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Why Open-book Tests Deserve a Place in Your Courses

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:

“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.

This article first appeared in Faculty Focus on May 18, 2015. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.