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Do Open Book Tests Deserve a Comeback?

The open book exam, while well-seasoned, is not the most popular method of assessment in modern education. However, with many students enrolled in online learning, does open book testing serve a better or more functional purpose as we advance our testing methods?

In this article, we’ll examine the various pros and cons of considering open book examinations for your classroom and tips on creating a fair test using this method.

What is an open book exam?

There are two types of open-book exams: restricted and unrestricted.

Restricted open book exams limit students to course materials approved by the instructor. This method ensures that all students are reading from the same texts and creates equal opportunities for success. A restricted open book exam also helps prevent cheating or utilizing privileged materials, like previous tests.

Unrestricted open book exams allow students to bring the materials they desire to assist with the exam, but with no specific instructor direction. For example, this open book testing method may permit students to access their written notes, flashcards, previous tests, etc.

Since remote learning makes supervision and restriction a challenge, we recommend using open book exams. An open book exam allows students to access the resources they feel they need without cheating or working around restrictions. Students have access to all their previous assessments with feedback and comments in Crowdmark. When students are not under pressure to retain and regurgitate material, they are more likely to demonstrate personal knowledge and applied concepts.

Student reading a book in a school hallway

Open book tests and remote learning

By providing students with access to curated course materials, instructors can build open book examinations for their remote learning classes that yield similar testing results to traditional closed-book methods.

When designing your open book exam, be sure to keep the following points in mind:

One of the main concerns with testing has always been cheating. Cheating on exams is much easier to manage in a physical setting, as instructors can look for visual cues or restrict students’ access to technology. Unfortunately, no matter what the environment, cheating is all but inevitable: Instead of focussing on preventing cheating, teachers can craft open-book exams that require the student to rely on critical thinking and analysis rather than remembering specific information. An open book exam forces the students to use their logic and apply their knowledge to answer the questions correctly.

Additionally, open book exams teach students how to recall and relay information quickly, which is a beneficial life skill. Using this method, teachers can create an opportunity for students to learn valuable skill sets in an accessible way. Due to the changes in our educational practices and students’ limited access to routine social encounters, providing students with skill-building opportunities is imperative to their success.

Testing anxiety: Open book exams and COVID stress relief

The COVID-19 pandemic created significant change in every industry, and education has been no exception. Instructors are trying their best to limit distance learning effects on mental health, but there’s no denying that students suffer from COVID stress.

One way instructors can help students coping with stress is to administer open book examinations. Open book tests reduce exam anxiety, giving students a safety net to fall back on if they feel overwhelmed. Many students suffer from testing anxiety but feel secure when they know there are resources available. This form of examination helps students feel supported when taking a test or exam and may reduce stress in the learning experience.

If exam anxiety is a reality for your students, considering open book testing as an alternative to traditional testing methods.

Student studying with a laptop and programming textbook

Pros and cons of open book tests in online learning

There is some debate on the efficacy of open book testing, but most instructors agree that these practices have their place in education. Additionally, open book exams may be more or less effective, depending on the course material. If your course is mathematics-based, open book testing can be beneficial – especially when involving complicated formulas.

However, this form of examination might not be best for other areas of study. Here are some general pros and cons of open book examinations.


  • Learning opportunity: Open book exams provide students with a second learning opportunity to absorb and understand the course material. While reading through the textbook for answers, students will gain more knowledge on the subject and better prepare for future examinations and professional development.
  • Less stressful: Open book tests can help ease testing anxiety. Many students suffer from exam anxiety, especially during a time when most other things are already stressful. Having access to course materials during the exam may enhance student performance just by reducing test anxiety. Just knowing that they can jog their memory, or fall back on a resource, might be enough to help a student succeed during an exam.
  • Valuable recall skills: Open book exams teach students practical recall skills, which will help them later in life. The ability to recall and relay information is a crucial skill. Open book testing can help students hone their information recall abilities and utilize them in other aspects of their life.


  • Time-consuming: Students will need to learn better ways to manage their time during exams. Without advance practice, your students may run out of time while writing the test. To prevent this, you will need to distribute test exams or quizzes throughout the course as a training tool.
  • Opportunity gap: Make sure all students have access to the same material. Some students may not have access to the same materials as others (also known as an opportunity gap). Managing students and their materials during the exam may be a blind spot or an additional step to some instructors, making this testing format one that needs an abundance of caution.
  • More preparation: Students may underestimate how much studying they need to do, leading to poor performance during the exam. While the onus is on the student to study, the instructor may feel it’s their burden to prepare students. If a large portion of the class underperforms in the exam, responsibility is on the instructor who facilitated the learning environment and prepped the exam.
Student reading with a pile of books in the library

How to design open book exams for remote learning

  1. Be specific: Write questions that require students to search for the right answers, including specific dates, formulas, etc.
  2. Reading comprehension: Comprehension questions require students to read sections of text and recall information.
  3. Case-based questions: Ask students to apply critical reasoning and explain their understanding of the answer.
  4. Straightforward questions: Write clear and concise questions to limit students’ confusion.
  5. Practical questions: Include questions that require students to use their knowledge and provided text to complete a practical assignment. For example, this can consist of a math equation, a fictional scenario, or even a long-form written answer.

If you’re designing open book examinations for your remote learning class, be sure to read our article on writing exam questions. This article discusses the difference between multiple-choice questions and short answer questions and the best method for evaluating students’ understanding.

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About Crowdmark

Crowdmark is the world’s premiere online grading and analytics platform, allowing educators to evaluate student assessments more effectively and securely than ever before. On average, educators experience up to a 75% productivity gain, providing students with prompt and formative feedback. This significantly enriches the learning and teaching experience for students and educators by transforming assessment into a dialogue for improvement.