I teach undergraduate level courses in the humanities. Following practice in my department, I have let students take their texts for consultation during their written exams. They can choose a number of questions they want to answer from a set of questions. After a few semesters, I have begun questioning the validity of such an approach.

I usually had one exam in this form and one final essay in the end of the semester. The issue is, although the subject dealt with in the first part of the course is more or less objective, I find students "copying" my classes much more than using the texts to answer the questions. A complicating factor is that most students cannot presumably understand the material, available only in English. To make it clear, most of my students cannot read English (I could mention the material is not available at the library, but that is another matter). And it is a required course.

What bothers me is that with this approach I cannot, as suspected, measure the level of understanding of the students. Some of the questions deal with very basic issues and concepts. Even then, the overall level of reading, understanding, and writing, as evidenced by their exams and final essays, is very low.

I have thought about changing the syllabus next semester, to one exam (without consultation), perhaps another exam and the final written assignment, but I am quite unsure of the results. Perhaps a lot of students will fail.

Am I too concerned, or is this the way to go?

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    There is something I don't quite understand here: Are you saying that the texts for the course are only in english, and that many of the students are not able to read and understand english? Mar 5, 2014 at 13:59
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    My belief has been: if your exam allows people to bring the text, then the questions should never be answerable by just looking at the text. If they actually can just copy their way out of it, it's likely the problem of the questions, not the format. Mar 5, 2014 at 17:35
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    IMHO a proper test should be one that student who doesn't understand the material can't answer even by using their notes + textbook + google. I.e., it should ask to demonstrate competence in some skill and/or application of that knowledge, instead of simply remembering and repeating what was read or heard. If people are failing fact questions because of a lack of understanding English - then that is a problem already in the learning part, maybe distributing 'cheatsheets' with translations of all the key terminology can help?
    – Peteris
    Mar 5, 2014 at 21:36
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    To quote one of my undergrad profs: "Open book exams are bad, because the answers are never in the book. Unlimited time exams are bad because you never finish. Take home exams are bad because you forget where you live."
    – JeffE
    Mar 5, 2014 at 23:22
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    @BenCrowell, Your usage of "goofy" and "unusual" is contemptuous and passes judgment on a situation you don't know. I wish I had an alternative. I was hired to teach a subject for which there is no translation available in my country. As I said, students were supposed to read in English. Should I just jump off the boat? I don't think so. Neither should I try to reform the university or the educational system.
    – user12512
    Mar 6, 2014 at 21:45

11 Answers 11


I am in mathematics, so my experience will be different from yours. What I have found with tests on which I have allowed students to use their text or notes is that the students have not prepared as well as they should have, and waste a lot of time looking for things in their notes. Ultimately, they end up doing worse, as a class, than they usually would. Now, in math we have a lot less material for a test than in, say, history or political science, so there may be some legitimate reasons for allowing the students to consult other sources during an exam, but I do not recall ever being allowed to do so in the humanities courses I took as an undergraduate (mainly in political science and diplomatic history). I think a significant component of a college level education is learning how to absorb, and synthesize, relatively large amounts of material. So, my students have only their own brains to consult during an exam.

  • I don't recall having ever done an exam like that in my undergraduate years, either; maybe only in exceptional cases. That is what baffles me. And there was a lot of material -- political science, international relations, economy, law, history. Maybe I could just accept that standards are lower now that I work at another institution?
    – user12512
    Mar 5, 2014 at 18:55
  • There should be 1 mock exam, before each exam where students are allowed to use their resources, as long as they make no sound(other than opening pages). Might get your students to actually read and not sleep.
    – GlassGhost
    Mar 6, 2014 at 19:25
  • Also allowing a cheat sheet(3x5inch card or B6 in metric) to be brought to THE exam; Negates any right for your students to complain. Also, Your student might actually produce content, YOU may learn from your students when reading their cards.
    – GlassGhost
    Mar 6, 2014 at 19:33
  • In my undergrad mathematics (40 years ago), any kind of reference, even a cheat sheat was generally forbidden. But at the same time, my engineering colleagues never had an exam that was not "open book". Their principle was that those references exist for a reason, and you had better have them available when you go out into the wide world. That said, "learning how to ... synthesize" is exactly what you need to be able to extract the answers from a textbook. And if your students do worse when it's open book, they haven't learned that very well.
    – Auspex
    Sep 10, 2018 at 13:55

I take a compromise approach to the problem of bringing materials to an exam. I allow students to bring one or two sheets' worth of notes that they have prepared themselves. No magnifying glasses or other "reading aids" other than standard prescription glasses are allowed, so they can't simply photoreduce a whole bunch of pages and then use it—it's something they have to hand write or copy themselves.

Such an approach forces students to prepare the material, but still gives them some flexibility not to have to commit everything to memory (Is that sign positive or negative? Is that denominator regular volume or molar volume?).

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    In my undergraduate abstract algebra course, we were allowed one sheet of paper, both sides. I was able to copy every definition and theorem, some proofs, and several homework solutions onto my paper, yet still had half of one side unused. I know this because I still have the paper and just looked at it. I am much older now, but could still read it with no problem. As I recall, I rarely referred to it during the exam, but the point remains that I had significant resources available to me. I'm not sure this is a good thing. Mar 5, 2014 at 18:20
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    This is very much a course-specific issue. In some courses, it's much less useful than others. However, as I mentioned, the point of the exercise is to make the students review the material, as they need to decide what's important for them to have "cold" and what they can look up. I'd rather the students know how to use the formulas, equations, and definitions, rather than just being able to write them down.
    – aeismail
    Mar 5, 2014 at 18:44
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    I use the same strategy, without the proscription against magnifying glasses. At least twice, I have seen students bring 50 pages of lecture notes and homework solutions, reduced to two 5x5 grids on either side of their single double-sided "cheat sheet". Neither student did well.
    – JeffE
    Mar 5, 2014 at 23:25
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    @MilesRout: What I meant is it's not important for me that the students have memorized the formula, so long as they use it correctly.
    – aeismail
    Mar 6, 2014 at 13:13
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    +1, one of my math professors allowed to bring 10 pages of handwritten notes, and actually writing these was one of the best things to do in preparation of the exam...
    – silvado
    Mar 6, 2014 at 20:24

I would ask that the teachers try to also be understandable for those of us with testing anxiety. I was always very thankful to have notes or the text with me during tests because it allowed me to relax some and actually be able to focus when answering questions without fear of forgetting some small detail. I also found that I prepared more when allowed to bring notes because I took time creating them which made my foundation of that knowledge stronger. When I didn't have notes, all bets were off.

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    This, definitely. Books and notes are so helpful to students who know the material but become anxious in timed exams, or who know the material but don't have a good memory for details. Books and notes don't help students who don't know the material (assuming the exam actually tests mastery of the material). I can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to help the students in the former category do well.
    – ff524
    Mar 5, 2014 at 23:49
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    Testing anxiety is, unfortunately, something that people just need to get over.
    – user12726
    Mar 6, 2014 at 12:57
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    @ff524 I really agree with this and disagree with Miles Rout. "Test anxiety" doesn't necessarily mimic problems people face in their future careers. "Something they need to get over" I would ask "Why?" Mar 8, 2014 at 0:09

The real question is what you're attempting to test.

If the proposed notes are material which the students are going to need "off the cuff" -- data and operations which are absolutely basic to the discipline they're learning -- then it makes sense to test whether they have memorized it, since consulting reference materials every time will slow them down too drastically for them to work productively at the next level up.

If they're material which a practitioner will generally not have memorized and will look up anyway, then it isn't unreasonable to make references available to the students... while pointing out that being able to work without the hardcopy references will let them solve the problems faster and with more confidence and thus may improve their grades.

Note that these cases presume two very different sets of exam questions.


Usually exams that allow the students to use their text materials is because of the density of the topics. I mean there is a lot of material to be covered and for that reason not easy to memorize, or in some cases it is futile to make the student to remember some specific topics (like in my field of CS).

For what I see the students prefer to paraphrase your material instead of what is covered in the text book; that could be a direct consequence that they find the questions in the exam too easy to answer, and with the answers directly related to your material. In this situation what I do recommend is to twist the difficulty a little bit higher, so you can force that the student has read the material from the book beforehand; and also that can show that he or she knows the basics.

In general it is not bad to let students to use textbooks during the exam, the bad thing is not to adequately tune the difficulty of the exam.

Good luck!

Side note: English is almost a universal language and it must be a prerequisite before following some courses. In any case if they are too lazy to learn a new language then try to get translated copies of the required textbooks (or just prepare one for your own).

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    “English is almost a universal language” and “they are too lazy to learn a new language” is a bit offensive. Many people don't speak it very well and learning a language is not easy. You might very well decide that it's not your job to accommodate people who are struggling with the language but you can't assume that everybody in the world speaks English and that those who don't are lazy people.
    – Relaxed
    Mar 5, 2014 at 20:34
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    Many people don't speak it very well and learning a language is not easy — With all due respect, so what? Calculus isn't easy, either, and many people don't know it very well. But any upper-division engineering course requires fluency in calculus, and it's unreasonable to expect instructors to make significant accommodations for student who lack that fluency.
    – JeffE
    Mar 5, 2014 at 23:29
  • @JeffE, just a side comment, those students did pass through an English exam to enter university. Maybe it's just such a shock because, believe it or not, there are faculty who do not use or willingly reduce English bibliography to a minimum, some of them because of the inherent nature of the subject and some of them because they don't feel comfortable or don't have the language skills themselves. So naturally I'm the odd guy because my subject is the only one that is 100% English-language.
    – user12512
    Mar 5, 2014 at 23:53
  • @Layla, yes, I could spend hours and hours to translate all those textbooks and articles, but even that is no guarantee students will even read them. There isn't even a "thank you" for that kind of work; so I stopped doing that.
    – user12512
    Mar 5, 2014 at 23:54
  • @JeffE I think I stated quite clearly that it could be unreasonable to accommodate poor English skills. I just think it's not accurate to claim the language is “universal” or that people who don't know it are lazy. I actually think that your example makes my point quite nicely, as nobody would assume knowledge of calculus to be universal.
    – Relaxed
    Mar 6, 2014 at 18:57

I come from an engineering background, and we were allowed to bring our books and notes. This was in the 80s and 90s so there was no Internet to access. I found that if I didn't know the material that the books and note were no help, and that searching the materials just wasted time.

Unless the test asked the exact same question as was in an example covered, the materials were not useful as a resource during the test.

It should take only one experience like that to persuade a student to learn the material rather rely on the books and notes as a crutch. Consider it a bonus life lesson for the student.

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    I can't tell if your recommendation is to allow books and notes (since students have to learn the material anyways) or not to allow (because you don't think they'll be useful).
    – ff524
    Mar 5, 2014 at 23:44
  • My recommendation would be to let the student bring the book, and let them experience failing the test because they didn't learn the material. Let them experience failure so they won't use the book as a crutch in the future.
    – Xenson
    May 1, 2014 at 21:11

My answer is based on my own experience as a college graduate, and, in short, is "No, you are not too concerned, and, no books during tests is not the way to go." I feel that a teacher's two responsibilities are to encourage students to learn on their own, and to effectively relay information to them: few things are capable of so thoroughly sabotaging this process than offering an open-book test.

Teachers of mine have tried all kinds of policies during my college career, and, in deed, my entire student life. Open notes, open book, open book and notes, closed everything, study sheets, index cards, you name it.

I found these two strategies in particular to be the most effective:

2nd-most effective:
Usually about a week before each test, our teacher offered for us to turn in a blank blue book with our name on it (standardized bound sheets of paper for essay exams) that she would mark in a supposedly tamper-evident way, gave it back to us the next day, and allowed us to fill it with hand-written notes to our heart's content. We were allowed to use these notes and these notes only during the test, during which she would verify the authenticity of her markings on any study guides in use at her leisure. This was incredibly effective for me because taking the time to write down information from scouring books, class notes, the Internet, and even collaborating with others doing the same thing, was, in effect, actual studying. I usually found that I seldom needed it at all during the test because I'd committed so much of it to memory while creating its content! Additionally, it was a confidence boost to have it available, and that any time I felt like referring to it, I usually knew specifically which page of notes on which to find the answer!

Absolutely the most effective:
The first day of class we were handed a list of 150 questions, and were guaranteed that our entire final exam would be exactly one randomly selected question from the list (possibly different for each student), and alone, worth 100% of our course grade. I had never so diligently studied for a class in my life!


This has been touched upon by the two lowest voted answers, so I am going to give it a go myself to make it clearer.

First of all, except for orientation courses where memorization is the central issue, open book examinations are incredibly good, however they are only as good as the questions you ask. The thing you should be aware of is that with examinations like this you're able to far more complex questions which are not about specific sections of the text, but rather about the course as a whole. For example, rather than asking what the effects were of the actions of a specific individual on his field of study in his time you can suddenly ask students to describe the trend over a far greater time period. Or you can ask for an analysis of the approach of a set of individuals on a very specific detail. What you should be aiming for is comprehension of the matter, questions which can not be paraphrased from the covered materials as they simply were not explicitly covered.

Another existing 'trick' is to make the exams so huge that students never have any chance of finishing the entire exam. If you go down this route you have to make very clear which depth and length you expect for each question, but the nice thing of this technique is that you can see quite clearly how well students know the full width of the subject matter.

Now, I have to be honest that a lot of these kind of examinations - open book exams in general - are often none the less not well done. It becomes more about just learning the index of the books well then understanding the topic matter, but in essence I believe it is crucial for a good modern education to not be based around memorization - we have the internet for that - , but rather comprehension and recombination.

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    It's the reality of how the world is changing, and the reality of how a lot of traditional academics is outdated. Take a look at how people work in real life and the main problems they encounter once they finish university ;-) Mar 6, 2014 at 13:11

It depends heavily on what you're testing.

Is it a computer science paper, where you want to test your students' knowledge of basic data structures and algorithms? Then you probably don't want to let them have text materials.

Is it a first year linguistics mid-semester test, where you want to test the students' knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet and different places and manners of articulation? Then you probably don't want to let them have text materials.

Is it a second year linear algebra exam, where you want to test the students' ability to apply different methods to solve various systems of linear equations, but you don't need them to remember whether a projection is v.n/n.n * n or v.n/v.v * n? Then you should probably let them handwrite their own notes.

Are you testing the knowledge of something? Or are you testing the ability to apply that knowledge to solve a problem or compare two algorithms, historical events, methods of solving an equation, etc.?


Does your school allow tests to be given and answered in your native language? If so, then ask questions in your native language and have them answer in your native language. Those who do not understand the text will fail (they cannot pass by just copying the English text, as you have required their answers to be in the native language), and those who do understand the text will pass.


What do you want "create"? Robots like google? or persons that have resolve problems, analyze and creative responses... let robots memorize and let hummans create and be creatives.

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