Fear not the open book

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Educators should embrace open book exams to improve critical and creative thinking skills in students

There has been a lot of reform in the teaching and learning sector over the past decade, but despite the changes, education has not embraced open book tests. In my view, open book testing should be a mandatory component of every final year high school academic course across the nation, and should also be included in the calculation of final assessment. At least 25 per cent of the final assessment in high schools should be open book in format.

At present, open book testing is not an accepted assessment method in Australia. The effect of its exclusion is an over reliance on memory and an under-development of problem solving and creative thinking capacity in students. There appears to be a fear of allowing students to access content when taking examinations. This conservatism needs to be the subject of critique, as the benefits of open book testing go unutilised, to the detriment of students.

Open Book.Indian Link

Currently, educators are predominantly focused on the content elements of courses and neglect, in whole or in part, critical and creative thinking skills. Yet, these twin skills form the foundations of lifelong learning. One imaginative means by which to inculcate the capacity for critical and creative thinking would be for educators to design examinations based on the premise that students can access all the content, all relevant formulas, all the summaries and all the textual material that they want. Instantly, the nature of exams and the approach to testing would have to change.

The effect of this type of open access would mean that exams would have to be written in a way that requires an application of skills rather than a regurgitation of knowledge. Exam drafting would have to be wholly re-designed as the focus on would shift away from a prerequisite of rote learning, memorised essay plans and structures, and pre-learned templates to an integration of thinking that addresses complex issues, ideas and concepts in new contexts.

Indeed, the shift would also require a re-imagination of the use of a stimulus in exams, and how it can be utilised to elicit responses that demonstrate a capacity for higher order and creative thinking.

Examinations would alter so that they could effectively assess critical thinking and a creative use of knowledge and understanding.

Open Book.Indian Link

There are other advantages to open book exams. Open book exams remove the focus from teaching reams of prescribed content. Rather, an ability to apply knowledge to new situations, novel problems and unusual discontinuities would be the focus. This would have significant implications for curriculum design and also for interdisciplinary teaching and learning.

A problem for educators would be how to design robust assessment if students had open access to all relevant content. This problems has several sides, beginning with accommodating the notion of a new approach to some exams and extending to a recognition of opportunities to assess through creative exam design. Teachers would also need to adapt to new ways of marking and evaluating student work. Once the predictable resistance to a new idea is addressed, the more substantive issue of examination design, exam taking and exam marking would need to be the focus.

It should be obvious that when assuming students have complete access to all course content, asking for the repetition of learned facts would be a wasteful approach to take. Instead, the ‘entry level’ questions would utilise classification, application, comparison or other performance skills.

In designing exams to be open book, you have to consider the question, ‘what would be the role of notes?’ This question prompts an understanding of teaching students organisational skills, a capacity to present information concisely, a need to apply visual means to organise information, ideas and concepts, as well as an ability to take ownership of learning structures. These skills are not required in preparing for closed book tests, though of course they may be useful.

Open Book.Indian Link

Doing away with tension over content, real skills could be taught in classrooms. This is because time would not be spent ‘covering the content’. Instead, lessons would be taught on applying information to solve problems, evaluating information from sources, assessing relationships between ideas, exploring solutions to open-ended problems and creating alternatives to address multi-layered issues and complex notions.

Whilst students would need to be taught different exam-preparation strategies, open book exams would help reduce anxiety and test stress among students, which often arises from the pressure to memorise everything with limited time prior to an exam. Moreover, if teachers were concerned that students would over rely on textbooks then there could be a requirement to limit the number of notes to five hand-written pages. The hand-written maxim would help students design their notes and would also help students to learn to ‘place’ information on pages in a way that makes it intuitive to the student.

Having had change to curriculum and changes to national teaching standards, it is now time to visit how we examine, and find imaginative ways to teach and assess critical and creative thinking skills.