The Blue & Gray Press

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Now and in the future, tests should be open-note

3 min read

When most classes went online, more professors began giving open note quizzes. | @eugenechystiakov on Unsplash


Staff Writer

Professors should normalize giving students open note tests in the future, even after we move back to in-person learning. 

With many classes being taught remotely, it is difficult for instructors to use traditional exams in their courses, due to the ability of students to cheat while unsupervised at home. Instead of wasting time and energy on trying to combat cheating, many professors have taken the opportunity to give open book, often timed exams instead.

While effective in combating cheating, open note exams are also less stressful and better for understanding important concepts using critical thinking. These tests challenge students in a way that resembles what life in the real world looks like after graduation. In the “real world,” graduates are not expected to have memorized every detail about a subject. It is extremely common for professionals in their respective fields to reference aids when they are lacking information, even doctors when giving a diagnosis. 

Being able to use references during exams does not mean the exam is any easier, nor does it imply that students will be putting less effort into their work. Open book exams ask questions that are more geared towards solidifying students’ understanding of the material and their ability to apply important concepts to real world situations. This is in direct contrast to closed note exams, which force students to memorize and regurgitate small details about the course without internalizing any of the information’s meaning. 

This form of testing is better for the mental health of students. A 2019 study titled “Comparison of academic performance and stress levels in open book test and closed book test and perceptions of undergraduate dental students found that ”significantly lower stress levels were observed before open book test when compared to closed book test. A positive experience was reported by the students regarding the open book test.” 

Open note exams are significantly less stressful because students are not punished for forgetting small details when they may actually understand the material and concepts very well. Unlike life in the real professional world, students are tasked with taking multiple courses at a time, while still being expected to memorize all course material. These expectations result in higher stress levels, and lower quality understanding of main course concepts. 

Even though it is impossible to ensure all students are abiding by the honor code in their homes, some professors choose to continue testing by regular means. The students who are honest and follow the honor code are forced to compete with the grades of students whose scores are inflated by the fact that they utilized unauthorized resources during exams. In this way students are rewarded for cheating and punished for having integrity.  

When instructors create open note, timed exams, in order for a student to get a high score, they are still required to have a good understanding of important concepts prior to the exam day. When being timed, it is not possible to refer to aids for every single question. The ability to refer to notes only benefits students who have already prepared for the exam.

Like traditional forms of testing, there is a clear distinction in quality of work between those who have prepared for an open note exam and those who have not. An unprepared student’s responses to exam questions would be vague and fragmented, as unprepared students are forced to make up justifications for newly learned information on the spot. Changing the format of the exam does not negatively impact students who typically perform well on exams. 

“The exam scores on the two types of tests were strongly correlated – good students tend to do well and poor students tend to underperform regardless of exam type,” a 2013 study titled “Test Anxiety, Student Preferences and Performance on Different Exam Types in Introductory Psychology” found.

COVID-19 has forced us to adapt our learning and teaching methods to best fit the current situation, but this does not mean that these methods should be abandoned once in-person classes resume. Some of these adaptations have revealed more effective, less stressful means of ensuring that students fully understand material. Once schools return to in-person instruction, our professors should continue to utilize new, beneficial techniques and ideas from our experience working remotely.

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