Making a case for open-book exams


If we have learned anything in the past three years, it is that the long-standing traditions of our education system need reform. The transition from in-person studies to online studies in 2020 was a difficult challenge for many, although it begs the question: is the way we test students in this ever-changing world outdated?

Traditional closed-book exams involve testing a student’s memory without allowing them to use any resources or notes. When tested in this way, students rely on memorization and repetition rather than understanding how to apply the material. These types of exams often induce unneeded anxiety in students who are already struggling with an overwhelming workload.

As an alternative, I believe that all post-secondary institutions, including the University of Waterloo, need to change from closed- to open-book exams where students can use their notes and course resources. While some professors at the university have already switched to open-book exams and testing, this change needs to happen across campus.

Open-book exams teach much more valuable lessons in life than closed-book exams. With this alternative, students are encouraged to use their resources effectively, take good notes, and actually understand the material they are meant to learn. If students are able to use their notes for an exam, it is likely that they will spend more time taking clear and efficient notes of course content as their notes will serve as a future resource. 

When the anxiety of needing to memorize tons of content is reduced through open-book exams, students are able to focus on fully understanding concepts rather than worrying about trying to mentally engage in repetition of key content. When it comes to the impact that open-book exams have on student mental health, a 2000 study by professors at the University of Cyprus found that students were more optimistic about taking an open-book exam and had reported less anxiety compared to those who took closed-book exams.

If the role of college and university is to prepare us for the workforce, then open-book exams would also offer students an experience that is more relatable to their future career. In the workforce, people consistently use their resources to complete projects and their job duties. Professionals don’t rely solely on memorization, as they need to be certain before taking action. Even a well-seasoned lawyer uses their resources to refer to the direct legal codes that are needed for their arguments in a trial.

Criticism of open-book exams has traditionally been that they are too easy or that they inflate the grades of the student body of said institution — however, this is not the case. Students still need to take notes and fully understand course content if they want to get a good mark. If they don’t pay attention during lectures or fail to take notes, they will still likely do poorly on the exam. Even UW acknowledges the idea that open-book exams are “too easy” is a misconception. Yet, traditional closed-book exams are still assigned in many courses. 

In a time when access to infinite resources is often at our fingertips with search engines and the vastly growing internet, students should be learning how to use these tools. The priority should be figuring out how to apply information and to use it in a situation, rather than simply trying to remember concepts. Understanding how to collect information and take notes is one of the most valuable skills that a student can learn, one that should be focused on in the present day. 

It is time for the university to take action in reforming the way students are tested across campus.