Opinion: Open Book Exams are Better than Closed Book Exams

Any college student who has opened an exam on Canvas or been given a paper exam in a classroom knows the gut-wrenching feeling of being underprepared, or simply anxious to do well. There are many benefits to open book exams as opposed to closed book exams. 


The problem with closed book exams is that they instill a sense of panic into the student. Perhaps their hands begin to sweat, or their heart begins to race as they try to recall the answer to the first question on an exam worth 25 percent of their final grade. Closed book exams do not help a student who has a fear of exams. If a student knows they can turn to their book for a brief brush up, or to double-check their answers, the student will feel more at ease and will likely perform better on the exam.

Timed Exams on Canvas

Being rushed during an exam does not help a student’s final grade. If an exam is timed, that can make an already anxious student feel more pressure, which leads to feeling even more panicked and strapped for time. As that timer on Canvas ticks down, the reminders that pop up every so often of the amount of time left before the exam is submitted can be enough to push a student over the edge, especially if they are running short on time. However, if a student knows they can quickly refer to their notes or textbook, then that can be very helpful and reduce the amount of stress the student feels, even as those pesky reminders pop up to remind you that your time is ticking. 

Word Count

If a student knows the answer to a question but the question requires a certain number of words or pages, then it is helpful to be able to refer to the book for quotes, if it is allowed. While quote-heavy answers are oftentimes not what the professor is looking for, a few words, or even a few sentences can be all the difference between a passing or failing grade. 

Lack of Preparedness 

Another positive aspect to allowing students to refer to their books is during unexpected quizzes. If a student spent all night studying for another class or writing a 10-page paper, they may not have had time to read 5 chapters before class the next day. It is not lack of planning or lack of dedication to their degree, it’s just how college is sometimes, especially during midterms and finals. Having the option to refer to a textbook (or even to notes) can be very beneficial during unexpected quizzes, or for students who are genuinely underprepared for an exam. College is well known for cramming for exams, and open book exams can lessen the need for pulling all-nighters or developing crippling caffeine addictions. 

Cumulative Exams

It is challenging to remember everything you have learned over the last 10 weeks of a class. If an exam is cumulative, then being able to refer to notes or a textbook is a great way to remember something you learned clear back at the start of a new term.  In a challenging class, sometimes it’s all a student can do to get their work done each week, let alone remember everything they have learned. 

Open Book Does Not Mean “Easier.” 

An open book exam does not mean the exam is easier. If you did not do the assigned reading for a class all term, then you will not understand what you are reading. Turning to the book for help will not be beneficial for students who put off reading until the day before an exam. Many professors structure their classes to “build” on information from the previous weeks. Students can be mistaken when they see that an exam is open book, so they spend less time on the class because they are under the impression that they can just use the book during the exam and pass it. However, if the exam is in an essay format, simply finding the definition to a key term or concept will not be enough to fulfill an essay-style exam. 

The benefits to Closed Book Exams

While many students prefer open book exams, there are some benefits to closed book exams. One benefit is that open book exams usually result in higher grades, as the student has been better prepared for the exam through dedicating enough time to studying the course material, as well as completing the weekly assigned reading. Another advantage of closed book exams over open book is that the professor is able to better judge that their students have learned the material, and met the anticipated outcomes for the course. With closed book exams, students can also better gage their own learning and knowledge within a specific course or subject area. 

Open book exams, while they are not the most common, have their perks in comparison to closed book exams. For busy students, or those who have a fear of failing exams in general, open book exams and tests make all the difference. While closed book exams force a student to dedicate enough time to their class, not all college students are solely focused on their classes. College students can (and often do) work full-time jobs, raise families, and juggle many day-to-day demands, all while getting themselves through school, one class at a time.

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