Goodbye memorisation, hello open-book test

Claudia Janeth Hernández Cardona offers practical advice on using open-book tests in our student evaluations

Claudia Janeth Hernández Cardona's avatar
27 Sep 2023
bookmark plus
  • Top of page
  • Main text
  • More on this topic
Student doing open-book test at home

Created in partnership with

Created in partnership with

Technologico de Monterrey

You may also like

Open-book assessments: dos and don’ts that foster good practice
Open-book exam

I remember during my time as a college student when the teacher announced we would have an open-book test. This is a test in which the student can use study materials such as textbooks, notes and so on. This type of test is probably one of the least used by teachers, as it involves breaking a paradigm regarding test-taking and knowledge demonstration.

Of course, I thought that having access to all my notes and books would be a great advantage, but it wasn’t what I expected. While taking the test, I realised I’d underestimated the amount of information I would have to consult in such a short time. I also underlined and annotated my books in such a way that it was challenging to find the information I needed quickly.


Instead of feeling relaxed and confident, I felt overwhelmed and stressed by the amount of information available to me. I spent most of the time looking for information instead of answering the questions. Ultimately, I didn’t do as well as I’d expected and learned that (1) having too much information is not always an advantage, and (2) knowing how to organise and thus access said information is essential when time is limited.

Why use it in our classes?

My experience made me reflect on the benefits of these classroom evaluations. Unlike traditional tests, open-book tests require applying skills other than memorisation, such as information searching and application in specific situations.

With well-crafted questions such tests can assess capacity to apply knowledge to specific situations, aid problem-solving, evaluate cognitive and critical reasoning skills and test whether students can search for quality information by choosing the most appropriate sources.

These tests are often a new experience for students who, after taking them, are often surprised, since they are not the kind of tests they’re used to. This is why many students, at first, wrongly presume that being able to check their textbook during the test means they need to do little or no preparation.

How to design an open-book test

When designing this type of test, consider the following recommendations:

− Review the objectives you wish to evaluate.

− Define the number of questions, considering the objectives, contents and time to complete the test.

Design questions that involve high-level skills, conceptualisation, problem solving and reasoning.

− When crafting the question/s, use direct verbs to clearly state the type of thinking and content the answer requires

− Avoid multiple-choice questions. Instead, use questions that encourage students to make judgements and demonstrate deep understanding of and applications for a topic. For example, we could enquire about possible outcomes by asking: “What would have happened if XXXX?” To analyse connections, you can ask: “What is the relationship between A and B?” In addition, to incentivise contextualisation and real-world solutions/applications, you can ask them: “What examples can you find of XXXX?” These kinds of questions challenge their memories and engage their critical and analytical thinking skills. The questions we come up with will be the axis that will determine if this type of evaluation will be meaningful or not.

Before conducting an open-book test, it’s crucial to follow a few recommendations to ensure a just and effective evaluation experience for students. First, invite students to study the contents with higher relevance. Also, be sure to specify which materials they will be allowed to use during the test, such as notes or specific textbooks, and disclose the duration. If the open-book test is carried out online, search for speciality software to prevent fraud. For example, TestWe takes temporary control of the PC and prevents other people from taking over remotely.

Following these recommendations will ensure a successful application, allowing students to demonstrate their understanding and application of the knowledge they’ve acquired throughout the course.

In our daily practice and lives, we often face different situations and naturally look up information to deal with them. Thus, open-book tests are extremely helpful when the main objective is to evaluate the students’ ability to analyse and evaluate information. It’s not about replacing traditional testing but complementing our teaching practice with these strategies.

Claudia Janeth Hernández Cardona is a pedagogical architect, educational innovation and digital learning, at Monterrey Institute of Technology, Mexico.

If you would like advice and insight from academics and university staff delivered direct to your inbox each week, sign up for the THE Campus newsletter.


You may also like

sticky sign up

Register for free

and unlock a host of features on the THE site