What’s the problem with having your students prepare for tests by memorizing sheets of facts? Without fail, the ability to recall that information will quickly fade a short time after the exam. Such tests do not assess a student’s ability to problem solve or use critical thought.
Recall-based tests also have unwanted side effects. Student anxiety can have a negative impact on performance. The typical closed-book test that forces recall doesn’t always reflect the environment in which we are preparing students to work. Most desk-based jobs have the entire Internet at an arm’s distance. Do we want to pretend that in the future reference materials and Internet-based search engines will be forsaken?
The alternative is the open-book test. As Morris Feller argues in “Open-Book Testing and Education for the Future”, open-book tests can promote the “ability to think” rather than the “ability to memorize” . The criticism of open-book tests is that some students won’t take them seriously and won’t spend the time to prepare. But this criticism doesn’t hold true when course objectives shift toward the ability to apply knowledge, solve problems, and understand how practitioners of the discipline organize information.
In today’s environment, the ability to sift through and find relevant material is often better than being able to recall information. We can only memorize so much, whereas new information pertinent to our field is being generated all the time. Perhaps this is why open-book testing is beginning to be used in disciplines like medicine.
Studies involving medical training for doctors in Vermont and Maine showed real gains for preparation with open-book tests . Part of the success came from teaching students how to understand the organization of information and how to quickly retrieve it. The class text became more of a reference and framework for understanding and the students had significantly higher test results.
Just telling students that an exam will be open-book is often not enough, unless it’s accompanied by a review of important features of a book or commonly used reference works. The authors in the medical education article suggest spending time on specific points like a text’s index and chapter organization as well as key graphs and data tables. Modeling in class the process of open-based query and the use of reference books will prepare students for upcoming tests as well as future employment.
 Feller, M. (1994). Open-book testing and education for the future. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 20(2), 235-238.
 Broyles, Cyr, & Korsen. (2005). Open book tests: Assessment of academic learning in clerkships. Medical Teacher, 27(5), 456-462.
Dan LaSota, M.Ed. has dabbled in science education, technology, and public policy for 30 years. He’s been an instructional designer at UAF eLearning for the last five.