Have you ever written an open book or take-home examination?

A couple of weeks ago I had given my students a take-home test. As is usually the case with take-home examinations and tests, the questions were designed in a way such that the answers would not be readily available from any single text or source. Since the test was not monitored in any way, it was understood that students could refer to any relevant material as they worked on the answers. They would have to read across the course material, think about the issues and topics covered in the course, and apply their own ideas to the questions before they could come up with answers. The questions themselves were fairly open-ended, and as such, did not have any one “correct” answer.

Students had varied reactions to the test. A few were excited at the possibility of such open-endedness. Others were apprehensive and a little nervous, not able to pinpoint exactly what was required to provide an acceptable answer, worried about what would be considered “right” or “wrong”. Above all, they seemed to be overly concerned with what might be expected instead of (as I had hoped) being challenged the prospect of being able to give answers that did not fit into any prescribed mold.

As we progress through higher levels of education, we need to develop the ability to tackle a variety of question formats and test patterns. We’re all comfortable with questions that relate to content, which test our recall of information. We are also familiar with questions that present a problem requiring a solution based on principles we have learned. Then there are those other, fuzzier, questions that draw on a combination of information recall and critical thinking, which demand that we draw not only on what has been taught overtly in a course, but also on a broader understanding of issues and also our own experience. Obviously, these questions do not have a single correct answer. They may be answered from a variety of perspectives and bring in widely divergent pieces of information.

Is it fun?

When faced with such a question, it is important to take some time to understand its purpose and scope. How open-ended is it really? What is the framework within which it has been asked? Are you expected to show how much you understand of the area or how well you are able to apply your understanding to a given situation or problem? Does the question allow you some space to explore your own thoughts in relation to the subject or topic? Does the question force you to ask more questions of your own?

I often tell my students to “have fun” with an assignment or a test. Most of the time, they look at me strangely, thinking, I am sure, how examinations could be even remotely enjoyable! I’m quite aware that tests and examinations are not meant to be “fun” in the conventional sense—they are, more often than not, pure tedium or drudgery. You sit in that stuffy hall in high summer sweating out every law and principle you’ve learned, trying to convince an unknown examiner that you know enough to get you to the next level. But once in a while you have a creatively designed test that actually engages and challenges you—in a way that assignments in life might. When you do come across questions like that, then you can actually have a bit of fun.

It’s about seeing for yourself if you are good enough to get to the next level. It’s up to you to set the boundaries of the answer (within reasonable limits of course) and think in unexpected ways. In fact, that is the only expectation—that you will do the unexpected.

The author teaches at the University of Hyderabad and edits Teacher Plus magazine.

Email: usha.raman@gmail.com