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.

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