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Open book exams: open season for cheaters or a better form of assessment?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 19 May 2021

Gwyneth Hughes.

The start of the pandemic in March 2020 caused universities to do a rapid pivot from the well-entrenched invigilated, timed, unseen exams to online tests mostly taken at home.

Software can monitor students taking exams in their own homes by using video or proctoring methods, or by locking down the examinee’s computer. But by far the most straightforward option is open book exams with extended timescales. This is mostly what happened at the University of London. But does this mean better assessment or more cheating?

For an open-book exam, students can search online and access books, notes, and other available resources online or in print. If the exam writing window remains similar to that of previous exams with perhaps some extra time for uploading answers, then there is not much opportunity to look up answers and students will not have any advantage. However, if students are given longer ­– for instance, a 24 hours gap between releasing the exam questions and sending in answers – then they can do some research for their answers.

Students like online exams but not just because they can cheat more easily

A study from the Centre for Distance Education | University of London has shown that students doing online exams for the University of London’s distance learning programmes preferred the online exams done from the comfort of their own homes without the pressure to travel to an examination centre and with a bit more freedom from relying on memory alone. Cynics might have it that open book exams give students carte blanche to plagiarise copy and collude with other students and no wonder they liked the experience. But cheating is not inevitable. The study provides  evidence that some programme teams changed exam questions for the online shift to ensure that students could not copy and paste answers.

If questions requiring memorisation were replaced with more probing ones and questions that require application of knowledge, then cheating would become much more difficult. It is also possible that these better designed exams will encourage students to learn more deeply in future.

Some markers also noticed that giving students more time to write their answers meant they could make better use of references and correct errors. Again, this indicates that students could be advantaged by the online exams.

Rethinking exam design

The big worry about exams, and indeed other forms of assessment, is student cheating – but that does not mean that heavy-handed electronic monitoring, restriction on using resources or plagiarism detection software is the answer. The pivot to online testing has encouraged exam designers to think more about how exams support student learning. Even if there is a post-pandemic return to attendance in person next year, many programmes at the University of London will continue with online open book exams and/or move to coursework assessment, which is the ultimate open book experience.

Here’s one tough question: Will more discussion of how to prevent plagiarism and cheating through improving assessment design follow?

Photo by Pete via Creative Commons 


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