A Letter to Professors: College Exams Should Be Open Note

If online classes taught me anything, it’s that closed note tests are pointless. Before COVID pushed all of my classes to Zoom, I was accustomed to the typical test-taking style, where I would try to memorize all of the information that I’d expect to show up on my midterm or final. Every once in a while, an especially kind professor in a math based class would allow us to bring in a list of formulas, but outside of that, the standard was total memorization. But, being online meant a lot of professors couldn’t keep track of people’s resources at home, so many of my classes developed an open-note policy.

And that’s when I realized: closed-note testing is pointless, and open note testing is a way better style. Consider this an open note to all professors explaining why all tests should be… open note

They Won't Create Unneeded Anxiety

Studying for an open note test is significantly more approachable than studying for a closed note exam. High levels of stress can actually worsen our academic performance, so even if we’re intelligent and pay attention in class, just the stress of an exam can end up getting us a bad grade.

Open note exams allow us to review and focus on absorbing the material, knowing we have the safety of falling back on our prepared notes. It doesn’t mean we don’t study, it just means we aren’t panicking trying to memorize details that may not even be necessary. Even a study guide may not prevent us from over-focusing on the wrong sections of material–that’s not reflective of a lack of preparation, but still results in high levels of stress when we’re taking a test without notes.

Studying is Still Necessary

I’ll admit that I originally thought open-note meant I didn’t need to prepare. I was wrong.

Open note exams don’t mean we can get away without studying– trust me, your students will quickly realize this. Plus, tests have a time limit, so there has to be a foundation of knowledge before we sit to take it. Open note exams encourage us to take a different approach to studying that’s tailored to the class.

We won’t be sitting there stressing over the little details and wasting our own time. Instead, we learn that to do well on a test, we should create a guide specific to that class based on our professor’s methods. Maybe it’s a sheet of formulas, or a mind map with connections between key concepts, but the reality is that without preparation, a good grade is no guarantee. 

Memorization Doesn’t Prove Understanding

Regurgitating memorized facts doesn’t really prove anything about our actual understanding of the material. C’mon, we all know this.

Yes, obviously for efficiency’s sake some things need to be memorized, but memorization does not equate to understanding. Knowledge of facts is useful, but if we don’t understand how to apply factual concepts, what’s the point?

The point of a test is to prove we learned something and that we understand class concepts, so instead of making us freak out over memorizing facts, let us show you that we actually get the material.

They’re Meaningful Demonstrations of Academic Growth

Let me make a case to really appeal to professors here: access to all of our resources means you have better opportunities to test us based on holistic understanding.

As one teacher points out in an argument for open note testing, questions on an open note test can show a students ability to “search for and identify relevant data, to evaluate the credibility of sources, and to assemble disparate pieces of information into a coherent argument.”

This article isn’t an argument to make tests easier. I understand we’re being tested for a reason. If we have our notes, you as a professor can actually make us show our understanding of class material in a more productive way.

They’re Better Proof of Real World Skills

Isn’t college supposed to be preparing us for the real world and our real career? Not much about a closed note test reflects what the real world is like.

A professor at Tufts University points out that with open note testing, “instructors can more effectively gauge a student’s proficiency in a field by measuring their true fluency in a subject rather than their ability to recall vast reserves of information in a 90-minute period — a scenario with limited analogues in the professional world.”

Out in the open, we have access to all types of resources: the internet, books, our coworkers, anything we can get ahold of is something we can use. In fact, we’re likely expected to use more than just our memories on a real world project because anything less would be impractical.

The best form of teaching is to create an environment that reflects the environment we’re being taught to enter.

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    Professors: Sometimes, the traditional way isn’t necessarily the best way. Closed note tests in college at this point just seem meaningless, and good or bad grades on these types of tests won’t actually tell you whether your class is doing well.

    Try this method out and see how it goes. At worst, students won’t study and they’ll realize on their own that open note doesn’t mean easy. At best, you’ll see your students rise to the challenge with the reduction of unneeded pressure and show you how much they’ve learned in a practical sense. 

    Students: I mostly directed this to professors, but this is a student-centric website. So, if you’re reading this, consider sharing this with your professors. Start a movement or something! Isn’t that what college students are supposed to do?

    Want More?

    How to Study for Open Note Exams

    Memorizing vs. Understanding

    Why Take an Open Note Test?

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