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  • Grace Brown

Is it time for open-book exams to take over traditional test taking techniques?

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

Many students feel exceedingly stressed out during final exams due to the pressure of memorization mandated by outdated examination procedures. (Wikimedia Commons and ( )

By Grace Brown, Columnist

As the time for final exams quickly approaches, the question which dates back to the beginning of the virtual learning era arises — to have open notes, or not? The issue has become hotly contested between students and professors alike, as different schools of thought prevail.

Obviously, some professors are opposed to the idea due to the notion that the use of notes in exam taking may lead to decreased attendance or attention devoted to class time during the semester. They may even go as far as to consider it “cheating” in a way, since the challenge posed to the memories of students is greatly reduced.

Students opposed to the practice of open-note exams feel they would be subjected to the intensified pressure of higher expectations from professors who believe the use of notes in test taking should translate directly into perfect responses.

While this may be a valid point, online learning platforms such as Desire2Learn provide professors with the opportunity to customize their examination structures to have time or length limits so as to eliminate the danger of time perceived as squandered in a less formal atmosphere. This still encourages students to focus and is conducive to the traditional question/answer test-taking format. Besides, one would hope the college’s amicable and intelligent professors would treat their student’s exams with total equality, regardless of if they were filled out at home or in the classroom.

Though the prospect of open-note or open-book exams may contradict the more traditional methods of memorization and regurgitation featured in primary education, sometimes carried onto to higher institutions such as colleges and universities, the universal encroachment of COVID-19 has forced members of the academic community to adapt. For many, this meant the adoption of take-home or virtual exams.

Professors initially forbid the use of notes or textbooks in such examinations, mandating that students rely solely on their memory of the class. Yet, without a means of enforcing this rule — seeing as students were generally confined to their homes and frequently never experienced any sort of contact with their professors (on or off campus) — it was quickly found to be pointless.

Most professors soon adopted a more understanding rule, permitting the use of notes while prohibiting internet searches. Students could therefore flip through their notes or revisit topics in the textbook during exams while still adhering to class policies.

In this exercise lies the promise of open-note test-taking: the repeated review of material. When students are allowed to use their own previous work in cumulative exams and quizzes, they are further incentivized to take thorough and coherent notes, in order to be aided by their work at the later date of test-taking. This actually increases their attention paid to detail during lectures, as opposed to grasping blindly at general concepts or, worse, just guessing.

Many an undergrad is guilty of declaring before an impending final their grand plan to merely “wing it” after having really spent countless hours or sleepless nights poring over material in fruitless attempts to memorize details that may or may not appear on the final. As many professors likely know, the result is an unorganized essay featuring whatever uncorrelated bits of information the student’s exhausted brain can scrape together, as opposed to the actual class concepts that should have been obtained.

Moreover, students retain more information following the exam when the rereading of their notes is promoted on a recurring basis. This provides another opportunity for professors to repeatedly herd the attention of students to those key concepts outlined in the class material, ushering their eyes back again and again to the same areas of their notes.

In theory, the pages of a student’s notebook or textbook should be battered and torn, smudged with ink and graphite from weeks of dedicated flip-flip-flipping back to crucial topics. This seemingly perpetual review of one’s own handwriting or typing reinforces the neurological pathways laid out during preliminary readings or lectures, thereby strengthening the actual long-term information retention.

Those students in support of using notes during exams as the end of this semester swiftly arrives would likely report a widespread feeling of having better learned the material in previous classes where open-book exam techniques were administered. On a personal note, I can guarantee I will remember the material of those classes I took during the spring and fall of 2020 (in which we all experienced the most stringent of COVID restrictions) with much more detail and clarity than any others for an extended time.

Lastly — but not of least importance — is the fact of significantly reduced stress for undergrad students. Given the already frightening and unpredictable circumstances of a global pandemic, the atmosphere of stress and confusion swarming colleges and universities has been nearly drowning students beneath their studies. The need to “cram” or spend an overabundance of time studying for finals would be mitigated, thereby allowing students more time to put high-quality effort into their final projects and papers without the sweat-inducing time crunch of traditional test-taking techniques.

Overall, the practice of using class materials to inform responses in an exam setting works to the benefit of both the students and the professor by reducing stress as well as increasing the longevity of actual material retention, as opposed to uninformed guesswork too often visible in the world of higher education.

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