papers and presentations. I find that with randomized questions (and answers on multiple choice) and an open book approach students are either not cheating or are cheating very poorly. I believe that my multiple choice questions are good ones, students comment that they have to distinguish between answers that are very similar.

    I have decided that tests are not a good way to find out how much Communication students have learned. If I were teaching a course such as anatomy and physiology or medical terminology I might feel differently.

  • I disagree with this idea, especially for the K-12 level. I never had an open book test until my MBA. I found prior to my MBA I was required to study and pass or fail on my own knowledge of the content. In my MBA program there were many open book tests. I spent very little time studying and just looked up each question when the time came. An open book test leads students to spend more time focusing on what chapter a topic was in than about the topic.

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  • B Lauridsen

    I endorse the idea that collaboration during assessments works well for the learning experience. For adults, the skill of "navigating" through course learning is enhanced when learners do "collaborate" during a quiz that allows an open eBook, open notes, look-ups and conversations. Important is being able to interpret the questions and to capture a reasonable answer from the course material. For this idea to work, an instructor needs to set expectations that teaming-up during a quiz is acceptable. For learning to occur during an exam means the questions need to be carefully worded to encourage thinking and reasoning.

    It would be silly to test copying some key words into the find box of acrobat and clicking [next] until the same words appear highlighted in yellow with the "answer" nearby available for "clip-boarding". The challenge is to make certain questions to be really "tough", something to think about to prompt original ideas.

  • May Tan

    I agree with @EduArticles. open book test causes students to waste time during the process of answering questions. Students also less studying. Open book test causes students to lose what has been read and revision for their exams because they are focused on finding chapter in accordance with the examination question.