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Column: Open book tests relieve stress for students, professors

Now that COVID-19 has changed how we are running classes this semester, one additional adaptation professors should consider is administering open book final exams. 

First of all, teachers and students are struggling to adapt to the online format. While some are doing better than others, professors are finding that their students are having trouble making personal connections and are facing more distractions at home than they would in a school setting. In my experience, the new format is also making it hard for students to rely on their regular routines to study for their classes.

In order to do an exam in an online setting, some technology — that many professors are not accustomed to using — is required. At the start of this crisis the university released tutorials and training sessions to try to catch professors up on the technology they did not need to use before, including Blackboard online test building.

One thing professors and administrators have had to consider is that Blackboard’s testing platform itself doesn’t have features that block students from internet searching or pulling up notes. Proctortrack, a remote test monitoring service, says on its website that "unprepared" universities moving online “become sitting ducks for exam fraud.”

While USC does provide access to the online examination services Respondus Lockdown Browser and Respondus Monitor, professors who want to run a closed-book test have to figure out how to make these technologies work for their classrooms. This is also complicated by some students not having access to a webcam, as I have encountered in some of my classes. Isn’t having to figure out these Respondus products a bit much when there is already such an atmosphere of confusion and stress for both students and professors? 

Instead of trying to work out the kinks with Respondus Lockdown browser this late in the game, we need to test that students know how to use the material that they have access to. In the end, it will let students feel less stressed about the exam and disincentivize cheating. 

As Matt Farrell and Shannon Maheu put it in their article, “Why Open-book Tests Deserve a Place in Your Courses,”  “[i]nstead of wasting valuable time to deter cheating, open-book tests shift the onus of responsibility onto the students themselves.”

Open book tests allow students to show how they can locate, understand and synthesize the material they have learned in their classes, without worrying about rote memorization or finding ways to cheat. It promotes students familiarizing themselves with the material and studying applications of it rather than being focused on specific definitions that are not generally as useful after university. 

Of course, for some classes that are already familiar with monitored online tests or that rely heavily on memorization of material, open book testing might not be an acceptable solution. For classes that are application or skill-based, however, open book testing relieves stress on students and examines them on their ability to use the skills they have learned rather than on their ability to cram and temporarily remember information.

Because of all the changes we’ve gone through this semester, we need to get back to the basics. Students need to show they have an understanding of and can apply the course material. Open book tests are a good tool to test for this understanding without adding extra stress to students or professors. 


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