Are Open-Book Exams Better?


During the time we spend at school and university, exams shape the courses of our futures. We’re all at IE because we passed high school finals and the admissions test. We will only graduate if we pass enough courses, a feat which almost always requires passing the final exam. Given the importance of exams in determining aspects of our future, it’s crucial that they’re designed in a fair way that best serves students. This brings us to the age-old argument; are open book exams better?

Students overwhelmingly prefer open-book exams. Surveys conducted by the University of Malta suggest that as much as 80% actually prefer an open book format. Although the numbers vary depending on the country, university, and degree program (for example, only 52.4 % of British bachelor of sciences in oral hygiene students strongly agreed that open book exams were better), the majority usually prefers open-book exams. In fact, I have been unable to find a single survey where this was not the case. The simple fact that students strongly prefer open-book exams suggests that this format is probably the one that best serves their interests. So, what are these interests?

Closer analysis soon reveals why students believe this is the case. The open-book format can considerably reduce stress. 85.2% of the Bachelor of Sciences in oral hygiene students surveyed disagreed that open-book exams lead to stress. In interviews, some of those students stated that closed-book exams caused anxiety that impacted their performance and well-being. Taking open-book exams can therefore improve students’ well-being and inflict less emotional distress. 

This is important not only because it improves the student experience, but because it arguably makes tests fairer. Although the correlation between test anxiety and test performance depends on the type of anxiety exhibited, there is some evidence that general test anxiety has a significant negative correlation with test performance. As a result, students suffering from anxiety disorders may perform worse than their peers while having the same amount of knowledge.  Open-book exams are therefore fairer because they let students with anxiety disorders perform to the best of their abilities and lessen the negative impact that their condition could have on test-performance. 

Finally, there is a perception that closed-book exams lead to better retention and learning. A study was conducted to determine whether this was true. In one experiment, participants took an initial test of either an open-book or closed-book condition,  and then took a related closed-book test two days later. The open-book test takers initially scored higher. However, when taking a closed-book test two days later, both groups of participants performed equally well. This suggests that while open-book tests may lead to slightly inflated grades, students learn just as well as with closed-book tests. 

A second experiment was also conducted during the study. Participants took either a closed-book test or an open-book one before taking a closed-book test two days later. This time, some of the participants were told that the second test would be open-book. Of course, this was a lie and the participants took a closed-book test instead. Surprisingly, these participants performed significantly worse. While open-book tests don’t reduce student learning and retention on their own, expecting an open-book test can have this effect. This could be because some students study less for open-book tests because they expect them to be easier. 

Open-book tests can increase student well-being and give anxious students a better chance at doing well. However, we can’t let these factors outweigh the dangers of lowering long-term student performance. This is particularly true since improving well-being and lowering stress can be achieved by other means. Studies suggest that overall perceived stress, burnout, and test anxiety can be reduced by taking cognitive-behavioural stress management classes and physical activity. 

Furthermore, open book tests aren’t the only way to help students with anxiety disorders. They can be entitled to accommodations like separate exam rooms and extra time. In some cases, students may even be allowed to do other assignments such as reports instead. Of course, this does vary by country, but a concerned university could always choose to implement similar accommodations even if it isn’t legally required to do so. 

Overall, I see two possible paths forward: In the first, closed-book exams remain the default. Students spend more time and effort preparing for exams, but their mental well-being is threatened as a result. To mitigate this, universities implement other well-being programs. They also promote physical activity. The second path involves implementing open-book exams on a wide scale. Universities work hard to teach students that studying for open-book tests is also crucial. 

While both paths are valid, I would recommend the first to be implemented at IE University. This is primarily because the institution already seems to be going down that route. My classmates and I have so far had to attend a well-being focused course every year. Furthermore, IE already promotes physical activity with its gym and a variety of clubs centered around sports. As a result, I don’t see why IE should risk affecting student’s future performance by making open-book exams the default.

Featured image by: Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu // Unsplash

Sabina Narvaez
Sabina Narvaez
Originally from Mexico, but mostly grew up abroad and has Spanish nationality. Studies Philosophy, Politics, Law and Economics and mostly writes about these topics. Also interested in sustainability.

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