The Open Book route

An Open Book examination tests students’ ability to quickly find relevant information and then to understand, analyse and apply knowledge, while thinking critically. Answering the question will require more than just copying information from texts

The Open Book route

It has been realized that amidst the pandemic, the show must go on even in the education sector and hence the need to conduct final year examinations in our colleges and universities. And that too must be transparent and reliable. The prospect of online examinations has been jeopardized by a digital divide. The introduction of Open Book Examination seems to be the only option in the present situation to be conducted by our universities in the coming month.

There is nothing new about open book examinations. The results of the nationwide survey made by the Australian Examination Board in Spring 1997 showed that teachers and pupils, on the whole, are satisfied or very satisfied with the arrangements of Open Book Examination. Of course, the shaping of such exams offers challenges. The formation of tasks must not invite uncritical reproduction of information from textbooks or other sources. To find the right information may be important, but if it is not evaluated, adapted and rightly used, this is of little importance.

Considering the restricted material access in an ideal Open Book Examination, the goal was to find assessment methods that best encouraged and supported holistic learning. The primary intention was to change student perceptions of “what is really important” for the application of course to real life. This was necessary because students identify difficult topics and believe it is best learnt by rote. As a result, there was little impetus for students to pursue quality learning outcomes, and the capacity to integrate and apply information was not tested. This could lead them to ignore these components, so even though they appreciated the need to apply knowledge to real life cases, few attempted to approach learning from this perspective. Obviously, the nature of the assessment task had a detrimental impact on students’ learning approaches and outcomes. The Open Book Examination system modified assessment tasks to encourage them to actively engage with the material and develop their own understanding. The questions required students to identify pathways for information processing and describe how they functioned to perceive and respond to them. The differentiated nature of the questions meant that each student constructed unique answers which were exciting to read as they produced their own original concept maps, skillfully depicting the complexity of the subject, suggesting that they had actively engaged themselves in learning difficult topics.


The focus of education has been to maximize the utility of academic activities. The concept of Open Book Examination is that of a learning tool, both able to objectively rank students according to ability, and to enrich the learning environment. This test may fulfill both requirements of an assessment tool and a student-centred approach to education – as a technique that may reduce the level of anxiety experienced by students. This may result in more comprehensive examination preparation, and hence more consistent learning throughout the course of study.

Open Book Examinations allow students to take notes, texts or resource materials into an examination situation. The tests assess their ability to find and apply information and knowledge that are often used in subjects requiring direct reference to written materials. The materials may vary. In some tests the materials are restricted, for example, to formula sheets, tablets, or a limited number of texts while in others they may be more fully restricted. Materials used in takehome examinations are usually unrestricted. The tests are conducted usually in two forms: one, a traditional sit-down examination with varying degrees of access to resources and references; two, a take-home open book exam done at home. Questions are handed out and answers are attempted without any assistance from others.

An Open Book Examination may test more than just rote learning. It tests students’ ability to quickly find relevant information and then to understand, analyze and apply knowledge, while thinking critically. Answering the question will require more than just copying information from texts. Having access to a textbook may stop them from giving a wrong answer if they cannot remember a fact or formula, but just getting the fact correct will not fetch them good marks. How they locate, apply, and use information is more important.

The misconception about Open Book Examinations is that students do not need intense study. Having all notes and books might mean students do not have to memorize but they still need to be able to apply it effectively. This means they must understand the content of the course so that they can find and use appropriate information. An Open Book Examination requires them to: i) learn for understanding rather than just remembering; ii) understanding how to find information; iii) make good notes and organize materials for fast reference; and iv) apply the information in their sources to the question.

So, an Open Book Examination is introduced to remove rote learning and more superficial application of knowledge. Teachers can devise questions that require students to answer in more analytical and critical ways thus encouraging high-order thinking skills.

Open Book Examinations work only when answers cannot be readily extracted from the material, but only from a synthesis of all of the knowledge within. There must be no single right answer, but a range of possibilities requiring creativity. Thus, cheating can be detected because every student should be producing his or her own unique answer.

The teacher’s role is crucial in the entire scheme of things. They may not know how to develop and devise effective questions that require students to apply their knowledge through analysis and critical thinking. Students may be lulled into a false sense of security and fail to properly prepare for such examinations. Questions need to be devised to assess the interpretation and application of knowledge.

So Open Book Examinations will have effects on teaching strategy too. The strategy for preparing the students to take the exam will also have to change. Teachers will have to design tasks that will provide exercises for appropriate mental skill required in handling questions. The teaching- learning process will be interactive, and teaching involve training of the mind in certain intellectual skills.

One of the blunders students may make while preparing for such an examination is placing too much emphasis on reference materials. During the examination, extensive notes, text-books and reference materials can quickly become a crutch rather than an asset. One cannot expect to have time to review one’s notes, peruse text-books or discover new information during an Open Book Examination.

In fact, Open Book Examinations are ideally suited to teaching programmes that aim at developing the skills of critical and creative thinking. It is generally thought that the primary goal of teaching is the dissemination of knowledge. This approach treats the information content of a subject to be the most important. The teacher’s role is that of facilitating the transfer of information from the textbook to the student’s mind. The student, in turn, is expected to understand it, retain it and know how to retrieve it during the examination. If the purpose of examination is to test information that students have memorised, an Open Book Examination is fruitless. But if the examination aims to test the skill of problem solving and critical thinking, then there is no harm in their consulting study materials. At a time when a secure examination system is the need of the hour, Open Book Examinations will definitely serve the purpose.

The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata and is presently with Rabindra Bharati University