Every exam should be open book

Photo: MizzD

Now there is software to keep students who are taking exams remotely from checking online resources.

This is stupid.

In the 2020s, students’ ability to recall facts without access to resources is irrelevant. It in no way reflects what they will need to know or do in any future situation.

Computer science students should take tests with access to StackOverflow and Google, since that’s what they’ll do in the real world.

Math and physics students should take tests with access to online textbooks. If they need the textbook — or their notes — to remember how integration by parts works, that’s fine. In any future situation where they need to integrate by parts, those resources will be available.

History students should write test essays with access to the full internet. If they copy/paste things and plagiarize, that’s easy enough to detect.

Accounting students should have access to accounting rules. Engineering students should have access to engineering software. Marketing students, political science, music theory, and sociology students should have access to every textbook they learn from in their courses.

If you’re not familiar with the content or techniques you were supposed to learn, you’ll never master it enough to demonstrate it during the time period of the exam, regardless of what resources are available to you. If you are, then access to all those resources accurately reflects how you’ll use that knowledge and those resources in real-life situations.

COVID-19 has given us the gift of online exams. Let it also give us the gift of understanding how knowledge actually works for students — and for everyone — in the twenty-first century.

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  1. As early as 1993, when I took my first Engineering course- Statics, it was a complete surprise to me when the professor announced we could use our textbooks and notes during exams. It honestly felt like sanctioned cheating. That put it on the professor to come up with test questions that were unlike anything found in our books and any homework we’d done so far. None of the Calculus or Science courses I had taken before that were open book. Only our Physics professor allowed us a 3 x 5 card with formulas written out to use during exams. It was also amazing when we were told that we could collaborate on homework problems. That did not sit well with me because two people with unequal ability and smarts could each turn in perfect homeworks. I concluded after Statics and subsequent courses, any professor that insisted our books remained closed was one too busy or lazy to come up with test problems that were unique. More than one professor throughout my Engineering classes told us not to sell back any of our textbooks nor throw away class notes, because we would need to have them at hand in our first job. I liken that to an open book exam for every day you’re getting your feet wet in real-life Engineering. Thank you for putting up this blog on a topic that needed to be addressed for a long time.

  2. This can bite the professor on occasion.
    I remember an open book calculus exam during my engineering schooling where I noticed that the professor had pulled a question verbatim from one of our books that included the full solution. Free points. At least after I had triple checked that it was indeed the exact same problem.

  3. Josh: You’re a mathematician so you’ll appreciate this little yarn.

    As a junior at Carnegie Mellon, a professor in a decision-analysis class gave a unique test:

    Open book and notes
    20 multiple choice-questions with four options each

    Seems pretty standard, right? You’d think, but here’s the catch: Students didn’t select an answer per se. They indicated the probability that each answer was correct. Yes, all probabilities had to sum to 100 percent.

    Professor Fischbeck would then take the probability of the correct answer and insert it as a variable in a logarithmic formula. The maximum points earned per question was five. If a student put zero next to any correct choice, however, then the formula returned negative infinity. Get 19/20 right but put zero in the wrong question, and you received negative infinity and failed the test. To prevent student whining, the professor wrote on the board in capital letters: Don’t put zero next to any answer.

    My strategy was simple: Narrow down as much as possible. I often put 0.45 for B and C a few times when I wasn’t sure about the answer. I’d put 0.05 for A and D, respectively.

    I received a 36 or so on one test and immediately panicked. A few minutes later, I looked at the chalkboard and realized that I scored the second highest in the class. At least one student always scored negative infinity. Always.

    For the final, I forgot my notes and book. (D’oh!) Rather than scramble back to my dorm, I just started taking the test after Fischbeck said to me, “Nice haircut.” (Yeah, I had hair.)

    I knew the material. I did well in the class but, more important, learned a great deal about dealing with uncertainty and critical thinking. Those lessons have stayed with me nearly 30 years later.

  4. As a classroom math teacher, my concern is much less “student will look up a worked example of solving by completing the square, and model from that work” – I’d love if more of my students picked up the skill of doing this at any time, including a test – and is much more “student will use wolfram alpha or PhotoMath to generate the solution and steps, which student then copies”. Humanities courses may run essays through plagiarism detection software, that might be a useful concept for comparison.