Creating Open Book Exams

Creating Open Book Exams

In The Online Teaching Survival Guide (2016), Boettcher & Conrad note that one difference inherent in online courses is the shift away from closed-book tests towards more engaging assessments that allow for more synthesis and creativity (in turn making academic dishonesty more difficult). One option to consider is using open-book exams, a format that reduces exam stresses on students and allows instructors to worry less about policing the exam process. They remove the artificiality of the testing process and better mirror the type of synthesis, applicaton, and problem-solving students have to do in real life. This approach is common in many disciplines, utilizing more conceptual or applied questions that students cannot quickly look up in a textbook. Here are some suggestions for creating open-book exams.


Climbing Bloom’s Ladder

Closed-book exams can ask factual questions that demand students recall discrete pieces of information, but those bits can easily be looked up in an open-book format. So, as you consider open-book exams, work to move toward higher order thinking, as defined by Bloom’s Taxonomy. In the most basic sense, you need to avoid factual questions (“Who invented X?” or “What is the third step in Y’s theory?”) and ask questions that require students to apply that information to unique new situations, such as in the examples below.

It is important to match the types of questions in your exams with class activities, homework, and quizzes. It is unfair to students to focus daily activities only on factual recall and comprehension, and then expect conceptual application or evaluation on the exam. So, be sure to let students practice these more advanced cognitive skills before they get to the final.


Focus on conceptual questions

Focusing on conceptual questions is probably easier in open-ended questions, as it asks students to apply and synthesize multiple pieces of knowledge to answer a question. These questions can be very applied or authentic. Examples:

  • Describe the next step in this process….
  • Define X within context Y….
  • Explain this situation through the lens of theory Z….
  • What would have happened if…? And why? (could be historical situations, chemical reactions, public policy analyses, and more)
  • Identify the error in a proof or computation. Or better, explain and/or fix it.

You can write multiple-choice questions that require more conceptual knowledge, moving students from recall of information to applications of it.

  • Provide a mini case study and ask students questions related to it. (“Based on the case study above, which of the following is the most likely cause of the patient’s pain?” or “Based on the client’s needs above, which of the following is the preferred course of action?”)
  • Describe a physical/chemical interaction and ask students to predict the outcome (“What would happen to the reaction if we added compound X?” or “Given the provided diagram of the collision, in which direction will the projectile head?”) Even better if you can include an open-ended opportunity for them to explain their reasoning.
  • Ask students to identify an example of a concept or principle. (“Which of the following is an example of a norm-referenced interpretation?” or “Which of the following best exemplifies the principle of synchronicity?”
  • Use charts that students have to explain or interpret, perhaps throwing in a “what if” question to push their analysis and prediction skills.

For a good overview of question writing that includes examples of questions testing higher-order thinking, see How to Write Better Tests from Bloomington Evaluation Services and Testing (BEST).


Other tips for open-book exams

  • Instead of multiple-choice or fill-in questions, have students show their work and scan/upload their work.
  • Kaltura allows you to create a video submission assignment in Canvas. You can use this tool to provide a demonstration for students to address, or have them record their answers, which could be their own demonstration.
  • If you use problems from a textbook publisher, be sure to change names, numbers, and the scenario, since popular textbooks may have many of their problems already solved online somewhere.
  • Instead of asking students to do a simple calculation, ask them a more complex problem that forces them to figure out what they need to calculate, maybe sorting through other information that isn’t necessary or relevant. Give them a problem and force them to figure out how to calculate the solution. That way, you are forcing them to make decisions surrounding the calculation, not just doing the calculation (or finding an online calculator to do it for them).
  • Use multilevel thinking, using questions that include phrases like “most appropriate” or “most important.” This approach forces students to make judgements and demonstrate a fuller understanding of concepts and the subtleties between different levels of correctness of the answers.
  • Work to find the right amount of time to give students to complete the exam–enough time to complete it with minimal stress, but not so much that they will obsess over their answers. Students in the Spring 2019 semester reported that instructors often underestimated the time needed for online exams.


Rethinking our goals for assessment

One of the toughest things to deal with in a move to open-book exams is rethinking our conceptions of academic integrity. Many of us were the students who played by the rules, and we want to ensure a level playing field in our own classes. No cheating in my class, right? For me, the shift came when I realized that I have to look up information, formulas, and details all the time in my own work. But I remember the broader concepts, remember enough of the details to go look up the specifics, and can synthesize or apply them in my given situation. (Who didn’t do that by the time you got to your dissertation or thesis?) That’s the reality many of our students will face in the future, so how can we structure our assessments to measure their ability to do that synthesis and application, rather than test on discrete pieces of information they will forget a month from now anyway? If your discipline really does require significant amounts of factual recall, open-book exams may not be for you, but they are a great option for many of us with learning outcomes that focus on higher-order thinking.

Thanks toRutgers University for many of the recommendations above.

This guide was originally published as a CITL Blog post by Greg Siering.