April 22, 2013

Open-note vs. Closed-book Exams

by Bonnie Li, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

Open-note, cheat sheet, or closed-book exams---which test format is best for students? In December 2012, Neal Conan from NPR’s Talk of the Nation spoke with associate professors of psychology Afshin Gharib and William Phillips from Dominican University of California about an experiment they conducted.  It all started over an argument about what kind of exam is best.1 One professor preferred administering open-note tests while the other let his students use a “cheat sheet.” During the experiment, students were given either an open-book, a cheat sheet, or a closed-book exam in an introductory psychology course.2  An unannounced closed-book quiz was given two weeks later to test retention of the content. The students were also asked about their anxiety level before each exam. The results found that while initial grades were higher in the open-book group, the retention scores across all three exam formats were not statistically different.  Additionally, the researchers found that while the students’ level of organization on their cheat sheet correlated with higher initial test scores, it did not correlate with higher scores on the follow-up pop quiz. Good students still out performed poor ones regardless of exam type. This might be because weaker students spent more time looking up notes and reading rather than actively completing the test. The findings confirm the results from an older experiment by Agarwal that found no real differences in retention a week after administering either an open- or closed-book exam.3  While the results of these studies are prone to type II error due to their small sample sizes, none-the-less, they raise interesting questions about the benefits of open-note and “cheat sheets” permitted exams. Why not alleviate student anxiety by allowing open-notes if the results are not significantly different from closed-note tests?

Benefits and Pitfalls

There are some pitfalls to open-note exams.  Because students are allowed to use class notes and textbook resources during the exam, students might use them to look for pre-built answers like a “scavenger hunt” rather than synthesizing concepts from class.4  This kind of behavior can be prevented if instructors write complex or scenario-specific questions. Another disadvantage is that teachers would likely need to spend more time grading exams and writing complex questions every year.  Allowing students to use computers with internet access during a test also runs the risk of students communicating with one another to obtain answers.

Liska and Simonson from the University of Wisconsin described the positive results from using open-textbook and open-note exams in a business statistics class.5 The authors found it helpful that teachers were challenged to write questions that required interpretation, analysis, and critical thinking. The students were less anxious, even though open-note exams were not easier than closed-books exams. Open-note exams emphasized applying concepts and critical thinking.

There can also be benefits to using “cheat sheets” during exams.  Unlike open-note exams, cheat sheets contain a limited amount of information. Maryellen Weimer contends that that these condensed versions of their notes force students to prioritize and organize content from the class.6  In creating these sheets in preparation for the test, students may engage in discussions with each other (and possibly the professor) about the material, thereby further solidifying their understanding of the course content.  In other words, the creation of cheat sheets may enhance learning!

Anecdotal Experience

Throughout pharmacy school, I have taken closed-book, open-note, cheat sheet, take-home, and even group exams. In classes with open-note exams, I felt less pressure in class to vigorously jot down notes, and I spent more time actively listening to the presenter.  I felt I was applying information and learning during an open-note exam.  Indeed, knowing how to apply information actually felt more enjoyable than regurgitating memorized facts.  My self-esteem was better if I did well on an open-book verses closed book exam too.

There are teachers who believe that an exam should assess students’ knowledge – the stuff stored away in their heads – and no more.   In these circumstances, the closed-book exam is probably best.  For example, it’s important to know the pathophysiology of atrial fibrillation and the mechanism of action of beta blockers, so a closed-book exam would require me to memorize this information. However, when it comes to therapeutics, for which the answer is not always black and white, an open note exam might be a better option. As a future pharmacist, I will need the skills to discriminate one side effect from a list of ten on Micromedex, or which drug-drug interactions really need to addressed in a patient on multiple drugs. In a world where content is readily available, the most important skill health professionals must possess is the ability to find and interpret information from the right sources. I understand that there will always be situations where we have to think on our feet, but I also see the need to ask the right questions and double-check information from the right places. I think that open-note exams can help prepare pharmacy students by encouraging them to find and analyze information in a time sensitive manner.

So the next time you think about creating a test, consider your objectives. Do you want to test students on their recall of content or its application?


1. Cheat Sheet Or Open Book: Putting Tests To The Test: NPR [Internet]. Talk of the Nation. National Public Radio, 2012.  Accessed April 17, 2013.
2. Gharib A, Phillips W, Mathew N. Cheat Sheet or Open-Book? A Comparison of the Effects of Exam Types on Performance, Retention, and Anxiety. Psychology Research. 2012;2(8):469–478. 
3. Agarwal PK, Karpicke JD, Kang SHK, Roediger HL, McDermott KB. Examining the testing effect with open- and closed-book tests. Applied Cognitive Psychology 2008;22(7):861–876.
4. Golub E. PCs in the Classroom and Open Book Exams. Ubiquity 2005;6(9):1–4.
5. Liska T, Simonson J. Open-Text and Open-Note Exams. The Best of The Teaching Professor. Madison, WI: Magna Publications; 2005. p. 83.
6. Weimer M. Crib Sheets Help Students Prioritize and Organize Course Content.  Faculty  Focus [Internet], 2013. Accessed April 17, 2013.

No comments: