Open-book exams as an assessment tool in higher education

A look at the benefits of and challenges in adopting an open-book exam pattern in institutions of higher education

March 16, 2024 09:51 pm | Updated 09:51 pm IST

An open-book exam inculcates ownership of learning and eventually promotes students’ thinking rather than memorising

An open-book exam inculcates ownership of learning and eventually promotes students’ thinking rather than memorising | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockPhoto

Post-COVID, new methods of teaching and learning have opened up in India. Online education using appropriate technology has come to stay, though there are operational challenges with regard to mindsets of teachers and students and the preparedness in terms of resources, systems and technology. While changes and reforms being made in the teaching-learning process, efforts are also being made to facilitate learning through designing and implementing suitable assessments.

One such method that institutions and educators are exploring is open-book assessment in the conviction that it will be stress-free and serve the purpose of testing critical thinking and application. The All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), in its Examination Reform Policy of November 2018, advocated for the adoption of open-book exams in higher education institutions (HEIs) to test higher order thinking skills such as application, analysis, and evaluation, as indicated in Bloom’s Taxonomy, and eventually help students improve their creative ability and innovative skills while learning.

Context and relevance

Open-book exam is a well-proven procedure that evokes learning most constructively, and allows students to use multiple resources to achieve the desired level of proficiency at a reduced level of stress and anxiety. This inculcates ownership of learning and eventually promotes students’ thinking rather than memorising. Furthermore, it provides increased opportunities for self-awareness and self-evaluation, and prepares students for life by facilitating practice opportunities where all cognitive domains of Bloom’s Taxonomy can be integrated into problem-solving similar to those encountered in real situations.

But it is essential that both teachers and students understand what an open-book assessment entails. Here, the questions are framed so that the students cannot simply refer to their study material and pick out answers. Instead, they are required to process the available information, interpret and draw inferences, and write their responses based on their understanding of the concepts. This cannot be achieved on the spot but requires thorough preparation over time. Students have to work hard and prepare in such a way that they not only develop a thorough understanding of the concepts but can also critically analyse it and apply the learning in a different context.


Orienting, training, and preparing teachers for the conduct of open-book examinations are a challenge for HEIs. Designing the question paper can be difficult and time consuming as questions need to assess the skills of inferring ideas, application of knowledge, and comprehension and critical thinking skills. This requires a mindset change to make the procedure effective.

Teachers should know that an open-book examination works better when answers cannot be readily extracted from materials, text, and reference books during the test. Students should not have a false perception that such a test will be easy and that they will be able to find the answers in textbooks without any preparation. Another presumed risk is that the students will stop studying and copy from the open books provided at the hall.

At a macro level, the students’ demographic characteristics need to be considered from an empathetic angle. Given the socio-economic disparity that exists between rural and urban students, access to the Internet, reference books, and other relevant learning materials is not equal. This can create an inequitable situation, as some books are very expensive and beyond the reach of some. An open-book exam also requires a spacious hall to provide enough space to store all the material and, in rare circumstances, to consult with the instructor during the exam.

Conducting such an exam requires considerable thought, beginning from curriculum design and development, its suitability to the nature and type of courses, re-arrangement of examination halls and seating arrangements during examinations. These challenges can be mitigated provided administrators, teachers and students understand the importance of this procedure and help one another by unlearning certain biases in order to reap the real harvest of learning, which is developing higher order thinking skills rather than knowledge recall.

The writer is Professor of Management, Sri Ramachandra Institute of Higher Education and Research (Deemed to be University), Chennai. Email:

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