Thursday, November 16, 2006


Yesterday my colleague and I planned our workshop on open-book exams.

Giving a workshop is itself a form of teaching, with the difference that the 'students' are our peers. In any teaching, the students learn best the ideas they come up with themselves, so the participants are going to spend much of the 90 minute workshop doing activities that will raise in their minds the ideas we want to develop.

So they will first write down why they currently give closed-book exams, and what problems might arise if they just let students bring their books and notes to such an exam. Then they'll come up with possible advantages and disadvantages of open-book exams. And finally they'll evaluate the suitability of various exam questions for use in an open-book exam, suggest ways to convert unsuitable questions into suitable ones, and from this generate a set of principles to use in evaluating other questions.

Our roles will be mainly to direct the activities and discussion, and to record the ideas on flip charts. We've developed our own lists of ideas, but we'll use these only if the participants miss something we think is important. We also have a page of sample exam questions that participants can evaluate (I had fun making this last night), but we've encouraged them to bring
questions from their own exams.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Open book exams

A colleague in the Faculty of Education just reminded me that, in a couple of weeks, she and I are going to give a 90 minute workshop for faculty on open book exams. We'll discuss why we think open book exams are a good thing, and easy ways to transform conventional closed book exams into open book ones.

All the exams in my courses (finals, midterms, quizzes) have been open book for the past ten or twelve years. My usual rule has been "You can bring anything except a cell phone or a friend", though lately I'm having to change that to prohibit anything that might allow wireless communication, such as a laptop.

I made the switch to open book exams because I want to be testing students on what they understand, not what they have memorized. This is real learning; it's how the world works. "Life is an open book exam." Of course, in the real world you don't always have the time and resources to look up anything and everything, and you don't on open book exams either.

I also want students to know that what I value is the understanding, not the memorization. Educators always say "Assessment drives learning", meaning that the abilities we reward (by giving marks on assessments) are the abilities students will master. This applies to the way we test as well as what we test. No matter how many times an instructor says "This course is about concepts and understanding, not memorization", a closed book test says "This course is really about memorization".

The colleague and I worked out a very rough outline of this workshop last summer, and found some great resources about non-traditional ways of testing. Lots of people have signed up for it, so now it's time to get our acts together and plan it properly.