Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Open Book?

These spicy peppers 
make me thirsty!  
I'm considering doing an open book final for my Hamsterology for Non-Hamster-Majors course this semester.  My reasoning is that I really just want them to have some sense, long term, of how one thinks like a Hamsterologist.  I don't care if they memorize the theories or names or dates, really.  I'd like them to be able to work some problems, not say stupid shit about hamsters, and recognize when politicians and others are saying stupid shit about hamsters.  To that end, I'm thinking of making my cumulative final an open-book exam.  It seems that'd help focus on the long term goal of use of the knowledge and so on.

Downsides include every other exam has been closed book, so they might not be ready for a shift in format.  Also, they may not study thinking that open book exams don't require it.

On the upside, again, the few students who have done the reading all course will have the advantage of a sense of where shit is in the book . . .

On the downside, I might get a reputation as a softy . . .

I have no idea.  What do you think?  Have you done open book exams?  Are they effective?  Or just a gimmick to make students happy?


  1. It's not something you want to spring on them for the Final, but I know of an instructor that let's students use the book for ten minutes and then has them put it away for the rest of the test.

    It requires them to be familiar with the text enough to find what they need, so some study is necessary. It takes a first-test run-through for them to realize it, though. That's why it might not be a good idea to use it for the first time on the final.

  2. I do it all the time. It all depends on how you structure the exam, of course, but I find it allows me to ratchet up the difficulty of the questions without hearing a chorus of wailing flakes. They seem to think that open book, open note is a good tradeoff, so I can hammer them as hard as I like. One trick I learned from a long-ago mentor is to require them to cite page numbers in the reading as if they were writing an at home essay. Then you really find out who studied and who didn't.

    I've employed other techniques too. I sometimes distribute five essay questions a week ahead of the exam and then pull one out of a hat at the beginning of the exam. I once wrote a customized essay question for every student in the class (fun but too much work to repeat). But I keep coming back to the open book, open note, cite your sources format. If you make it challenging enough it does a really good job of sorting the workers from the wankers.

  3. Did I really apostrophe "lets" up there? I'm so ashamed... Why didn't I use "allow's" ? Uh, I mean "permit's" Nevermind.

  4. Open-book exams wouldn't really work in my field, but I've done the thing with giving out essay questions before-hand... frequently, in fact. One of my favorite undergrad professors had the kids totally fooled with this one. His tests were all essay, but only about three questions long. Mind you, those three questions represented about six to nine pages of in-class writing... yet his classes were extremely popular. Why? I overheard a fellow student recommending said professor on the basis of the fact that he "gives you the questions in advance!" The kid was so excited he didn't really notice that the professor was giving out, oh, twenty essay prompts to study, of which he would pick five, of which you had to answer three.

    In other words, he could get these dopes to study pretty much every single thing covered that semester - eagerly, at that - by "giving out the questions in advance!" Dude! Score!

    The man is my hero.

  5. In my department, "open book" is translated to "don't study" in student-speak. Why waste time preparing in advance when you have "all the answers" sitting in front of you.

    I have adopted (in appropriate courses) the concept of the single-page, single-sided hand-written resource sheet. No electronic versions of any kind are permitted. They can bring anything they want on that page.

    You see some amazing works of art on those sheets. Funny thing is, the best prepared ones are rarely used. They put so much work into sifting, sorting, organizing, and recording information that they accidentally find themselves remembering lots of it. And that's amazing, because they put so much time into preparing this document, they didn't have time to "study" !!!

    Damn it, they're managing to get through my courses without studying.

    1. Brilliant!

      All my statistics professors did it that way. They'd specify the size of the sheet, and we could write down formulas, decision flow charts, whatever. We still had to know how to choose an appropriate test for the sample set and then apply the test and determine whether the results were significant. And yes, putting the sheet together was the best way to review (apart from working sample problems).

    2. I much prefer the idea of a single-page, single-sided "resource sheet." My only twist would be that students could type up the resource sheet, but any resource sheet (hey, you can photocopy a handwritten sheet) would have to be turned in on the last day of class. This would encourage studying and synthesis well in advance of the final.

    3. I've done the "resource sheet" in the past. The only requirement was that it was handwritten and not photocopied (or more importantly, not reduced at all). They had to make a new one for each test, since I collected, analyzed, and destroyed them. At least the good ones. Those that didn't follow the rules got theirs back with a HUGE deduction from their exam.

    4. Whenever I was allowed to use one while I was a student, I often put more information than I needed on them.

      Whenever I allowed my students to make their own, I told them the same thing. I didn't need to use obscure details in the exams I set. Just asking basic concepts was enough to confuse many of them.

    5. The resource sheet is also my go-to MO (unless I want to really nail 'em, as Archie describes above--I have one class this term that I'll be cursing with a full open-book exam).

      In the digital age, I also think training them as info curators is something at least as valuable as exhorting them to know the same info offhand. For better or worse, this is how information circulates these days.

  6. Almost all of my exams are open "novel" because we're dealing with literature and students have the novels as a reference during exams. But it's not open notes or other theory books, so they have to know, for example, characteristics of archetypes and tropes and theories and theorists' names and ideas to then apply them.

    If the exam calls for analysis of the information, then it doesn't matter if it's open book since you're asking them to analyze rather than simply regurgitate. If it's asking them to regurgitate, then it's dumb to have open-book.

    Be prepared to have students take longer if it's open book (they always linger in the text), so you will need fewer question. They'll end up thinking you're unfair for asking so much (even if it's the same as what you asked prior to allowing open books). Also, be prepared for students who don't bring their books and will want to use yours (I never let them use mine b/c of key notes). If you're going to have it be open book, I'd let them know ahead of time and remind them to bring the books to class. I'd also explain WHY it's open-book and that they will need to be analyzing or applying info rather than simply copying from the book.

  7. At first, I set closed-book exams. Unfortunately, one of my senior colleagues thought that this made it "too hard" for the students. After that, I slowly made my exams open-book. It didn't take long before that wasn't good enough.

    Over the years, it seemed nothing I did helped.

    I eventually allowed them to bring in their notes.

    I sometimes allowed formula sheets, but they had to make their own. (I got a lot of whining for that. After all, how dare I make them responsible for something like that?)

    I even put copies of my old exams in the library. I not only told the students to look for them, make copies of them, and even try to answer the questions, I freely encouraged them to do so. (The exams didn't have any solutions, which ruffled a few feathers.)

    I didn't care if they brought with them copies of those old exams with their solutions written on them. In fact, that would have helped because, for some of my courses, I used questions from those old exams for my new mid-terms and finals. I also gave quizzes in my lectures using old exam questions. Nope. Not good enough. The responses to my exams were along the lines of "too hard", "too long", or "we never covered this in the course."

    With all of the things I allowed, with all the resources I provided, eventually I accomplished something I thought would never happen. In one course I taught for several years, the final exam results were usually quite good but one class finally succeeded in getting an average below 50%, even after I was generous with my marking. Some of them came to me afterwards to gripe and moan, and when I told them about the old exams and that I used questions from them for that particular final, a few of them said "Huh?"

    I concluded that the only thing that would work and would provided satisfactory results was to have the exams lying there in the room, complete with all the answers and 100% as the grade. All they would have to do was to fill in their name, but they probably would have complained about that, too.

    1. I never officially suggested using pre-completed exams, but I'm sure that the administrators in my department would have approved.

      I'm serious, and I'll tell you why.

      One day, I was in one of the numerous meetings I had with my last department head and the assistant in which I had to be reminded that there were students who didn't like me. I jokingly suggested that maybe I should use Bert and Ernie imitations. In response, the assistant head said something like "Whatever it takes." He was serious.

      I was flaggergasted. Many of my students were *older* than me and my departmental superiors suggested that I, an instructor in a post-secondary educational institution, had to treat them like children in kindergarten.

      I thought that what we did there was to be an indication of what our students would face when they graduated and got jobs. If behaving like a Sesame Street character was supposed to accomplish that, I would have hated to work for such an employer.

  8. Prof. Chiltepin, I agree with your goals but also with the other commenters that the time to change exam formats is not with the final exam.

    For the longer term, what would be the downside to getting a reputation as a softy if you would actually maintain high standards? (See Wylodmayer and Cambridge0101 above.)

  9. I had an open-book midterm, and during it I realized that the students were spending 90% of their time rifling through their lecture notes, trying to find the relevant material by hoping they spotted a keyword or phrase that maybe would jog their memory and give them a clue as to how to answer the questions, and so nearly all of them didn't have time to do all the questions, and they did poorly. These students definitely took the "open book = don't study" approach on the midterm.

    I really laid into them about how everyone should have received 100% on the midterm, as the answer to every question was 'somewhere' in my lectures, if they had taken good lecture notes and knew where to look, but if they hadn't bothered to study enough to know where to look then they'd never, ever have the time to both blindly wade through the lecture notes and properly answer the questions. I purposely designed my midterm and exam this way, as the open-book approach should be for them to look up a formula or factoid to answer a question, and they should already know the concepts involved to answer the question, as opposed to using their notes as a lifeboat to save them from drowning from their ignorance.

  10. I teach a few courses online, and in the process of developing them, I gave a lot of thought to my exams. Obviously, even if you time it, an online exam is open book. At least for literature and writing, this is not a problem, and I think for most other disciplines as well. It allows you to focus entirely on brief (as opposed to the kind they'd do in a full essay) analysis. I think, as others have noted above, you should probably ease them into it. I also like the "bring your own one page hand written study guide" idea for live classes.

  11. Give 'em a sample question or two. It isn't too hard to cook up a question that's in the ballpark of something you want to ask.

    It won't help that much, of course: no matter how much you emphasize otherwise, students will assume that your sample questions totally delineate the content and understanding you want them to master, and will ignore all other content. This in spite of the fact that they actually know for sure that the sample question is the one question you _won't_ ask on the test.

    But a few students will calibrate to the sorts of things you're going ask, and a few more will realize that they don't remember what was in Chapter 2.

  12. This semester, I gave students all of the essay questions in advance so that they could pick one and prep for it. They could bring in 1 3x5 notecard with handwritten notes (that I collected along with their blue books). It worked pretty well. Most of them got Bs.

    I borrowed this idea from my undergrad Philosophy proffies, but their twist was that they'd give us 5 questions but only 3 would be on the exam, which is truly diabolical because the only way to effectively study is to *write all of the essays in advance*. GASP. I will freely admit that I hated it, but damned if I didn't do well on the exams because I had done the reading, attended every lecture, and taken copious notes. It might also have something to do with the fact that it was my wheelhouse...

    As we enter into the era of "assessing competencies" I think we're going to have more of these types of discussions. Is it rote recall we're after (in some disciplines, yes, rote recall is critical, but in others, not so much). Is it facility with the core ideas? How do we assess this?

    Open book, open note, take-home. If the student has been there, done the work, this should be no problem. For the students who haven't, no amount of cramming is going to make it work, as Professor Poopiehead points out above.