Thinking about the open exam

It’s assessment season (at least here at the University of York) and so our students will, one hopes anyway, be getting stuck into preparation for their upcoming summative assessments. For many students, this will mean getting ready to take open exams.

The open exam format is one that was a bit of an oddity before the pandemic. Students taking notes into an exam would have been something that was done on a tiny, rolled up piece of paper hidden in a sleeve. If that tiny piece of paper was ever discovered, the Academic Misconduct Authorities would be on the case in a flash. However, as the pandemic made it impossible to get dozens of students together in one place for an exam and to, therefore, police the behaviour of those students, the open exam format quickly came into vogue and became institutionalised. 

To quickly specify the differences in format, I think it’s worth highlighting three different types of exams:

Closed exam: To me, this is the ‘classic’, traditional exam format. It is the format that I, and most people I would imagine, understood as ‘assessment’ before getting to university. It is, most often, an in-person written assessment, conducted under timed conditions. A student goes in with little more than a pen to write with and has to rely on their memory and quick writing to get them the rest of the way through.

Open book exam: Unlike the closed exam, with the open book exam, a student will not be at risk of Academic Misconduct proceedings if they take more than a pen with them into an open book exam. Specific types of notes or books (e.g. one A4 side of notes) can be taken into the exam, but the conditions remain similar to the closed exam – the students complete the exam at the same time, in the same place (though there may be exceptions), under timed and supervised conditions. 

Open exam: The open exam is the sharpest contrast to the closed exam format. With the open exam, questions are likely released online at a set time and students have a set deadline to complete the exam. Beyond that, how they work and complete the assessment is extremely open. Students might complete the assessment surrounded by piles of notes and annotated books in the library, sampling sections of practice essays they have previously written whilst double checking everything on Google Scholar or, if they are slightly more blasé about the whole exercise, at the beach with a cold drink in hand.

I never had the opportunity to experience the open exam format myself as a student, so maybe this is a slightly uninformed take that students that are taking them right now would scoff at – but over the few years of its practice, I have really come to see the benefits of the open exam format, both for students and for academics.

For students, having an assessment format that can be described as ‘authentic’ is much-discussed in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning literature as a more beneficial mode of assessing learning. To me, the open exam format is a more authentic assessment format, at least when compared to the closed exam. I often say in discussions about the open exam with students (this is evidencing the fact that I often feel the need to defend them!) – I don’t know anyone who, after graduating their degree, has been locked in a room for 4 hours and told to complete a piece of work. However, very often, people are in situations where, at sometimes shockingly short notice, they have to complete a vital piece of work. When they do so, they get to use the resources they think will help – whatever gets the job done on time. 

The open exam format is also one that provides more leeway for individual’s learning and working styles. As with the example made above – if someone prefers to meticulously prepare then they can do that, if they instead prefer to only react in the moment, then there is also that option.

And for academics the case seems crystal clear – the work that students produce in an open exam is simply better. No one likes wading through piles of largely ‘okay’ handwritten essays. It is significantly better to read type-written, well argued, and clearly sourced work. I only had two years of marking the closed exam format before it was replaced with the open exam but I am still, every year, much happier reading the better quality work. This should also mean that students are happier with the quality of the work that they produce – so a real win-win.

It does feel that we are slowly going through a process of liberalising our assessment formats in political science. This feels like a great innovation and one that has been a long time coming. Whilst maybe not the most exciting innovation, the open exam is one that, borne about through the necessities of pandemic, seems to have advanced the usefulness and the productiveness of a traditional assessment format.

4 Replies to “Thinking about the open exam”

  1. I did the switch to open exams during the pandemic and kept using them after. I don’t think I’ll ever go back. As you note, better quality, happier and less stressed students, and honestly, a more accurate reflection of how they’ll be assessed in their careers. It does risk issues due to the use of AI, but to this point, I’ve remedied this with how I design my prompts, in terms of the specificity and depth of the prompt.

    1. Glad to hear I’m not alone in the enthusiasm for the open exam format and a really good point about the need for modifying question with AI. The modules that I run the open exam on are also very case specific so, for now, I think that level of depth is trickier for AI. I have heard quite a lot of discussion about how the rise of AI will lead to the return of in-person, pen-and-paper exams… fingers crossed that’s not the case, yes, not a great experience.

      1. I also try to explain to students the value of being better than AI and not taking the path of least resistance. But if they do, either I catch it because AI isn’t good enough yet OR if they do and I miss it, so be it. It’s the student that can’t keep up that will suffer in a world dominated by AI.

      2. I think that’s a good attitude to take with it. There does seem it a lack of ‘busy-ness’ in a AI essay compared to the average student submission that still makes them stand out. Though, I still remember the one submission I saw that had left in one line that read something like ‘As an AI language model I can’t…’. A bit of a give away!

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