Opinion: Open-Book Exams Can Encourage Students To ‘Think’, Not ‘Memorise’

The Central Board of School Examination’s (CBSE) decision to explore the idea of conducting open book exams for Classes 9 to 12 and undertake a pilot study in select schools to check its feasibility is a welcome decision. The decision has led to a lot of heated debate between the loyalists of conventional or closed-book exams, best exemplified by board exams, and its opponents, that is, those who support open-book examinations. 

There are fundamental differences between the two groups. The first believes in celebrating the skill of rote memorisation, ensuring secrecy around questions and expecting uniformity in answers. The latter bats for a fear-free assessment of the learner, openness in the conduct of examinations and diversity in students’ responses.

The ‘Double-Blind’ Process In Closed-Book Exams

Exams, particularly, closed book, are regarded as being fair, objective and unbiased. It follows a double-blind process, that is, both the student and teacher are unknown and anonymous to each other. Open-book examinations come as a counter to closed-book assessments, in which the fear of forgetting and failing looms large.

Open-book exams are more about learning than assessment. It’s a 360-degree change in the way schools view learning, designing their pedagogy and recognising heterogeneity among students. It allows students to carry their books, notes, and other study material for the exam. The catch is that while students are allowed to take help from this study material, none of these would directly help the student respond to a question asked in the exam. It may require, at the most, referring to the textbook for information. 

Going Beyond Textbooks

Learning is something that is not confined to textbooks, and similarly, the assessment of success should not be equated to rote memorising. Which means it’s not necessary that the more vivid and exact a replica of the textbook content the student produces, the better the learning, and consequently, the higher the scores. Typically, in a conventional classroom, questions given for homework can be answered by referring to the textbook. During exams, this skill of referencing is replaced by memorising. 

Open-book exams, in turn, are precisely the opposite. They celebrate anonymity between teachers and students so that they can make a claim to be fair. Learning, rather than focusing on one correct answer, forces children to think, make connections, interpret facts differently and take positions.

Format Of Assessment Guides How Students Approach Learning

Over the years, however, assessment, and not learning, has taken precedence. Teachers and schools are also evaluated depending on how students perform in exams. Second, there is a growing emphasis on objectivity, so that there is scope for variation in marks based on an individual examiner’s fancy.

Assessment often guides learning, which means students, based on the nature of the questions asked in an exam, determine the way they approach the learning task. For example, everyone knows that the Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) University Grants Commission-National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) exam for higher education is in a multiple-choice-questions format, in which students have to select one correct answer. Students prepare themselves accordingly.

Why The No-Detention Policy Was Rolled Back

One of the myths associated with exams is that children learn because they have to appear for the exam. If there is no assessment, there will be no learning. This was one of the reasons for rolling back the non-detention policy (NDP) in 2019, which had allowed students to progress to the next class without the fear of failing exams. The NDP was introduced in the Right to Education Act, 2009.

A harsh reality is that both teachers and parents believe examinations to be a sacrosanct feature of schooling. Fear of failing is constantly harped on students, giving them little time for leisure or relaxation. Right from the time they enter school, they are threatened or made to feel scared about failing. Learning is unlikely to happen in such a fear-ridden environment.

Exams ‘Legitimise’ Success Or Failure

The biggest reason exams occupy an important place in our lives is because they legitimise both success and failure, such that students unquestioningly accept not only these decisions but also their accompaniments, such as admission-or rejection-in colleges, jobs, etc. The students, especially those who fail in exams, rarely ever object to these decisions or the lack of access or limited access to educational and health resources, etc. The biggest reason closed book examinations work is because their results seem to convey a sense of neutrality and fairness in a country that has very limited resources or seats in higher education institutions. 

Closed-book exams serve a very important function of elimination, and that’s the reason they continue to exist. Strange, as it may sound, candidates from varying backgrounds and differential economic, cultural and social capital are made to sit next to each other and pretend as if the only difference between them is going to be their performance in examinations. In a society riddled with such huge differences in access to resources like food, water, housing, land, education and health, year-end, close-book exams serve a very important function: screening.

Open-Book Exam A Good Step, But It Can’t Exist In A Void

Any change in one component of education must be accompanied by changes in other components as well. 

Exploring open-book examinations is a wonderful idea, but an entire ecosystem needs to be reshaped for it. Reviewing the meaning of learning, selection/orientation/training of teachers, the nature of teaching-learning resources, their use in the classroom, and even the way school inspectors view education, are only a few ways such an ecosystem can be established.

(Disha Nawani is Professor, School of Education, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and Managing Editor, Contemporary Dialogue, SAGE)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author