The Open-Book Examination will Show How a Student can Think, says Robert Jahoda from the ESF

Many educators at Masaryk University are faced with the question of how to take student's exams if they choose the distance form. One of the options for that is the open-book examination format, which will test not only the student's knowledge but above all the way they think about them.

15 May 2020 Filip Opálka

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Could you describe the open-book examination?

Open-book examination is one of several forms of educational testing that we use in our subjects. We could say that for the last fifteen years, we have been experimenting with different ways of this type of testing. A more relaxed form, for example, was that we allowed the student to bring a hand-made cheat sheet to the written exam and to bring any notes he/she wrote to prepare for the oral exam. In the past, we tested students online, especially international students who could not take the traditional oral exam. In the case of this form, the student has all the documents at his disposal, but if he didn't study the tested topics, they are not useful because he does not even know what to look for in them.

How do you transform exams into a such form?

We try to ensure that the final grade in the course is not based on a single output, such as the final oral exam; we strive to introduce a system of continuous student evaluation into each subject. At the moment when the student approaches the final oral exam, we have enough information about his ongoing work during the semester, his way of argumentation, and topics he understood less. The final exam will usually only confirm the overall view of the student. We are rarely significantly surprised by the change in the student's knowledge.

Thus, the final open-book exam becomes a discussion on the assigned topic, where the primary goal is not to verify the acquired knowledge. More important is the way the student thinks about it, how he/she can connect it into broader units within the subject, and where he/she sees overlaps with other subjects. Critical thinking is judged rather than an enumeration of knowledge, and it cannot be usually learned in the 48 hours before the exam.

What are the advantages of such testing?

The open-book examination is not new; I met it during my studies. I know from my experience that there are fields of study where this type of exam is more natural to apply (fields of social sciences). I have also noticed that some foreign universities use this type of examination to a greater extent - for example, the partner university in Tampere in Finland has most of the exams in this form. Personal experience usually reveals its benefits. By allowing the student to use their materials for the exam, we force them to prepare it. By elaborating them, the student systematizes the required knowledge of the subject and thus prepares himself for the exam.

Some students do not have difficulty learning extensive texts from textbooks, but then have trouble discussing the individual passages. But then you also have students who do not always remember all the technical terms and need a little help. Still, they can have a more in-depth insight into specific topics and see the interrelationships. Especially for this second group of students, the format of open-book examinations is very suitable. Finally, it is related to the student's nature, where one is calm and confident in the exam, and for the other, each oral exam is stress that affects his performance. Such student is often calmed down by the possibility to use the prepared materials.

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What was the biggest challenge for you?

Because I work with more colleagues on courses, the biggest challenge was to set uniform rules with more teachers and check compliance. It is a never-ending process because some colleagues end up in subjects, and others join them. A partial challenge was also to fine-tune the type of questions we ask at the exam. Explain to colleagues that we are not interested in detailed textbook knowledge of the problem, but instead in how they interpret it and what connections they see with other problems. Even some students sometimes wonder why we ask about the broader context of the tested issue when they have already said a list of factual knowledge. But most students are pleasantly surprised that we do not require 100% knowledge, but instead, we appreciate the way of argumentation.

How to start if the educator wants to try the open-book format?

The best is to warn students during the semester and offer them samples of the questions you want to ask at the exam every week. At the same time, to show them that the correct answer presupposes knowledge of broader contexts, to which the question is not directly shaped, but which can be asked in the form of follow-up questions. If a student claims something, it is possible to ask him to explain it with more examples. If the student does not understand the question, I probably asked it in the wrong way, so I ask the question differently. If the claims are based on assumptions, we can discuss the effects of their releasement. During the exam, I can also let the student formulate the question. Sometimes I offer the student to choose the area he wants to talk about, and then I ask. It happens that at the end of the exam, he admits that he could have chosen better.

Have you ever experienced a funny or exciting situation during this type of testing?

I probably don't remember a purely funny situation. Instead, it always makes me happy if the student is not afraid during the exam, and he indicates that he did not fully understand some specific things. We can then discuss the matter in more detail and discuss possible approaches to it. This can also be part of the exam, which is often very refreshing.

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doc. Ing. Robert Jahoda, Ph.D.

Graduate of the master's degree program of Finance and the doctoral degree program of Public Economics, where he is now the head of department. At the Faculty of Economics and Administration, he teaches a bachelor's course of public finance for 250 students and master's courses focused on public finance, social policy, and simulation modeling. He specializes in tax and social policy, and he is a member of the Commission for Fair Pensions at the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

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