The case for open book exams


In the sciences, most exams are a closed-book affair. Is this a good thing?

Open_book_nae_02On some tests, I’ve allowed students a 3×5 card, or a one page “cheat sheet.” This is usually met with relief, or joy, or gratitude. When I tell students that they can bring in their textbook for the exam, they get even more relieved.

I might say, “Don’t be so happy, because this just raises the bar for what I’m asking on the exam.” But then, my students say that they feel like it’s not useful for them to have to memorize stuff. And they would prefer solving problems and applying information in novel ways. Even if memorizing stuff is important, it causes a lot of anxiety.

I agree, having to memorize a lot of stuff is difficult, and getting tested on straight-up memorization, even when perfunctory, takes away joy. In high school English, I’d get vocab tests every Wednesday. I’d have to spell and define 20 words, the majority of which were new to me. It was a stressful, even if I did my job well and studied them before the very last possible moment.

Does having to memorize stuff enhance (useful) learning? Maybe, in some cases, it might, but how true is this? Having to memorize some things might have mattered more when we didn’t have fonts of global knowledge in our pockets. Nowadays, why would we be asking students to memorize things that we don’t know ourselves when we can easily look it up? I wouldn’t ask my students to memorize anything that I don’t already know off the top of my head. And I look stuff up all the time.

I’ve forgotten almost everything I memorized while I was in college. I thought it was super cool and useful to learn the citric acid cycle (=Krebs cycle) in my first year of college-level biology. This is the molecular pathway that plants, animals and some other creatures use to turn sugar into energy. Like a mechanic knows how valves work in an engine, biologists need to understand the fine details of cellular respiration. It is, truly, foundational. It was so important, I had to memorize it. I knew that when I went into an exam, I would have to draw from scratch (or least fill in the blanks) of everything in this:citricI spent a lot of trouble and effort making sure that I memorized the name of every chemical, every enzyme, the products of every reaction, and all of the structures involved. Because I knew it’d be on the exam. And I thought, boy, after all this effort, I’ll never forget this! That was really naïve. Now, I barely know any of the steps in the Krebs cycle. I understand some of the basics, but for someone reason I just remember alpha-ketoglutarate.

Even though I have forgotten the details, I’ve been telling myself that I’ve benefitted from having memorized it. That having learned the details, I’ve absorbed the important concepts that are useful to me as a working biologist. I have felt the same way about calculus, nowadays, I can’t differentiate or integrate my way out of a bag, even if the bag has very simple lines. But having been able to integrate stuff is supposed to help me conceptualize stuff. Or so the reasoning goes.

I’m not so sure this is true. I spent a lot of time cramming just to memorize that Krebs cycle. Just imagine if I was required to spend an equivalent amount of time applying information about the Krebs cycle to problems in biology? What if I was asked to analyze results of experiments that required an understanding of the Krebs cycle? No, I pretty much just had to memorize it. And then, I forgot it.

I think my professors were taking a shortcut. It was easy for them to ask me to memorize it, and easy for them to test me on it. Or maybe they never got the memo that having us memorize a bunch of stuff isn’t what they should be expecting of college students.

If there’s one thing that science professors get exposed to in educational theory, it’s Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is at the moment pretty much dogma about levels of cognition. At the lower end is being able to Remember and Understand things. Beyond that, students can Apply and Analyze, and at the higher end they can Evaluate and Create (Synthesize).

Being able to memorize stuff, and also understand it, is educational small potatoes*.

When we offer closed book exams, we can test throughout Bloom’s Taxonomy, including the “Remembering” bit. When we offer open book exams, it’d be silly to test for the ability to regurgitate facts, of course. How much of that ability-to-memorize should be part of what we’re testing? Maybe in some introductory courses for majors, memorizing might be foundational. But for non-majors classes, and advanced courses in the majors, shouldn’t we be aspiring to teach beyond that level?

When is it worthwhile to test for the mere ability to remember facts? Whenever it’s not worthwhile, then shouldn’t exams be open note and open book?

So, let students have a chart of the Krebs cycle. And then test them to see if they understand it. If you’re testing for ability to identify plants and animals, let them have the guide book! If you’re testing for ability to perform and interpret (say) dihybrid crosses, let them have their textbook!

If the idea of letting students have their textbooks would destroy your ability to write challenging exams, then does this say more about the exams, or the activities that happen in class prior to the exam?

If we are teaching a bunch of facts and procedures, then that’s what we have to test students on. But if we are teaching how to solve problems and apply information and think synthetically, then that’s what the test needs to look like.

If we want to teach higher level thinking, then that should require higher level learning. Perhaps by testing with open book exams, we can keep ourselves honest as professors by making sure that we are teaching competencies and skills that can’t be looked up easily in a book.



*No offense intended to those who enjoy small potatoes; I’m supposed to be able to get away with saying it because I’m half-Irish, they say.

9 thoughts on “The case for open book exams

  1. I love open book exams! I’ve never been a good memorizer, and I found that preparing “cheat sheets” or notes for open-book exams helped me to study in a more effective way. Knowing I wouldn’t have to worry about being able to regurgitate every little thing, I could focus on writing notes on what I thought would be the most important concepts or the ones I found most challenging. I think the “cheat sheet” forces students to study – just by preparing the sheet, you have to go through the act of reviewing and deciding which things to write notes about – which could be good. Allowing the whole textbook means that students who don’t really study will likely not have time to look up all the things they need to, while again, those who spent the time making “cheat sheets” will benefit from having to study that way.

  2. As a generally good memorizer I’m with Catherine. Prepping for open-book, or especially a “cheat-sheet” exam can be a very effective study tactic. Re-copying/revising notes to fit on a single page/notecard has usually ended up with me looking at the cheat-sheet once or twice during the exam. I think the stress-reduction of having that safety blanket makes for a better learning experience, from my personal perspective. The best use I can recall at the moment was being allowed a cheat sheet, and told we were going to need to identify and apply the right equations during the exam. This might be an example of reaching some of the higher levels of Blooms Taxonomy.

  3. For many years I’ve allowed students to make and bring a crib sheet to the exam on biomolecules, cells and bioenergetics (yes, that includes the Kreb cycle). The rules for the crib sheets were that they had to be hand-drawn/written, and fit on a single sheet of paper (can be written on both sides). My exam questions were never on the details (I told them they didn’t have to memorize or know these details of names of intermediate molecules or enzymes), but on how everything fit together, and what happens if…. I’ve seen beautiful crib sheets with color-coding, and very cursory crib sheets with a few scrawls.

    Post-exam, most students say that they didn’t need to the crib sheet to answer any of my questions. This could be indicative of student learning. However, I’ve been disappointed with the student performance on the exam questions. My hypothesis is that students, upon being informed that they can bring a crib sheet, think they can rely on the crib sheet and don’t study as much. Writing out the details on the crib sheet may in fact misdirect their focus and study time on the details instead of what I want them to be able to do. I gave up early on open-book exams because I’ve seen too many students flipping through the pages of the textbook as they stare at the exam…some of them look like it’s the first time they’ve actually looked at the textbook!

    This past fall I did not allow students a crib sheet, and told students I would provide any pathway diagrams the students would need on the exam itself. There was no decrease in student performance, and perhaps an increase, but I need more observations, and there were other variables at play.

  4. We could learn from the chemistry educators for sure. Back over a decade ago when I was taking introductory undergrad chemistry, the last sheet of the exam was a reference sheet with the periodic tables, most of the formulae, values of constants, specific heats, etc… so that we could focus on applying those facts to solve problems.

    As a TA, I taught a weekly seminar for an advanced level immunology course, for which all three exams were open-book. However, I spent a significant amount of time during my seminars helping students build a “toolbox” to bring to exams – a few pages with brief summaries of methods, how they applied to papers we reviewed in class, pros/cons of different experimental approaches, etc. The students who took time to condense their material in such a way in their own time almost always did better on the exams.

  5. A silly comment: Back when I was high school one of our science teachers gave an exam on which we were allowed a 3×5 card cheat sheet. Students went to great lengths to cram as much information as they could onto the card. I remember kicking myself for not thinking of what one of my classmates did: typing up a bunch of notes and then reducing them to tiny type on a photocopier. The same teacher also told us, jokingly, that we could also carve notes into our pencils. Which led a classmate to ask, only half-jokingly, if he could use one of those big chunky toddler pencils for the exam. :-)

    On a serious note, I second the views of the other commenters who’ve noted that preparing a cheat sheet is often much more useful than the cheat sheet itself.

    On exams in intro biostats, we provide the students with a formula sheet so they don’t have to memorize formulae. Though they still have to remember how to interpret and apply the formulae–what the symbols mean, etc.

  6. When I took biometry as a grad student we had a closed book and open book part to the exam. It requires organization to physically separate the two parts, but it allowed our prof to expect us to have some things memorized while also having to answer and solve high-level stuff that was only possible because we had our books.

    When I taught undergrad biostats I (like Jeremy) provided a formula sheet for the students. I also tried to give as much information as possible about what large categories of stuff will be on the exam, and to show them what exam expectations will be throughout the semester (eg emphasized that the exams would reflect the synthetic questions I ask in class, not be purely recall). So as you say, test the things you are teaching – but also don’t let the first exam be the first time they see a synthesis question.

  7. I like Abigail’s comment: I find that creating appropriate expectations is the hardest part of testing. Open or closed book. I think that knowing some facts is an necessary prerequisite to success on synthesis questions, but prior to a closed book exam it can be difficult to communicate which facts those are.

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