There was nothing sweeter to the ears of a student than hearing, “Class, this will be an open-book test.” This was far better, of course, than an open-note test, which required you to pay attention and furiously scribble what the teacher said. However, either is preferable to the all-too-common “brain dump” that measures who has the keenest memory. Think about each model of assessment, though. Are we measuring what the student learned when we allow them to utilize their book for answers? Or their notes? Or forcing them to cram in as many factoids as they can before their parents (or sleep deprivation) force them to go to sleep?
The traditional model of education says that one teacher should be the purveyor of information to a group of students, grouped by age, and should expect each student to perform the same way, over the same material, in the same amount of time. Anyone who has ever taught knows how ridiculous this is.
This will come as a shock to many, but each student is different. They have different challenges, different home lives, different capacities, different aptitudes, different learning styles, and different ways of approaching a problem. Thus the quandary: What do you do when a student correctly answers your question in a method that wasn’t anticipated? Do you mark it as incorrect? Give them points for creativity? Acknowledge the student used a method of thinking that supersedes the level of thought required to devise the question?
Some teachers recoil at the idea of ever giving an open-note test, let alone an open-book test. What about an open-Internet test? What if the entire Internet was at their disposal to answer the questions put in front of them? Many traditionalists believe such a proposal, if carried out, would cripple the educational process. Personally, I am a lifelong learner. I am always looking to absorb new information and skills. When I come across a problem I don’t know how to solve, what do I do? Give up because I don’t remember studying about it? Hardly.
I think we’re asking the wrong questions. I had a class once that didn’t use a textbook (because the teacher told us he knew more than the textbook and that it was out-of-date anyway) but allowed us to take every test open-note (pre-Internet ubiquity). Interestingly enough, even with every test being open-note, many students repeatedly failed his tests because they were looking for the wrong questions. They were looking for the typical fact-recall questions that just weren’t on his tests. His tests? Well, they looked like this:
“In your own words, given England’s conflict with France, please explain why the King of England wanted Thomas Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury.”
What’s interesting is that in a class of 30+ Gifted/Talented students, only 1 came up with the right answer. Everyone else frantically looked at their blank page and began flipping furiously through their notes, scrawling answers about how the King needed a strong Archbishop in order to best France as well as hold religious sway over the people or other such nonsense. You see, we had been trained to think in sets of four: one is clearly wrong, one is wrong if you think about it, and the other two are close with one deciding factor separating them. This question proffered no solace.
These are the kinds of questions we need to be asking. For this type of question, you can scour the Internet and all you’ll end up doing is READING more about King Henry and Thomas Becket. You’ll read about how often they disagreed and the murder of Becket. In all of this “on-the-fly” research you won’t find the answer to the question. That’s the difference between today’s test questions and questions that truly challenge the student to look to the next level of understanding.
The answer to the question? “He didn’t.”