Let's Talk About: Open-Notebook Exams

smccormack
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Last summer I instituted open-notebook exams in my introductory-level history courses. Previously I had relied on traditional practices: a mix of essays and objective questions for which students had to be well-versed in a half-semester’s worth of material. I was, however, increasingly concerned about the low grades that students, especially those in their first-year, were earning on exams that required memorization. The fact that many of our current first-year students had at least some period of remote learning during COVID, during which it's possible they were not required to prepare for closed book/notes exams further encouraged me to try some alternative practices aimed at improving student outcomes.

 

My goal was to focus my students’ attention on note taking with the idea that this skill is one that can and is used in virtually every professional career. As I was writing this blog, for example, I unscientifically polled friends – a banker, a sales professional, and two personal trainers – all of whom confirmed that they take notes every day while they work. Sometimes on paper, but more often using cell phones or even napkins. As professionals they have learned that there are key stats/terms/ideas that they need to be able to reference at a later time and they acknowledge that their memory is often flawed. Notes trigger memory and, in the case of my students, I hope that their notes connect them to the discussions we had in class days/weeks after, which would enable more success on exams. [FYI: For more on the topic of linking professional skills to open-note exams, see Carol E. Holstead’s piece “In Praise of Open-Note Exams” in The Chronicle of Higher Education (5 September 2023)]

 

I’m now in my second full semester of open notebook exams with my US History I and II students. Each week I distribute a handout to guide student note-taking: key terms, images/maps from lecture, and sometimes definitions or references to place in the textbook that I think are particularly helpful. I also invite a professional from our college Tutoring Center to meet with the class during the first two weeks to offer support for note-taking skills/guidance. 

 

Admittedly I have not yet done any statistical analysis of students’ test results, though I have witnessed first hand the reduction in stress level as we get closer to exams. I have also discovered that the open-notebook exams policy created an avenue for me to regularly address the importance of taking notes in class. This past week, for example, during a particularly complicated discussion about politics in the Progressive Era I noticed several students not taking notes. I took a few moments at the end of class to discuss with the class what specific information they felt was important from my lecture and what they had written down. I pointed out some details that I hoped they had recorded, and suggested that they share their notes with a classmate after our meeting to ensure that they were not missing any key information. Several students stayed after class to ask me questions and to clarify their notes. 

 

This change from memory-based to notes-based exams has been small but so far meaningful. The greatest challenge for me, however, has been determining what kinds of questions work best for open-note exams. Doing some basic internet searches on open-notes exams has shown me that, like everything else in the field of education, there is no consensus on what works best with students. I would love to hear from colleagues in the Macmillan Community about what kinds of questions have worked best in open-notes exams. 

 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.