Open-Book Tests for In-Classroom and Online Assessment

By Jin Li

My name is Jin Li. I am a founding member of the Advisory Committee for the mobile applications development (MAPD) program. I have taught design and programming courses at the college and university level. I have used open book tests for the MAPD-715 UI/UX course. I want to share my experience in applying this powerful but often underused assessment strategy for in-classroom and online learning. 

I usually employ an open-book, free Internet access format for the mid-term test. This emulates the real-world work environment when working on a project. In an industrial setting, nobody is locked in a dark room with no Internet access and asked to solve design and programming problems in isolation! In the many years of my teaching, students love this approach since they would focus on knowledge application and problem-solving, instead of rote memorization of facts and theories. This means that on open-book tests, students are generally required higher-order thinking and writing skills, which make them more employable after their graduation. In 2020, due to COVID-19 pandemic and online learning, open-book tests are a great method for student assessment (and arguably the most viable method) since it reduces/eliminates cheating and copying. It helps students to focus on conceptual understanding and can help reform the method of teaching and improve the quality of learning. Also, open-book tests teach students how to recall and relay information quickly, which is a beneficial life skill.  

However, open-book tests are not penicillin for assessing students. It is not suitable for all types of learning. Fear of tests encourages many students to study, but for open-book tests, students may not focus much on their studies (which would be a mistake due to their naïve perception that open book tests are easier). Although we don’t want students to do rote memory learning, open-book tests may discourage students in memorizing even the basic things which are foundational and required. 

I have a few tips for designing open-book tests to share. A top concern with student assessment is cheating. Cheating on tests is easier to manage in-classroom physical setting, but harder for an online learning environment (the setting we have been in during the COVID-19 pandemic). Instead of focusing on preventing cheating (for an online learning environment, students have access to the Internet at home during the tests and we cannot really limit them), we focus open-book test questions that require students to rely on critical thinking, analysis, and apply their knowledge to answer correctly. Here are two types of questions that I have found useful and valuable. The first is case-based questions which ask students to apply critical reasoning and explain their understanding of the answer. The second is practical questions which require students to use their knowledge and provided course material to complete a real-world scenario-based assignment. 

I have used open book tests as an assessment method with success. I would like you to learn from my experience and consider it as an additional assessment strategy for your teaching.