During the last few decades, technological advancements have necessitated a shift from a “brick and mortar synchronous environment” to a “click and learn asynchronous environment” in higher education – according to researchers. The ongoing pandemic certainly has enforced that shift at a rapid speed. For example, take-home examinations during Covid-19 have become pupular in universities across the globe. Some Indian universities are also gearing up to support students through their assessments in these challenging time by putting in place alternative forms of evaluation.

Certainly, most people are not quite accustomed to such exams. An “Open-Book examination” is a proctored assessment method which allows students to refer to class notes, textbooks, or other approved material while answering questions. The “Take-Home exam”, however, is a mix between homework and an Open-Book exam. Like normal homework given during the course, it can be done at home with access to lecture notes, internet and any books or resources which might be useful. For decades now, both OpenBook and Take-Home exams have been taking place in various universities abroad. These are occasionally administered in some Indian institutes as well.

In a systematic review of TakeHome exams in higher education in a 2019 article in the journal ‘Educational Sciences’, Lars Bengtson of the University of Gothenburg opined that Take-Home exams instead of a proctored, in-class exam tertiary education may be the preferred assessment method on the higher taxonomy levels because they promote higher order thinking skills and allow time for reflection. They are also more consonant with constructive alignment theories. However, due to the obvious risk of unethical student behaviour, take-home exams are not recommended on the lowest taxonomy level.

In an article published in 1983 in the journal ‘Research in Higher Education’, researchers from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University studied whether student achievement in examinations is associated with the type of examination administered (closed, open, or takehome) on students in undergraduate educational psychology classes. Sixty students, randomly assigned to one of three groups (21, 20, 19, in groups 1, 2, and 3, respectively) took three tests, each test having 20 multiple choice questions – containing 10 knowledge and 10 application items. On each occasion one group of students took the exam in closed-book format; one group in an open-book format; and the remaining group in a take-home format; so that each student experienced each treatment, or exam mode, once. The mean percent achievement test scores for “total test” were 57.9, 61.5 and 64.9, respectively, for “Closed-Book”, “OpenBook” and “Take-Home” exams. Clearly, for the same question paper, the average score for a Take-Home exam was significantly higher than that of a Closed-Book exam. The mean percent achievement test scores for “knowledge items” for the three types of tests were 55.8, 62.5 and 68.8, respectively. Here the increase in average scores from Closed-Book to Open-Book and also from Open-Book to Take-Home exam were significant. However, the mean percent achievement test scores for “application items” for the ClosedBook, Open-Book and Take-Home exams were 60.0, 60.5 and 61.0, respectively. These were remarkably close, and there was no statistically significant difference between them.

This study clearly indicates that the type of questions for a TakeHome exam should be very different from the standard Closed-Book exam. Questions on “knowledge items”, for example, are not appropriate for Take-Home exams. Although, in this 1983 study, cheating was defined as an occurrence when a student received assistance from a fellow classmate, for TakeHome exams, it is now widely assumed that the students would use the internet for writing the exam. And, of course, in this age of internet and social media, it is almost impossible to eliminate the possibility of so-called ‘cheating’. However, I’m not quite sure whether it would be appropriate to use the term ‘cheating’ for the act of taking help from any source in such exams. Usually, there is no rule stopping one from asking another student for pointers or having someone else read through it. Hence, the onus is on the question setters, and the questions should be robust enough so that the exam would be least affected by such possibilities. Certainly, more research and experimentation in that direction is still needed. Again, the extended time limit in such exams implies less stress on the students, more complex and open-ended questions can be used which would increase the test liability.

During the last couple of decades, two dramatic events – the massification of higher education and the emergence of the Internet – have fundamentally changed the basis on which universities conduct tertiary education. The new cohort of students have different study habits and a much wider spread in academic ability and skills when they enter tertiary training. A 2001 paper in the ‘Journal of Management and Organization’ went on to summarize that “take-home exams fit the new millennium student’s lifestyle”.

Since open-book take-home exams promote critical thinking and the development of analytical skills of a student, teachers can check whether their students have a clear knowledge of the subject and adjust their teaching methods accordingly. Furthermore, they are logistically easier to implement.

There are certain disadvantages as well. Both students and teachers might need some time to adapt to the new format. However, since alternate methods are already being desperately sought during the time of the pandemic, take-home exams have become very viable. Careful setting of the question papers and evaluating the answers is required in take-home exams. Students also need good writing skills to portray their knowledge in such an exam. Also, it’s certainly not easy to ensure equal availability of resources to all students. If some students may not have access to the same quality or quantity of study materials and internet as others, there is bound to be some discrepancy.

Certainly, there are enough good teachers in our country who can frame appropriate take-home exams, I believe. Take-home exams during the pandemic are certainly a compulsion, and these exams are becoming the ‘new normal’ all over the world. And it might even become more of a regular feature in higher taxonomy level in the post-Covid world as well – who knows? The world was never prepared for such a sudden urgency of take-home exams. But, as Arundhati Roy has observed, the pandemic is a portal to a new world. We’ll have to adjust in the new normal, and we’ll learn to cope with the new environment through the journey itself.

The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata