Open-note tests better reflect reality

Kavita O’Malley

The way we are evaluated in school is very test dependent, but are these types of assessments truly representative of our knowledge? I don’t believe they are.  

Quite honestly, I feel that open-note quizzes aren’t used enough. Teachers always make looking at your notes seem like a bad thing, as if it signifies a lower level of comprehension. While the value of this varies based on the content of the test, closed-note tests usually seem like unfair assessments. 

When in life are you going to be expected not to use your resources? When teachers put so much pressure on not looking at your notes, it enforces the mentality that we must always approach situations with all of the answers. 

In trying to explain my stance on this issue to my mom, she pointed out that there are some things that people just need to know. I understand that, but I think we have passed the point in school where the things we are learning are that basic and essential. While I know that everyone needs to know the alphabet or how to multiply, I don’t think anyone needs to memorize the unit circle or know the exact year of the invasion of Constantinople. 

Using the tools and people around you to better understand or prove something is a very important skill to have in life, both professionally and personally. The way schools push this mindset that you, alone, should know all the answers is potentially harmful to people later on in their lives. It creates a self-destructive attitude when presented with a concept or situation you don’t understand. 

In learning, there are various orders of thinking, the lowest being memorization, followed by understanding, applying, analyzing, and being topped off by evaluating and creating. The way I see it, the tests we are given now focus mostly on the lower levels of thinking; understanding and memorization. 

For example, on a recent test, I encountered a question listing four small photos beside a drop down menu. From those photos we were supposed to be able to identify them as four specific neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This seems like an unfair and unrealistic task to place on a test. No matter how much information I had learned about culture and history in Buenos Aires’ neighborhoods, I struggled to remember the exact appearance of each neighborhood, as that was something testing memory rather than understanding. 

A more effective way to test would be to employ the higher orders of thinking by creating deeper and more complex questions. This would require a reengineering of the testing format most commonly used, but it would be worth it. 

Even if tests only had one question that required a paragraph answer, there are ways they could still gauge students’ comprehension of the material. An example of this is something we have all likely experienced in an English class at some point. When given a text to study, we are expected to answer analysis questions based on that text using evidence from within the resource to support our answers. That allows students to engage higher thinking while answering a question. 

Now, this varies in humanities vs STEM classes, but it can still apply everywhere. In classes such as history, English or advanced language classes, teachers should allow students to use notes containing dates, quotes, or important facts, while also requiring them to apply that knowledge to create a situation or explain the effects of an event on another group. This really pushes students to be more engaged in what they are learning and can help them later on. 

In a STEM class, memorizing formulas and data is a common setback. However, arguably more important than the equations and numbers themselves is knowing why they work and how to use them. Teachers could give open-note quizzes to inspire more analytical thinking. 

Don’t get me wrong; if a teacher is giving a quiz that is specifically not open-note, you shouldn’t look at your notes because that’s cheating. Your academic integrity, especially now during distance learning, is very important. My argument is just that teachers should try to transition to using more open-note quizzes. That doesn’t mean closed-note quizzes should be eliminated all together, as they do still test important skills. I simply believe that open-note quizzes offer valuable experiences and they shouldn’t be seen as something to avoid.