Can students still learn if they are examined in open book style exams?

Running with the theme of assessment styles, this week I’m tackling an on-going debate; Open book or closed book exams.

Open book exams are an assessment method that allows learners to take text books, notes and other materials into an exam. Closed book exams are exactly the opposite, learner’s cannot take any materials into the exam and must recall everything from memory.

But which exam style yields greater results?

Student’s prefer open book exams and find that they’re anxiety levels are reduced during these types of exams compared to traditional closed book exams (Williams & Wong, 2009). It can be argued that closed book exams are the norm in higher education but Stalnaker & Stalnaker (1934) suggest that open book exams are more likely to encourage deeper learning. The deep approach to learning is when the learner focuses on meaning and understanding of the information and less about the memorisation of the material (Marton & Saljo, 1976), and generally results in a longer retention rate of the material. This style of exam evokes learners to put less emphasis on memorisation, since they can take texts books and notes into the exams, and more emphasis on the understanding of the information.

Another study suggests (Feller, 1994) that open book exams are more realistic. When in your life are you going to be in a situation when you need to recall or solve a problem without access to a book or information? In this day and age most people have a smart phone, they have the world wide web at their fingertips. Understanding and deciphering this information is far more relevant and realistic than memory skills which closed book exams implement.

Research has found that student’s performance improves on open book exams (Olsen, 1974). However, is there an improvement in retention? A study conducted in August last year (Gharib, Phillips & Mathew, 2012) conducted a study comparing exam performance in open-book, closed-book and cheat sheet style exams. They also investigated the anxiety levels of the student’s who participated in this research. The results showed that open book exams yielded the highest grades wit closed book exams resulting in the poorest exam grades, cheat sheet exams sat in the middle. They found that anxiety levels were lowest in open book exams. However, the retention rate across the three styles of examination were the same. There was no difference in retention rates!

However, I think anxiety levels is an important factor to account for. Student’s in University take so many exams, would this be a less daunting experience throughout their education if they were allowed material in exams?

So open-book exams yields the best grades in exams, students have lower anxiety compared to closed book and cheat sheet exams but the retention rate is not improved. I think that open book exams are beneficial, they allow students to apply knowledge and gain understanding instead of putting so much focus on regurgitating facts that they do not understand.

What do you think?


Filed under Uncategorized

13 responses to “Can students still learn if they are examined in open book style exams?

  1. Very interesting topic, it would be a revolutionary day when open book exams are the norm! Boniface (1985) observed that during open book exams, those that refer to books the most performed poorer. It seems that the best students just have it as a reference, probably more of an anxiety reduction tool. Who needs more stress in their life?

    Ioannidou (1997) compared student achievement for open-book and closed-book examinations. No significant differences were found, however those that took closed-book examinations had slightly higher scores. Perhaps the anxiety is important for some students, it helps them get their ass in gear and revise!

  2. Open book exams are a pretty good idea, we had them in stats in the first year and if a majority of the exams where closed book then I most likely would not be sat here writing this now. Students have been surveyed and pretty much 10 out of 10 prefer open book exams. It has been stated that students have 5 main benefits for open book exams:

    • Practice in creativity in the use of course content
    • Course content proficiency
    • Increased opportunity for self-evaluation and feed back
    • Less exam stress
    • Better self-regulation for content

    Even educators (well some) believe open book exams are a good thing, because it gives a student the opportunity to think about a problem instead of memorizing it and forget it 10 minutes after the exam, due to open book exams using higher order thinking skills.

    All information above was in this study (Theophilides and Dionysiou, 1996).

    Another important note about open book exams, it accurately represents the real world, we would use limitless information online to solve problems not sit down and think about it for 2 hours (Feller, 1994) which you have already put in your blog but I think that it’s such a good point !
    A study at looked at differences in test scores on the same subject matter, the study showed that minimum test scores using the open book method where slightly higher (30%) compared to (22%) but maximum test scores where exactly the same (88%). (Brightwell, Daniel, stewart, 2004)

    Theophilides, C., and Dionysiou, O. (1996) The major functions of the openbook examination at the university level: A Factor Analytic Study. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 22(2), 157-170

    Brightwell, Daniel, stewart, (2004). Evaluation: is an open book examination easier,

  3. Pingback: comments | brettrowlatt

  4. Results within the area indicate that open book testing can be beneficial to student learning as it strengthens understanding (Eilertsen & Valdermo, 2000). Contrary to this when a student takes multiple tests it has been shown that closed and open book tests produce equal performance (Agarwal, Karpicke, Kang, Roediger & McDermott, 2008). Results within this study indicated that when initially tested via open book students performed better, however for the delayed test recall was equal between tasks. This does provide support for open book testing, however it provides further support for the use of testing and learning. Furthermore research supports the effect open book testing has on student anxiety (Francis, 1982). Within the investigation they found that students anxiety was reduced and that performance levels were increased in comparison to traditional testing methods.

    However as mentioned in a previous comment Iannidou (1997) found a positive effect of using closed book testing over open book. This finding has been supported with results indicating that medical students when tested by closed book performed significantly better and demonstrated deeper understanding (Heijne-Penninga, Kuks, Hofman & Cohen-Schotanus, 2008). This may indicate that individual differences play a role in how effective these methods are (for example students who suffer from high anxiety may perform better within open book tests and those who use anxiety as a means of motivation may perform better within closed book tests). Therefore there may be a benefit to integrating the two methods, rather than using one or the other. A paper by Heijne-Penninga, Kuks, Schonrock-Adema, Snijders & Cohen-Schoatanus, 2008), supports the integration of the two methods.


    Agarwal, P. K., Karpicke, J. D., Kang, S. H., Roediger III, H. L., & McDermott, K. B. (2008). Examining the testing effect with open‐and closed‐book tests.Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22(7), 861-876.

    Eilertsen, T. V., & Valdermo, O. (2000). Open-Book Assessment: A Contribution to Improved Learning?. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 26(2), 91-103.

    Francis, J. (1982). A Case for Open‐Book Examinations. Educational Review,34(1), 13-26.

    Heijne‐Penninga, M., Kuks, J., Hofman, W. H., & Cohen‐Schotanus, J. (2008). Influence of open‐and closed‐book tests on medical students’ learning approaches. Medical education, 42(10), 967-974.

    Heijne-Penninga, M., Kuks, J. B., Schönrock-Adema, J., Snijders, T. A., & Cohen-Schotanus, J. (2008). Open-book tests to complement assessment-programmes: analysis of open and closed-book tests. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 13(3), 263-273.

    • Missed a reference – Ioannidou, M. K. (1997). Testing and Life-Long Learning: Open-Book and Closed-Book Examination in a University Course. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 23(2), 131-39.

  5. I definitely agree with Feller (1994) that open book exams are more realistic. As you have pointed out, today we have access to every piece of information that we should possibly need literally right at our finger tips. In day-to-day life if I am at any time unsure of something I will simply get my smartphone or my i-pad out and search for the answer on a search engine on the internet. I usually get my answer in a few seconds.

    You also point out that Williams & Wong (2009) found that anxiety levels are reduced during open book exams in comparison to closed book conditions. Therefore I ask myself the question why do students have to bother participating in these closed book exam conditions when research demonstrates that they induce high anxiety levels that can influence on a student’s grade?

    Zeidner (1988) and Hembree (1988) found that anxiety affects an individual’s ability to perform well in exams. Even though the student fully understands the content of the exam, test anxiety can often cause difficulty in transferring the relevant information under the stressful conditions. Because of this, the grades that the students achieve does not necessarily reflect his or her knowledge and understanding of the work.

    Therefore I agree with you that open book exam conditions are more beneficial to the student and should be used more in education in order for students to demonstrate a true representation of their knowledge and understanding of the work that they have learnt. Also I conclude that open book exams are more representative of every day life as all the information that we should possibly need are accessible on the world wide web.

  6. Initially, I thought open book exams would mean that students would just look at the information, write the answer and never think of it again. I assumed this could be linked to the multistore model of memory (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968); students wouldn’t be rehearsing information, it wouldn’t make its way to long term memory and students wouldn’t be able to recall it again in the future. However, as open book exams are a form of discovery learning (students have to find the answers to questions themselves), I looked into the effects of discovery learning and actually found that information learned through discovery learning can be easily applied to solve problems (McDaniel & Schlager, 1990), especially in real-world environments in the future (Svinicki, 1998). So, despite my initial thoughts about open book exams, it actually seems as though having students find their own answers could benefit them in the long run, as they (according to this research) would have the ability to retain and apply the information to real world situations, rather than just apply it in an exam and never think about it again.

  7. As I agree that open book exams would be a better way of being examined I would point out that when revsing for the exams the students will link theories and concepts together from different sources, for example, lecture slides, notes, books and having a book in the exam could serve as a cue for the recall of information from other sources, not just the book (Smith & Vela, 2001). This would not only make the student less anxious but may be beneficial for the essay too.

  8. Hi Vicki! I loved your blog this week, it’s brilliant that you have correlated our experience at University with Harry Potter’s experience at Hogwarts!

    Like I mentioned last week, I agree with you that open book exams are more beneficial to students because this is more practical and relevant to the real world environment. As Feller (1994) suggests, open book exams are much more realistic.

    You have mentioned in your post that closed book exams cause higher anxiety levels among students in comparison to open book exam conditions. Therefore due to the increased anxiety rate I don’t believe that closed book exams are true representations of students’ knowledge and understanding of the work that they have learnt because the anxiety that the student experiences acts as a confounding variable. Furthermore some might argue that closed book exams are more representative of how much information the student can recall instead of testing for the student’s capacity of knowledge.

    Therefore I believe that open book exams are more representative of real life conditions and also are more representative of the student’s true academic abilities.

  9. Pingback: CBSE Open Text Based Assessments – Lip Service or Silver Bullet | Viplav Baxi's Meanderings

  10. surfer

    As a student, I prefer closed book.

    1. I feel that I internalize the material more. I say this knowing that I will forget some memorized details/procedures later. But I think that I will relearn them easier when needed.

    2. Also, while I realize that in work I can have references, I think I will be better able to use references if I have more of the material memorized.

    2.5. Furthermore, mimicking work situations is not necessarily best strategy. For instance sometimes drills of a sport may be done rather than scrimmaging 100% of the time (I think some scrimmaging is helpful).

    3. Open book exams tend to be harder than closed ones.

    4. I would prepare more for a closed book exam (in terms of drill) than an open one. Particularly if there are competing demands on my time or temptations.

    5. Some subjects like language vocabulary would not work well as open book (I think).

    5.5. At an extreme, the testing becomes too much like studying as opposed to testing, so less efficacy.

  11. closed book examination system is best

  12. I support open book exam so that it increases confidence and we learn more information by seeing books in exam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s