Open online exams: off the beaten track

Published on 08 Jul 2021

Every online exam is an open book exam. That may sound resolute, but considering all the resources that are available online to students taking their exams in their own home, it is very likely that students will try to look up information during the exam. You can take measures to try to prevent cheating, but these tend to be stressful for the students and perhaps only encourage them to find different ways to cheat. A more robust way to neutralise the problem is to turn this weakness into a strength, and embrace the internet and other sources of information in your exam.

Scenarios for online exams 

The faculties of Psychology & Neurosciences (FPN), Law (FL), and Arts & Social Sciences (FASoS) decided in March 2020 not to use proctoring. At FASoS and FL most exams consisted of open book exams with essay questions that could relatively easily be changed to a take home format, but at FPN a more radical change had to be made to ‘online proof’ exams that used to require the supervision of invigilators.

The main change that was made was to shift the focus of the exams to questions that assess application and understanding. The online open book exams use questions that require students to use their course materials and look up new information on the Internet. They then combine this information and apply it to a new case or situation in their own words. This format can be used for a variety of situations, although it is harder to use in entry-level courses that aim to test reproduction of knowledge. The first scenario that often comes to mind is to use open-ended questions, but you can certainly use closed question types to test application and understanding just as well. An example of a more unconventional setup is to have the students design multiple-choice exam questions, including an explanation for each answer option.

At the same time, a number of options were used to discourage cheating. Each exam starts with a declaration of academic integrity. Another method that was used is the ‘callback’, where a random sample of students gets a call after the exam to discuss their answers. The answers to open-ended questions were checked for plagiarism to ensure that each student handed in their own work. For statistics, the multiple-choice exam was randomised to the point that each student had a unique version of the exam.

The combination of these options seems to be effective: in an initial evaluation the test results give no indication of large-scale fraud being committed.


The pros and cons

All of this is not easy to accomplish. Redesigning exams takes a lot of effort, time and consideration, and these are often not in large supply, even without a pandemic going on. Equally important is that faculty leadership dedicated resources to facilitate this redesign. Using more open-ended questions meant that extra staff was required for grading. In some cases -where the new exam design meant that it was harder to differentiate between grades- the grading scale was changed to a pass or fail. This meant that adjustments to the records in SAP were necessary. In all, it took time and a lot of effort to get the job done.

The cost of designing online open book exams is considerable, but so are the benefits. If you used a test matrix to create individual versions of your exam, you can use this for the resits as well. Focusing on questions that test students’ ability to apply knowledge and find new sources can make the assessment more authentic, since this format allows you to design exams that resemble the way a future employer will want them to use their knowledge.

Surveys show that the students feel that this way of assessment is a better fit with the course material, and they feel more challenged. At the same time, the pass/fail grades took away some of the pressure to achieve, although there was some disappointment among students who value a high GPA. A practical benefit for the students is that, as opposed to a proctored exam, an open online exam is easy to access, which allows the students to focus on the questions and the content of the exam itself.

In all, the online open book format offers the opportunity to really get creative and develop authentic exams that make the students feel more challenged. This takes a lot of time and concerted effort, especially to achieve this in times of crisis, but the benefits are there for the long term.

Author: Tineke de Beaumont, coordinator digital exams at UM (DEXUM)


This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.


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Library update

Last updated: 08/07/21

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