What Constitutes an Open-Book Exam in the Digital Age?

Several weeks ago, I shared here the syllabus for the undergraduate class I am teaching this semester at USC. As I noted, it is my first time doing a lecture hall class in some years and my first undergraduate class at USC, so it has been a learning process for all involved. I wanted to share with you a pedagogical challenge I’ve faced this term in part as an illustration of the kinds of transition higher education is undergoing as we try to absorb new media technologies and practices into our teaching.

It starts with the decisions we made about the course readings. We opted to put the scanned essays onto Blackboard, the classroom management tool which USC urges us to use, rather than having them printed out at a local copy shop. My hope was to save the students money and to also save trees by having as close to a paperless class as possible.

Then, I made the announcement that the exams in the class would be open book, open note and that I was planning to distribute a list of potential questions in advance from which I would draw in constructing the exam, a practice I have used for more than 20 years without any great confusion. I’ve found that this approach lowers stress for students by allowing them to feel more in control as they are preparing for and taking the exam. In practice, some fraction of the class works really hard, prepares for the exam by writing out their answers in advance, and copies them into the blue book. Another fraction studies their notes, comes in and improvises on the exam, or develops an outline in advance that they write from. And some fraction, for their own reasons, pays no attention to the advanced questions, doesn’t study, and does really badly on the exam. The kicker is often the identification questions, which would be simple to answer by anyone with a textbook open in front of them, but nevertheless often end up unanswered or answered wrongly. The result is a grade distribution curve not very different from what I would have if I gave a closed book, closed notes exam — but as I said, it lowers stress.

No sooner did I announce this policy than I got a question I’ve never been asked before. A student wondered whether open book, open note, meant open laptop. I needed time to reflect on this and said I would answer in the next class period. Actually, it took me a few to get back to them with a response. Given this was a class on technology and culture, I decided to use this as a teachable moment.

So, I started by breaking down the computer into two elements. First, there is the computer as a stand alone word processing machine. I certainly would have had no great objections to students using the computer to write their answers or even to access their materials. Indeed, as someone with painfully bad penmanship, I had been the first in my graduate program to take my quals on a computer the department provided. They made sure to give me a clean disc as I entered the room and I was allowed to take nothing else with me into the test.

But this was before the era of networked computing, which fundamentally changed the character of what a computer is. So, allowing students to use a laptop during an exam suddenly would allow students to access any information anywhere on the web and more significantly would allow students to trade information with each other throughout the test in ways which would be extremely difficult to monitor.

As I thought about it, the challenges of designing a meaningful test under those circumstances intrigued me. What would it mean to create an exam which could be taken not by individual students but by networked groups of students — either the class as a whole or a specifically designated study group? Could we enfold ideas of collective intelligence into the design of tests? Could we create challenges which demonstrated their mastery of the material through the search strategies they deployed and the knowledge they produced together? In theory, such an exam holds promise as more and more jobs require the capacity to pool knowledge and collaborate with a team of others to solve complex problems, and learning how to mobilize expertise under these conditions should be a key goal of our educational process.

But, how would we deal with such an exam in the context of our current grading systems? After all, we still assume that grades measure individual performance and so if we gave group grades, that might prove unsatisfactory to everyone involved. Would students raised in a culture where grades based on individual performance know how to act fairly in a culture where grades were based on group performance?

After all, we know that on group projects, bright students are often treated unfairly, exploited by their classmates, who fail to do their fair share of the work, and who may, in fact, not be capable of contributing at the same level? Under such system, teachers have had to devise systems to measure individual contributions to the group, thus going back to personalized rather than collective grading? What would be involved in terms of time and technology in monitoring what each student contributed to the group’s collective performance on the exam?

And of course, all of this assumes that all of my students do have laptops or can borrow laptops, a more or less safe assumption given the relatively affluent population of USC, but hardly the case at many other colleges and universities around the country. How could you give one group of students such an intense advantage on the exam? Would we then have to issue laptops the way we now issue blue books?

As I started to contemplate these issues, I started to choke. As much as I wanted to be the cool, open-minded teacher, the model pedagogue for the digital age, there was no way I was going to be able to work through all of the implications of this radical shift in classroom practice in time to apply it this semester. A real answer to this question may not be possible in our current educational system, though it is a kind of question which we are going to be asked more and more. So, I spelled all of this out to my students, and challenged them to start thinking through the issues.

But, then came the turn of the knife. If they could not use their laptops, and the course texts had navigated to the web, then in what sense was this going to be an open book test? They could no longer access the course materials without printing them off, which would undo everything we saved by making them digital in the first place. The answer of course is that with the questions in advance, they could print out notes or print out the essays they needed to address the questions. They wouldn’t have to print out everything, but they would no longer be working in a paperless environment.

So, we went back to the drawing board one last time, and asked the tech people if it would be possible to shut down the wireless in the room for the duration of the exams. They were not able/willing to do this, so that’s where things stand as of the moment. Neither the students nor I are fully satisfied with this resolution, but both the pedagogical and technological structures of the modern university would seem to block any path out of this challenge that I have come up with.

I can’t be the only faculty member on the planet facing these challenges, so I am posting this to see how other educators are dealing with these transitions. I can see the world we are surely evolving towards, but I don’t know how to get there on my own.

So, let’s use our laptops to work through this problem together. Oh, wait….

While we are on the subject of Digital Media and Learning, I wanted to give people a head’s up for a great new documentary, New Learners of the 21st Century, which will be airing on PBS stations across the United States this coming Sunday, Feb. 13. Some of you will recall how one-sided and negative I found the Digital Nation documentary which aired last year, despite having talked to many key researchers and collected some compelling material for their webpage.

New Learners of the 21st Century offers the flip side of that documentary, taking us into innovative school and after school programs which are making creative use of new media platforms and practices for pedagogy. You can get a taste for what to expect from this opening segment which they have posted to PBS Video, but it is really, in this case, only the beginning.

By the second segment on Quest to Learn, the New York charter school which uses game design to teach, you can see the difference in the ways the two documentaries approach their topics. In Digital Nation, the Quest to Learn segment is almost incomprehensible: we see lots of activities involving technology but we have no idea what the kids are doing or why, and as a result, it feels like technology for technology’s sake. Here, we learn about their pedagogical approach; we see processes unfold; we hear about when they use technology and when they ask the kids to put it aside. The focus is less on the use of computers in the classroom, an old topic after all and as my above discussion suggests, one we are still struggling with, and more on the use of new media literacies in education.

The same holds true for the film’s treatment of a range of other pedagogical sites, including great stuff on work being done by the Smithsonian Institute and by the YouMedia Center at the Chicago Public Library, both important innovators in this space.

Because the topic is more narrowly focused, and because the goal is to explain and not simply stir up controversy, this film does do justice to the complex research which the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning program has funded in this area. I have been honored to be part of this initiative from the start, so my recommendation is scarcely unbiased here. But if like me, you’ve been burnt several times already by PBS’s treatment of youth and digital media, I want to let you know that this one will be more rewarding.


  1. Francesca Coppa says:

    I think connectivity does kill the open book exam, but for me its made the choice between in-class exams and take-home exams or papers much starker and more interesting.

    As a teacher, I’ve started to think that, if I’m going to allow students tools, then let them have all the tools they want to make something great–my job being to set a project that’s complex and interesting enough to be worthy of those tools. In this case, the thing to police against with all hell and fury is plagiarism (which, as I need not explain to you of all people, is NOT collaboration, or remix, or citation, or quotation or anything like that). In other cases, the goal may be to measure how well a student can do with as FEW tools as possible–brain, hand, pen–and so then you give an in-class exam, but I’ve found myself thinking more and more about what I really want to test when I give these. I think in class exams can be a good test of–and incitement to–a particular kind of attention that improves take-home projects. So I now use in-class tests to test understanding of the building blocks of knowledge and theory which are necessary for good out-of-class projects.

  2. I teach an engineering controls lab at the Univ of S Paulo, Brazil. A while ago I decided to make all exams open consultation – meaning students can open books, use the internet, ask questions to each other. The exams are a mini-experiment to be executed in an hour or so. At the end it is pretty obvious who knows the stuff, who learned on the job doing the exam, and who hasn’t yet. They pretty much volunteer their grades afterwards – A or B in the 1st case, B or C in the 2nd, and retake the exam in the last.

    I don’t know how much the experience transfers, but it works for me in this case. I try to do things in a similar way for the usual chalk-and-board lectures, with some success.

  3. dgsmith.myid.net says:

    This is an increasing issue in education, but not one that I think we should shy away from. If education has to do one thing it has to prepare people for a life of work. Whatever that work might be.

    Graduates are typically going to be working in an environment where collaboration and consultation is the norm. Raw knowledge of facts is far less useful than the ability to analyse information and make informed decisions.

    Open book tests should be designed to take advantage of the fact that students can collaborate and share. Closed book tests can be used in situations where you want absolute control and the ability to measure pure knowledge.

    The problem is not the ubiquity of the network. The problem is that exams need to be carefully designed to take advantage of that, and we need a metric to adequately measure performance in these exams.

    Educators need to evolve to match the world in which their student live and breathe. Even the term “open book” is an indicator of the era in which it was coined and useful. I think the possibilities are challenging, but exciting. I hope you work out a solution, and I look forward to reading about it.

  4. PamWilson says:

    Good and thoughtful and relevant questions for all of us who are educators, regardless of what level we teach.

    Have you tried collaborative exam writing? I did a collaborative midterm for my media theory class last spring as an experiment; it was a technology new to all of us, so just getting adapted to the platform was a learning experience. I used Ubidesk on a trial basis, particularly because it provided me the option of viewing their response with color coding to indicate who had written what, so I could assign individual grades. I really liked it, but it isn’t free like GoogleDocs.

    Interestingly, I ended up giving them about two weeks to create this full-class response to two exam questions, and it was indeed complete open-everything since there were no restrictions and it was not an in-class assignment. Yet many (most) of them did not truly take advantage of all the resources available to them. And that in itself is another pedagogical challenge.

  5. MTminwiswip says:

    On the practical side for web-access ‘control’ in the classroom, consider using a management software such as Netop’s Vision. Beyond the initial cost (approx. $700 for a larger class, although you can get a free 30-day trial to try it out), the only challenge would be getting the student’s software piece loaded on their laptops. Then from your own computer, you can select to block web access with the push of a button or key. It also allows you to link two or more student computers together for sharing (collaboration) of work as well as broadcasting your own desktop out to one laptop or the whole class. Check into it here: http://www.netop.com/products/education/vision7.htm

    Just a thought…sometimes it pays to consider a simple solution – if even temporary – on the path to better way altogether.

  6. Richard D. Cassella says:

    “With new technologies, new cognitive possibilities arise. Educators need to create new activities when new technologies are introduced into the classroom. If the calculator is used to add 2+2, it is the capacities of the calculator that are solving the problem; when calculation is “off-loaded” onto the calculator, the student is free to solve more complex problems.” – Jenkins, 2009

    I was ironically reading “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture” on a train back from New York City and thought your commentary on new technologies helps answer your problem.

    I have personally noticed that online classes have moved away from traditional tests and towards project based and/or essay based exams. Students may be able to share information, but I have found that most students are not fond of sharing information with another classmate during an exam if they believe the student is taking advantage of the system, especially if the assignments emphasize original thoughts that will take time to formulate. Students may help clarify an issue for another student, but they would then be classified as an additional resource. If the student was constrained to a certain amount of time to complete a writing assignment, I doubt they would take a significant amount of time away from their own responsibilities for an unprepared student.

    An alternative to the traditional exam would be a collaborative approach. During my student teaching I modified a Socratic Seminar activity using Google Wave. The assignment was used as a formal assessment for evaluating collaborative learning and critical thinking based on the unit we covered (pre-Civil war America).

    If a collaborative approach is not a viable option for the immediate future, the application of an “Honor Code” would also help alleviate issues of cheating. Princeton has a strict honor code that requires students to report acts of cheating or else be subject to the same punishments as the plagiarist (typically a one year suspension from school). Obviously you would be unable to enact this level of punishment, but I don’t think fear is the most effective way to motivate anyways.

    Fight On!

  7. Daiane Scaraboto says:

    I am a TA for an introductory management course in which first year undergraduate students are introduced to several business-related concepts and supporting technologies. The course textbook is online, as well as forum discussions, additional course content, and students’ electronic notebooks.

    Students write exams in the “open book/open web” format with a “no communication” rule (they cannot talk to each other or to anyone else online). The course director makes the exam personal and individualized by creating questions that require students to relate different management concepts to their own experiences and to describe their understanding of examples taken from the business world.

    The exam duration is set to match the time necessary to answer the questions, without much slack. Students know that time management is really important for this exam, and consciously write notes beforehand. This keeps them focused on answering the questions and avoids random browsing on the web. During the exam, students tend to consult the web minimally – and we haven’t caught any attempts at interpersonal communication.

    Although collaborative open-web evaluations have their benefits; our experience shows that open book/open web exams can be successfully combined to individual evaluations.

  8. I completed my first degree completely open book. I have always supported this way because in the real world we have access to books, and it encourages understanding rather than memorization. In my opinion, the fact that the internet is basically an almost infinite repository of books shouldn’t mean it is ‘cheating’ the open book concept. It’s really just a space saver.

  9. tjnicholas says:

    I teach courses on new media/digital culture and cyberculture in the CS department at a large state university (having trained and taught for a decade in the humanities), and the class sizes, especially for the intro-level courses, can be up in the fifties–high numbers for a class I try to keep fairly intimate and discussion-based. But in a room of that size, of course, or larger (as many of us frequently face, especially in these budget-cutting days), providing effective instruction to all (or even most) can be challenging.

    Since in a larger class we’re faced with so many different types of learners and often don’t have the time to discover and address each of their needs and strengths, I tend to blend a little of the old and a little of the new: for instance, I give weekly quizzes, closed book and in class, on paper or via Blackboard, simply to keep them all reading and encourage that kind of recall: yes, you SHOULD learn the name of the person who wrote the article that you just read!

    Laptops remain closed during lecture and discussion, except for a group of designated note-takers who take notes for the whole class, to be made available on a wiki. There are collaborative writing and research projects, mostly online, throughout the semester, and as for final exams, I do something like Daiane, above, suggests: offer an open-book, take-home, fairly lengthy, timed exam delivered via Blackboard, which seems to work really well. If they’ve kept up with the reading and taken notes throughout the semester, they have no trouble completing the exam, but if they haven’t, they’ll never get through all the questions in time.

    I’ve also tried and tried to use various laptop-controlling applications like Securexam…but unless things get a lot better, I’m off them. Too much pain and anxiety loading the software onto the students’ already creakingly overloaded laptops, then troubleshooting…it just turns into a distraction.

    I look forward to seeing where this discussion goes.

  10. My wife who is a speech language pathologist recently had a training on this very issue, and that you can google-proof exam questions.


  11. Moses Wolfenstein says:

    The notion I had reading this post was that there might be a software solution for your problem. While MTminwiswip pointed to some existing surveillance and control oriented tech that could offer one means of arriving at a viable solution, I think there may be other options that wouldn’t mandate as much maneuvering and second guessing on the front end.

    What I’m thinking of could be handled in one of two ways. Unfortunately since I don’t think either exist, the solution would involve software development. Possibilities I envision are: 1) Develop an application that students have to install on their computers in which they would compose answers to exam questions and also track other application use. 2) Create an AddOn for your LMS that could provide the same basic functionality.

    To be clear, option 2 might not be an actual option as I’m not 100% sure that an in LMS solution would be capable of performing the necessary monitoring functions as a stand alone app. Either way though, I am proposing a form of surveillance technology rooted off of commonly existing tools that are built into software like (the hateful) Windows Genuine Advantage or Steam (among other things).

    I’m not a big advocate of surveillance in general, and that’s why I would propose that you would want such an app. to either exist inside of the LMS, or be specialized for the purpose of test taking (not an always on kind of thing). At any rate, there are a lot of options for how to make such a tool work, and it would require some pretty serious development and testing before I’d say anyone should be comfortable rolling such a tool out for actual testing. However, the appealing part of software of this sort would be the capacity to utilize it like turnitin.com or another plagiarism checker. Rather than preventing students from accessing specific content, you could grab a quick look at their browsing history and application use if you suspected something funny was going.

    It’s true, this wouldn’t be a viable solution to roll out tomorrow, but there’s a whole digital future ahead of us and we’re going to need some creative solutions to tackle these issues.

    my 2¢

  12. ProfJohnQPublic says:

    The discussion of a digitally open-book exam was quite interesting, and I appreciated that it leads to fundamental questions about the purpose of an exam. What properties of the students’ minds are being measured? If an examination is measuring skills of creativity or synthesis, allowing open access to information can presumably enhance the effectiveness of the exam; if what’s being tested is memorization, which remains important in many fields, surely access to information must be limited. I hope to hear more about how the open exam story plays out. I liked the comment from our colleague in Sao Paulo: examining students by having them demonstrate a skill in the laboratory, or otherwise demonstrate mastery of their art through practice, is certainly one of the highest forms of testing. However, the cost of administering such exams can be prohibitive.

    As for the reviews of Digital Nation and New Learners of the 21st Century, I was disappointed by the tone of Mr. Jenkins’s discussion. Digital Nation did indeed take a cautionary view, pointing out problems caused by students’ extensive use of ubiquitous digital communications. That hardly invalidates the important concerns raised. Although I have only been teaching at the University level for twelve years, I have watched my students’ attention spans and ability to concentrate on solving complex problems decrease in that time. Perhaps such problems are not important in communication arts, but they are very harmful in science and engineering. I do not oppose the widespread use of technology, but no educator should be blind to its drawbacks as well as its advantages.

    To then characterize New Learners as “great” reveals more about one’s personal bias than the shows themselves. New Learners> gives an  equally one-sided view, this time in support of the adoption of digital learning. The discussions of pedagogy were interesting, and some of the techniques shown seem very promising; however, one heard far too many cliches about revolutionizing teaching for the 21st Century, portraying traditional education as an outdated “industrial model”, and the like. As I watched New Learners, I was unable to find any substantial discussion of the problems caused by overuse of educational technology. It was no surprise that after the show, when PBS announced the sponsorship for the program, four out of five sponsors were either foundations sponsored by software or hardware companies, or the companies themselves. Was New Learners an unbiased documentary, or a cleverly presented advertisement for computers in education?

  13. hello all,

    Coming a little late to this discussion but I hope the story is still valuable. Here at the Sauder School of Business we began fully-online assignment and invigilated exams in November of 2010. The class sizes are 3 x ~200, and simply put, the instructor will never return to paper-based assessments. Through the creative use of CSS within the question design, combined with the randomization functionality built into our LMS (Vista 8.x), we can guarantee that: no two students have the exact same exam, access to Google will NOT help in improving a student’s performance, we have improved the overall reliability and validity of both ‘work at home’ assignments and in-class, invigilated exams.

    The two key arguments above regarding group collaboration during exams, and the ‘open-Google’ argument concerning reliability and validity are both non-issues for us.

    I will leave you with this thought: “for today’s graduates into the digital age, possession of knowledge is far less important than the acquisition, analysis, and synthesis of that knowledge”.

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  15. My view may be a bit simplistic. My take is that you are struggling with how to prevent students from collaborating on their test. The answer is you can’t. Preventing in-class access to students’ laptops doesn’t mean they still won’t collaborate.

    As it stands now, you are giving the students the questions beforehand. Odds are the students are already forming groups to review the questions outside of class. That group of students will most likely come to class prepared with similar information and similar answers – just as they might if they have access to their computer in class. Either way, there is collaboration involved.

    If you allow the laptops, each student will still be required to write his own answer – during the test he may collaborate with others to get that answer, but ultimately each student’s answer should be different – just as it would be if no laptops were allowed. No two students will ever come up with exactly the same essay response.

    You also brought up the point of the students who do not have laptops – how is it fair to those students?

    This is a double-edged coin. In one sense, those students are already working at a disadvantage. However, I would be willing to bet that the students without laptops (who care about their course work) will be equally as prepared and will do equally as well on the test as their counterparts who do have laptops. They are already adjusted to getting through their courses without the laptop.

    The other edge of the coin is that these students are more likely to be better prepared with the information. They know that when they enter your classroom they need to have their materials ready. A student with a laptop may think he can “wing it” and get by, and ultimately struggle on the test because he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been.

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  20. I do not understand Open-Book Exam What is the significance, but I think you are right

  21. @teachpsychology says:

    Thoughtful post! I teach online and am changing from the browser lock-down, closed-book model which explicitly told students not to cheat while simulataneously opening the door to it, to an open-book, use all resources exam. After one of the latter the mean scores are pretty much the same, however in the open-book, many (most?) of the students seem not to prepare. Still have unsanswered questions, even without time pressure. THey are writing at home with full access to anything. So I am grappling with the whole evaluation issue and how to do it well. Have you got any further with this yourself?

  22. This is very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Hi and thank you very much for this post, you're talking about something which I've been trying to solve in my own everyday work.
    As a science teacher, living between old school drawing notebooks and my smartphone, I believe that we are part of a very interesting mutation of the way we teach, the way students learn. I'm used to “open book” exams, that I've found more fair and interesting for the kids, and I allow them to use their laptops, tablets and smartphones during some of our activities.

    I think that we have two different problems to solve :

    1. how to give individual grades in a group performance,
    2. how to do so while they use laptops and other devices that cannot be totally disconnected.

    Depending on the activity you designed, this seems to be possible if (and only if) :
    – you do it sometimes, not always
    – they all have laptops or tablets
    – you ask them to write sentences explaining ideas / not just words
    – you ask them to work in group (they will communicate anyway, so better be directly part of a group that you know)
    – everyone in the group has a very specific role… with some answers that will be on his/her responsability and some answers that will need everyone to answer
    – timelaps is restrictive : they will not have enough time to browse the Internet blindly

    Giving grades : the individual grade could include a collective part, and a personal part

    – collective part of the grade, your criteria could include :
    — “every question has been answered” (one student doesn't work = his “role” is not fulfilled = some answers are missing = the group grade goes down)
    — “timelaps is respected”
    — “ideas are clearly explained, in full sentences” (this forces everyone in the group to care about what the others wrote)

    – personal part of the grade :
    — depending on the specific questions linked to his “role”
    — how much he/she invested himself/herself in the work : that can be given by the others students of the group (in a group of 4, each student has 4 extra points to give… can give them as he/she wants… 3 points possible, but they will probably just agree on “let's give one point each”)

    I believe the restrictive timelaps force them to make choices. If they have specific personal questions and a group grade too, they will not forget the first one while comunicating… so they will take care of their questions while staying aware of what the others are doing. When I use this kind of situations I see that my pupils are really focused on the exercices, very conscious of their own responsability in the group.

    I believe they have a stronger “social network” or just “network” feeling than us.

    If a student of the group gives the answer of a question that doesn't “belong” to him or her, if students answer in a collaborative way, if they “trade” in a way or another, it will anyway be skills that are very useful in a collaborative work.

    You could even ask them to use specific communication tools during the exam…. google chat, twitter, ….

    OK, I have no idea if it's that kind of thoughts that you are looking for, I am anyway very interested by what happens now in your class,

    Sorry for my english, I'm french 🙂

    didier (dmorelsvt@gmail.com)

  24. I think you are right