Open book exams: contingency plan or permanent component?

An investigation into the benefits and drawbacks of open book examinations

For the entire 2020/21 academic year, students and professors alike were forced to adapt to a year confined and defined by Covid-19. For most, this meant a transition completely online, and as exam season reared its head, the easiest contingency and kindness offered to students was in the form of online, open book, and take home exams. Students were equipped with notes and resources to aid them through their exams in an attempt to alleviate a morsel of stress from an anxiety-inducing year. Speaking to students and professors it seemed that, in certain instances, this alternative assessment proved to have advantages over in-person, timed examinations. With these advantages in mind, it is up for consideration whether open book, online exams should be integrated into university assessment or abandoned for traditional methods as we transition back to normality.

With no mandatory lab hours or practical classes, many Arts, Humanities and Social Science (AHSS) subjects were able to transition online quite seamlessly. This included not only lectures and tutorials, but assessments. Exams that would usually be held in person under typical conditions became open book, take home exams, with time limits being extended to days, or even weeks.  

As an English Studies student, I found this substitute form of assessment to be quite appropriate. My expectation of the course before I began was that I would not only be learning about great works of literature, but that I would also be developing the ability to critically and independently analyse the works presented to me. The School of English course description boasts that: “Our English courses have been designed to develop independence of critical thought and the articulation of informed discussion, both oral and written”, and throughout our classes we were encouraged to offer our own opinions and ideas on our studied texts. Many assessments came in the form of essays, where we had the opportunity, time, and resources to fully develop a coherent, high-quality argument.  Other assessments were to be in-person exams, and it seemed to be the general consensus that exams were expected to be lower quality than essays. However, when these exams were changed to open book, take home exams, the potential to present a quality answer reopened itself. Without the time constraints of an in-person exam, I could articulate my ideas more clearly, and redraft my answer until it was coherent and cohesive. As a resuIt, my answers were a more accurate display of not only the knowledge I had gained but the skills I had developed over the semester, and thus were a more appropropriate method of examination for my chosen subject.

There is an argument to be made on both styles of examination to be integrated into the English Studies curriculum. Chris Morash, Seamus Heaney Professor of Irish Writing, provided his perspective on open book exams. Speaking to Trinity News, he said: “I certainly think that for much of what we do in English – particularly where the core skill involves students being able to engage closely with a complex literary text – a good way to assess that is some form of assessment where students have access to that text, such as an open book or take-home exam.”  

He also argued that some of the skills in English Studies may be more appropriately examined through normal exam conditions: “There may be some areas of English – such as the ability to read a short, unseen text, such as a poem, or to translate from Old English – that are better assessed in the conventional in-person proctored exam.” Parts of the English Studies course that involve learning information rather than developing skills, such as the Old English language, would be more appropriately examined under normal conditions, as this would actually test how well the student had retained the information.  

Both examination methods fit different elements of the English Studies course, and this can translate to other courses in the School of Arts. With this considered, it may be suitable to suggest a more balanced approach to the assessment of Arts subjects in the future, where all expectations of learning within the course can be examined in their most appropriate methods, some of these being open book, take-home exams.

While many Arts subjects prioritise a development of new skills in conjunction with gaining knowledge, making open book exams suitable, other areas of study may require the traditional approach. Many courses in the School of Engineering, Maths, and Science and the School of Health Sciences strongly require memorising information, and therefore regular exam conditions would present a much more accurate depiction of a student’s knowledge of the subject.  

“Knowledge based exams would be more accurately tested under normal exam conditions, but the skill of understanding may be more apparent in open book conditions.”

Speaking to Trinity News, a Management Science and Information System Studies (MSISS) student, shared her experience with open book exams this year, and the suitability for different methods of examination for different types of learning became blatantly clear. MSISS students study a combination of computer science, maths and business subjects, and while all of their online exams were labelled open book, Niamh commented: “Many of the exams still had severe time limits, meaning that there was no opportunity to check your notes under the constraints.” She also explained that, in their maths-based exams, while notes were an aid, the understanding of a concept was vital. In business exams they were expected to present essay style answers, and she said that “you could follow a train of thoughts using your notes, on which you could base your method and thinking.” Open book exams provided them with a guide without tainting the examination of their understanding. In this way, knowledge based exams would be more accurately tested under normal exam conditions, but the skill of understanding may be more apparent in open book conditions.

As a final comment, she added: “Overall I think open book exams could be really useful for certain modules, depending on what the objectives of the module are. In modules including any self expression, I think open book would be ideal because it removes the unnecessary pressure of real exam conditions”.

Some subjects require in person examinations as a part of their degree, making a transition to exclusively open book exams unrealistic. Dr Neville Cox, Professor of Law and Dean of Graduate Students, understood the benefits of open book exams and fallbacks of in person ones, saying “not only are [in person exams] mere memory tests, they also test things like endurance, absence of anxiety, absence of potential impacts of menstrual cycles and so on – none of which are academically relevant.”

However, he continued, “the professional bodies for law (that is, those that qualify barristers and solicitors) do still require that, if they are to accredit our degrees, students must be examined by way of exam. Hence for the time being some law courses will need that final exam. We would impoverish our students otherwise by not enabling them to qualify as practitioners.” In this way, in person examinations are integral to a students development, and even contribute to the quality of their degree.  

Bev Gnockey, Education Officer of the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) also spoke to Trinity News about the use and effectiveness of open book exams, commenting that “online, open-book exams are more appropriate than in person exams in certain instances, particularly in the case of essay-based subjects as it allows students to demonstrate critical thinking and synthesis skills, rather than simply recall, which I feel greatly benefits the overall learning experience of the student.”

She weighed this up against the alternative, suggesting situations where in person exams may be more appropriate: “online exams which have required the use of proctoring to uphold the principles of academic integrity (which would typically been used in professionally accredited courses) would be better suited to being traditional in-person assessments, due in large part to the documented issues with proctoring software and student privacy or connectivity concerns.” The integrity of an in person exam cannot be completely mimicked online, and thus cannot be fully replaced by this style of assessment.

By providing students with resources such as texts or reference materials, their understanding of a theory or their critical thinking and analysis skills would not be clouded by the pressures of an in person exam.”

Sharing her thoughts, she said “I am inclined to believe that we might see a shift toward a sort of hybrid approach to assessment whereby some take place in person, and others are online – which would be good, as it allows greater room to diversify the types of assessments offered to students.” Continuing on from this, she pointed out that in the Student Union’s Big SUrvey, 52% of students agreed that their learning had been fully and fairly assessed in the past year.  

While it is clear that open book exams cannot completely replace the traditional method of assessment, in some instances it may be a more appropriate and accurate display of a student’s development of both skills and knowledge. By providing students with resources such as texts or reference materials, their understanding of a theory or their critical thinking and analysis skills would not be clouded by the pressures of an in person exam. In other scenarios, in person exams more accurately test a student’s knowledge of a subject. Open book exams provide an alternate way to test students and different aspects of learning. It is unclear as of yet whether online examinations will be implemented or integrated into the university curriculum as studies return to normal, or if they will be abandoned in favour of tradition, but there is certainly reason to consider the effectiveness of open book exams as a method of examination.

Lara Mellett

Second Year English Studies student at Trinity