By Anamika Srivastava
The Ministry of Human Resource Development recently asked the state and Central school boards to consider assessing secondary and senior secondary level students on the basis of open-book exams. But assessment reform cannot take be undertaken in vacuum: It requires an education ecosystem that inculcates a new way of learning.
Put simply, an open-book exam allows examinees to consult selected material either provided by the examination office/school/exam instructor/their own notes or all of the above. While open-book exams promote the ability to apply knowledge, traditional closed-book exams focus primarily on an individual’s ability to recall.
The ability to recall is essential, however in order to instil critical thinking, creativity and other skills that enable independent thinking, the ability to apply knowledge must be encouraged. Understanding a concept and knowing how to apply it in a given situation is a skill that not only opens doors to the global job market, but, also helps a person contribute meaningfully to society.
It is noteworthy that Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had introduced its Open Text Based Assessment (OTBA) in final examinations for Classes IX and XI as an alternative mode of assessment since the 2013-14 academic year. The CBSE implemented this approach in such subjects as English, Hindi, Mathematics, Science and Social Science in Class IX; and in Biology, Economics, English and Geography in Class XI. The CBSE has sought feedback on OTBA and is exploring the option of implementing OTBA in other subjects as well.
The HRD ministry’s consideration of the implementation of open-book exams by Central and state boards as a part of assessment reforms in school systems is a welcome step. However, one needs to factor in benefits and drawbacks of the scheme in order to successfully implement this policy.
Teaching reform should complement assessment reform
There are a number of cognitive benefits of open-book exams. Open-book exams are known to reduce anxiety and stress levels in students. When there is less pressure to recall and rote-learning is discouraged, students can focus on clarifying concepts and explore possible applications of the theory.
Students will benefit when there are suitable teaching reforms to complement assessment reforms. For a student to truly gain cognitive benefits, reform in teaching and learning must go hand-in-hand with reform in assessment. Accordingly, teachers need to be trained to teach the syllabus in a manner that emphasises critical understanding of the concept, rather than mere dissemination of information; this will encourage independent thinking rather than pressurising students into “mugging”.
It is no exaggeration that many teachers will be unfamiliar with the concept of open-book exams. In fact, teachers could very plausibly find themselves engaged in the face-value of implementing open-book exams, rather than understanding the essence of the scheme. In that case, they are going to miss the wood for the trees.
As examination evolves, so must assessment
The success of open-book exams is also dependent on a careful design of the question paper and examination processes.
Firstly, this includes the choice of permissible references and material. In the international context, it is a matter of contention: How can one delimit the openness of the exam when most of the study material has been put online as a policy to minimise the use of printed material. Allowing laptops and therefore, all web sources can be problematic, as this might lead to an underestimation of the quality and quantity of the preparation required for the exam.
Secondly, designing questions for an open-book exam can be a challenge. This requires creativity and innovation on the part of the examiner — it calls for training and capacity-building of teachers.
Thirdly, at the time of examining the answer scripts, teachers need to be conscious of the fact that students should be rewarded for independent thinking. This may require the teachers to come out of their respective comfort zones when grading a student on the basis of a pre-set answer-key. Examiners should be willing to allow and appreciate the subjective nature of assessment.
While CBSE implemented its OTBA scheme by providing the schools with the questions along with the relevant themes/texts already provided by the CBSE, it is uncertain how all the state boards are going to implement the scheme.
CBSE schools are compulsorily required to use the OTBA questions provided by the CBSE and they need to be inserted in the question paper prepared by the school. Prima facie, students, teachers and parents have been appreciative of the CBSE-OTBA scheme in general, however, it is yet to be evaluated whether the scheme has met its goal of encouraging independent thinking amongst students.
For example, there needs to be an investigation on how or if the CBSE-OTBA questions, truly, assess students on their ability to apply a concept in a given context. I am not arguing that the ability to comprehend is not important, but that the objective of an open-book exam is larger than only test-comprehension abilities.
Doing away with traditional closed book exams?
There are concerns about the effectiveness of open-book exams in leading to deeper learning. Does better preparation for the exam occur in the case of open-book exam? What about the retention of the concepts after the exam?
Further, shouldn’t students who are less capable of applying concepts but have acquired a body of knowledge be rewarded for their effort? In fact, to think creatively and innovatively, one needs to have a knowledge base first. Answers to these questions are subject to further investigation, however, at this stage, we cannot do away with traditional closed-books exams.
Overall, the policy of open-book exams is a progressive step and should be encouraged. However, one should be warned against the possibility of its mechanical implementation which will miss the point of the scheme altogether.
Finally, India is a country in which socio-culturally, there has been an emphasis on the ability to recall and reference to texts in an exam is considered ‘cheating’. As a result, an initiative like open-book exams cannot be successful in the absence of a major shift in the mindsets of all the stakeholders of education.
The author is assistant professor at Jindal Global Law School and a Fellow at International Institute for Higher Education Research and Capacity Building (IIHEd) at OP Jindal Global University (JGU). She is also the Assistant Director at Centre for International Trade and Economics Laws (CITEL) at JGU. She is currently working on developing the State Higher Education Plan for Haryana under Rashtriya Ucchatar Shiksha Abhiyan, a government of Haryana project at IIHEd.