Designing Assessment for the Open Book Exam

Since more and more teaching is happening through the virtual mode in these homebound times, the next logical requirement to emerge will be the open book test system. Many of the earlier assessment formats being used to place, diagnose or assess learning through the online mode will prove to be inadequate to take on the growing demands of a system crippled by schedule backlogs. Also the test items namely MCQs, True and False, Short Q&As etc., used for these exams will fall short in testing many of the critical thinking skills when executed through the online mode. Open book exams will most inevitably become the norm to assess real learning. What we mean by real learning is measuring where a learner is able to solve problems and apply learned concepts to new situations and this is going to need a radical shift in the way we design tests.

What is of concern here is whether we teachers are equipped to design open book question patterns and train students to respond to them. Students, to begin with, have to forget some of the myths: that open book exams are easy, that they don’t need to prepare for them, that the answers are easy to find and don’t take time to complete.

The objective of an open book exam is to assess the learner’s ability to interpret the question, sift through their concepts, and

  1. interpret some aspect from the text,
  2. apply the understanding to a context,
  3. generate a new idea from input given in the text.

It would require problem solving through analysis and synthesis and give the teacher an opportunity to assess these critical thinking skills of the learner. Hence, open book questions must not ask for textual responses, where learners will look up information from the text and present it verbatim, and there will be no evidence of learning. Keeping the learning objectives in mind, the paper setter will have to set problems creatively, which presupposes clear concept of subject matter and an understanding of ways in which resource can be located and used by the learner. It is important to devise clear and unambiguous questions to avoid student confusion and time spent interpreting questions so that they can use the time for interpreting, locating and applying the appropriate information.

One good way to veer away from testing rote-learnt material may be to test the higher order thinking skills by using case-based, hypothetical or real-world cases’ exam questions which require critical reasoning skills in response to a trigger scenario. The question should provide information or background information on a given topic so that learners can build on this data. Relevant quantitative or qualitative data would then become the basis for interpretative and application questions, like

  1. What does the data show?
  2. What relevance does this data or scenario have with respect to your topic?
  3. What other factors could impact this data?
  4. How would you test for these?
  5. What factors might have led to this scenario?

Test items for an open book exam could be short or long. A good way to check for concept internalization would be to design questions that require problem solving through the application of existing concepts and you have an opportunity to see the step by step process that the learner uses. Here’s an example:

The Socratic questioning technique is also an excellent classroom teaching strategy, it is effective as a testing strategy too. When designing test items for an open book exam where you want to probe deep learning through long answers or step-by-step questions, these questions come in handy. In classroom discussions they will help check for comprehension and decomposition of a problem, ability for planning solutions before implementation, build capacity for self-explanation and reveal misconceptions. In an open book exam, the Socratic questions will make the learner

  1. provide clarifications,
  2. probe assumptions,
  3. give reason and evidence,
  4. locate source,
  5. predict implications and consequences, and
  6. search for viewpoints and opinions.

Take a look at how this can be done in a Social Studies paper for Grade X, no matter which board, because it is based on the generic topic of river formation and also draws upon basic Mathematics. Many of these capabilities get tested for deep learning in a step-by-step assessment like the one below, and questions like these can be designed for an open book exam:

Two groups of students were conducting a research on the velocity and rock size and shape at 4 sites of the river Rangit riverbed in the Terai region of North Bengal. [30 marks]

Students were required to test 2 assumptions:

  • River velocity increases as it flows downstream.
  • Rocks on the river bed become more rounded and smaller downstream.

They collected data from four points in the river. To collect data on the velocity of the river, Group A students collected data by observing floating objects in the river and Group B students used the velocity meter to measure the velocity of the water. To collect data on the size and shape of the rock samples, they picked up 10 pieces of rocks randomly and measured their axis length with a scale.

The three instruments used for measurement are shown below:

Figure 1
  1. Describe how the two methods of measuring the velocity of water are different. [4 marks]
  2. The students found out that finding the velocity by measuring with floating objects was an unreliable method compared to measuring velocity with a velocity meter. Can you think of three reasons why the first method is not fool proof? [3 marks]
  3. Take a look at the results of the measurements at the 4 sites by Groups A and B.
  1.  Group A: velocity metre/sec
  2. Group B: velocity metre/sec
  3. Group B’s graph has been completed for you.
  1. Calculate the average values for Group A, and
  2. Complete the velocity graph for Group A in the second graph.  [4 marks]
Figure 2
  • What conclusion does Group B reach regarding Assumption 1: River velocity increases as it flows downstream, based on the graph above? [2 marks]
  • Now, the students had to test Assumption 2: Rocks on the river bed become more rounded and smaller downstream. Both Groups A and B students collected 10 rock samples from the 4 sites. They then measured the size and angularity of the rocks, using the Ruler and Score Chart in Figure 1.
  1. Explain how the groups measured a) Size b) Angularity. [2 marks]
  2. Mention two problems that might arise if rock pieces are selected randomly. [2 marks]

The results of size and angularity testing by Groups A and B are shown in the graphs below:

Figure 3
  1. Based on the graph (Figure 3) that was generated by Group A, the students saw that their Assumption 2 (Rocks on the river bed become more rounded and smaller downstream) proved to be False. Can you look at the graph and find two pieces of evidence that made them come to this conclusion? [2 marks]
  2. What conclusion did the Group B students come to? Was Assumption 2 True or False for them? [2 marks]
  3. Can you explain why rocks become smaller and rounded as they move downstream? [3 marks]
  4. The students of both groups reassembled and thought about how they could make the method for the test for Assumption 2 more reliable. Can you predict what step they planned to take? [2 marks]
  5. Can you think of a method to test a new assumption: The river bed becomes wider and deeper as it travels downstream? [4 marks]

The above testing items are designed to assess the student’s ability to infer, think logically, apply, predict, relate and extrapolate, based on a case.

Whether or not teaching is going to continue to be taught for homebound learners indeterminately is a matter of conjecture at this point of time, but what is not is the fact that teaching-learning paradigms are shifting as people are beginning to see the efficacy of using more time from home, engaging in constructive learning. The need for ably designing tests leans heavily on open-book and take-home tests. The sooner teachers groom themselves for this eventuality, the better the outcome for the end-user!



Dr Sonali Bhattacharyya is an English Language Teaching consultant and conducts teacher training workshops spanning the length and breadth of the country. She is one of the content developers for the training modules of Online Teacher Training, which seeks to provide rigorous personal and professional training to teachers in the most effective way possible, with a user-friendly platform to access the training materials at their convenience.



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