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Be open to open book exams

Illustration: J.A. Premkumar  

The dawn of the New Year fills most students with anxiety and stress as the annual examinations are fast approaching.

To a large extent, exams in India test only memory power, and hence the dread. Even if a teacher or parent tries to promote learning by exploration, experimentation and enjoyment, students have eventually to yield to rote learning, as exam results are treated as the only benchmark to identify one’s potential in the country.

The result speaks for itself. Every year we produce millions of unemployable graduates and thousands of engineers. In short, we are dispersing mark sheets but no knowledge.

Same menu every year

One of the biggest reasons for this quagmire is the lethargy and intellectural bankruptcy in setting question papers that will test a student’s knowledge and reasoning and analytical abilities. The paper setter usually picks up ready-made questions from highly circulated textbooks and these questions or their clones are repeated each year with astonishing regularity. It is no surprise that the markets are flooded with question banks, which guarantee pass marks.

If it is, however, an open-book examination, the paper setter will have to employ immense imagination, creativity and conceptual clarity. The question paper has to be designed to test a student’s ability in solving problems by understanding what is to be done, where the resource for this has to be sought and how these are to be used. Ultimately, this is what education is supposed to be — to enable students to face real-life problems with the limited resources available. Open-book examinations, apart from getting rid of stress, will obviate cheating.

There are few such reforms that can be implemented without additional financial liability or legislative conflict. Though only a simple executive decision is required to change the examination pattern, it’s baffling to see that the status quo persists. The idea of open-book examinations is not entirely new to the country. While the Gujarat State Board had a limited experiment, Karnataka too thought about implementing it in primary and middle classes. The detractors somehow had their way, and the experiments died prematurely.

Open-book examinations are opposed on multiple grounds. Prominent among them is that students and teachers will become casual in studies with no “fear of exams”. This argument is based on the premise that instead of memorising, students will simply copy from books. However, an open-book examination implies an overhaul of the pattern in which questions are formulated, so that answering each of them requires application of mind. It is found that open-book examinations are tougher as they demand a comprehensive understanding of the subject. Anyone who has not studied the textbook and has not grasped the concepts will keep searching and shuffling pages without any benefit.

Undesirable memorising

Another reason for opposition is that it will dampen the memorising capabilities of children and have a detrimental impact on their performance in competitive examinations. It is a matter of research whether examination patterns determine our memory power. Further, the desirability of memorising information which is otherwise available instantly is questionable.

The All India Council for Technical Education has now taken the lead and decided to adopt open-book examinations gradually for engineering courses.

Will just changing the exam pattern cure the ills of the education system? Certainly not.

A lot depends on how teachers, parents and students perceive this change.

Discarding rote learning and emphasising analytical reasoning will demand a radical shift in the way teachers and students interact. Teachers themselves have to be conceptually clear and must be trained to engage with students in a manner that sparks their curiosity. Given the present state of human resource where there is a stark gap in quality teachers available for the poor, introduction of open-book examinations can be blamed for creating another level of inequality.

We need to reform the education system to prepare our future generation for the technical, economic and emotional challenges that lie ahead. Open-book examinations are just a stepping stone in this direction.

The writer is an IAS officer. Views are personal

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 7:09:45 PM |

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