Open-book examinations test the analytical skills of students and may help counter malpractice, writes G.MAHADEVAN.

On March 9, a two-member examination malpractice squad of the University of Kerala paid a surprise visit to a college of teacher education at Muthukulam where an examination was in progress. The two Syndicate members were there to verify secret information received by the university that large-scale examination malpractice was taking place at the institution.

The Syndicate members were stunned by the number of chits, sheets of paper and photocopied material that the students had with them. University officials now believe they have never before seized this much material from one examination centre. The squad seized the answer scripts of 24 students. What made the situation irony-laden was that the students were appearing for the M.Ed. examinations. Had they passed the examination without being caught, they would have been qualified to train persons to become teachers.

In 2012 alone, the University of Kerala caught more than 600 students for examination malpractice. The fact that so many students attempt malpractice, despite being aware of the stringent punishment it fetches, indicates a deep-set rot in the examination system of the university. Of course, it goes without saying that other universities in the State are in the grip of this problem.

What can be done to tackle this pervasive problem? Would the introduction of an “open-book” examination system be at least a partial solution to the “chits” menace? It may well be.

As the name suggests, an open-book examination permits a student to carry pre-specified material inside the examination hall. In an unrestricted open book examination, the student will, in fact, be allowed to carry any material he or she chooses. Straightaway, the need to carry any concealed “chit” is negated. The stigma currently associated with referring to material inside the examination hall will no longer be there.

Academics who spoke to The Hindu-EducationPlus on this issue, however, caution that the introduction of such a system is not as simple as allowing students to have books when writing an examination.

An open-book examination will at the outset mean an end to the present manner in which question papers are set. Many academics agree that the present system overwhelmingly favours a testing of the students’ memory. Very few question papers — if at all — sport questions that require a candidate to apply four or five principles on to a given problem and come up with an analytical answer.

“Teachers will have to work much harder to come up with questions that can test the intelligence and analytical skills of a student. They can no longer merely ask for a definition or for the mechanical application of a formula. In short, there needs to be a drastic reorientation on the part of teachers as to what an examination actually is,” V. Prasannnakumar, Professor of Geology and Director, Research, at the University of Kerala, says.

For an open-book examination, the paradigm of evaluation needs to change. The skills that need to be present in a student sitting for a particular examination and his or her ability to process different strands of data and synthesis them to form a cogent answer need to be clearly defined, graded and allotted weight.

Moreover, given a near-total lack of any known, structured research into the merits or otherwise of the open-book examination system in Kerala, it is not immediately clear whether such a system will lend itself to all subjects and to examinations at all levels.

“The open-book system can be taken up as an experiment for some internal examination,” Jacob Tharu, retired Professor at the English and Foreign Languages University, says. “This may not be a comprehensive answer to examination malpractice but it would definitely help in a big way.”

In 2010, the Jacob Tharu committee on examination reforms, set up by the Kerala State Higher Education Council, had, among other things, recommended a partial open-book examination system for universities in Kerala. The suggestions included a clear statement from every board of study on what they expect a student to learn from the syllabus and on the learning outcomes for each course, modular question papers framed by a team of setters, separate answer booklets for different types of questions and the video recording of all examinations. Though the HEC and the then LDF government endorsed the recommendations of the committee, no follow-up action was taken.

Dr. Prasannakumar is among those academics who agree that the open book system can be piloted for mid-semester examinations in a few departments in each university. “That way, we can find out whether it works for us or not. Right now we only have some theoretical knowledge and hearsay about how this system works in distant universities. If it does not work for us, we can decide to drop the whole idea,” he says.

That, perhaps, is a more pressing problem; the fact that policymakers are not engaging with the need for examination reforms. That perhaps is more damaging in the long run than 600-plus students being caught for examination malpractice.