Thursday, May 5, 2011

Open book exams, redeemed, but left behind

I have an ongoing struggle regarding open book exams. For a long time I did not even consider them. Then, when I started teaching some very intensive, material-heavy classes (such as anatomy/physiology combos), I realized that I could not base the assessment on students' ability to recall details that are necessary in order to do the actual analysis/problem-solving. In real life all of us look up data in electronic databases. So I started trying out open book and/or open note final exams.
I have learned several facts along the way:
1. it is much harder to develop good open book exams. There must be a balance between the different skills evaluated: finding the information quickly, applying the concepts, making deep analyses, and writing in a concise and clear manner. I usually have questions in all ranges, where essay questions demanding analysis and good writing provide the points for an A grade. 
2. One has to avoid answers quickly found through the index. I learned the hard way when in an exam where I asked for an example of structure and function at different levels (tissue, organ etc), the overwhelming majority of the students wrote about the stomach. I was surprised because we had not covered digestive system in that particular class, but students later pointed out that stomach was an example of structure function-relationship provided in the book, which could be found by looking in the index. In a recent exam I asked for examples of homeostatic regulation, and clearly stated which ones could not be used (after carefully perusing the book for clues). 
3. They take time. Closed-book exams take usually between 1-2 hours, maybe more if there are slow/thorough students. For the latest one I had to tell the 4-6 students remaining that it was time to go after 4 hours. Some of them had not even started the essay questions. Those are the times when I wonder about hidden disabilities. 
4. They work. When I finish preparing the open book exams I often think that they are too easy to pass. I include on purpose those more demanding questions for the highest grade, but in my mind there is no way anybody could flunk the exam when the book is available. I am consistently proved wrong. There are students who fail the open book exams. True, they tend to be the weakest students, those who had usually failed the other exams. Or the uninterested ones, who sit in the back behind their laptops and never show up for review sessions. But the fact that they fail even with the material available tells me that they lack basic study skills. And that is a scary thought when it is about students who have been through years of college.
5. They tell me more about the students than any other kind of exam. I learn a lot about my students reading their exams. Some of them write in a sloppy way but showing 'common sense" and experience. They know what the issue is, but have difficulty translating it to the language of science. They cut through the verbiage but miss the chance to show deep understanding. Others look up words and copy paragraphs from the book related to the question, but never really answering it. It is common, but especially disappointing when coming from students who have done "great" in other exams. 
6. They are bygone. More and more students have ebooks instead of "real" books. This time it was only 2 students, and I was able to get them books, but I was aware they were in disadvantage, as they could not use their highlights and notes. On the other hand I could not have them bring their laptops and do word searches (or even sneak into the internet). 
7. Open note it is. I have had open note exams, and they actually feel better in the sense that note preparation itself is a skill, and students learn just by preparing them. However, I have to think ahead really well in setting the parameters of the notes allowed. Also, I will have to actually check if the students comply with those parameters. Policing is not my cup of tea, but in this case it is part of being fair. Ugh.
So it is kind of anticlimactic that after evaluating my latest and in my opinion, so far my best open book exam developed, I decided not to do it again. However, for the next installment of the course I may do an open book quiz early on. That way I could gauge earlier the level of class and identify those students who may need extra attention. Or just to get them know better. 
What are your experiences with open book exams, dear readers? 

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