Researchers Study Effects of Exam Types

Educators have long debated the benefits of closed-book vs. open-book exams, with closed-book exams the prevalent choice in many courses. However, the results of a two-year study of almost 400 students by researchers at Dominican University of California indicate that open-book exams could well be a superior option when examining three outcomes: performance, anxiety, and retention of course material.

The study by associate professors of psychology Dr. Afshin Gharib, Dr. William Phillips, and undergraduate student Noelle Mathew in Dominican's Department of Psychology was published recently in Psychology Research. The goal of the study was to examine the effectiveness of open-book exams, closed-book exams, and cheat-sheet (crib note) exams.

Researchers examined differences between open-book, cheat-sheet, and closed-book exams in two different types of psychology courses. A total of 297 students enrolled in eight sections of Introductory Psychology and 99 students enrolled in four sections of Statistics participated in this study.

All three test options were used in the Introductory Psychology classes. Only cheat-sheet and open-book tests were given in the statistics courses, as the need to memorize complex formulas makes it hard to give closed-book tests in many statistics classes. Students also completed a preference questionnaire, reported the number of hours they had spent studying for the exam, and took a pre-test measure of test anxiety on open-book and cheat-sheet tests.

An important finding of the study was that anxiety level was related to exam performance, such that higher anxiety resulted in poorer exam performance. While students performed better and reported lower levels of test anxiety with open-book exams, the researchers were surprised to discover that a student’s longer term retention of knowledge was not impacted by exam type.

“While we noticed that students taking the closed-book tests had slightly lower test scores than students taking open-book or cheat-sheet exams, we did not notice any difference in retention of course material two weeks later when students took a pop quiz,” Phillips said.

In both the Introductory Psychology and Statistics courses, students performed slightly better on open-book than cheat-sheet exams. Additionally, in the Introductory Psychology sections, performance was poorest for the closed book exam type condition. The researchers also discovered that students who do well on one type of exam also do well on the other two.

Two weeks after the initial test, students were given a 10-point multiple choice pop quiz to measure their retention of course material included on the original test. No significant differences in retention quiz scores were found among the different exam type conditions in either course.

“In all instances, in both the Introductory Psychology and the Statistics courses, performance was the same on the pop quiz no matter the type of test the student had taken earlier,” Phillips said. “There were no differences among the three types of exams in terms of retention of knowledge.”

In terms of anxiety, closed-book exams made students the most anxious prior to the test. Anxiety measured right before the exam was negatively correlated with scores on the exams. So, the more anxious the student the poorer he or she performed.

“We found exactly what we were expecting to find, that students taking closed-book exams have the highest anxiety, those taking cheat-sheet exams were in the middle for anxiety, and those taking open-book exams reported feeling less anxious,” Phillips said.

The research grew from a discussion between Gharib, who prefers to administer open-book tests, and Phillips, who allows students to prepare two-sided crib notes for tests. Both professors noted that test grades were similar in their classes.

“All teachers want their students to learn and retain the material they cover and at the same time enjoy the process of learning,” Phillips said. “We had similar numbers of students who did very well on exams and similar numbers of students who did not do well. So, we decided to find out what type of test is better in terms of quality of learning.”

The project also examined student predictions for how they would perform on tests and which exam type they thought they would study most for. Students predicted they would do better on open-book tests but indicated they would study most for closed-book exams.

However, while students scored slightly higher on the open-book tests, when asked to report how much time they actually spent studying for a test, there was only a slight difference between test types. For the Introductory Psychology students, the average study time was highest for cheat- sheet exams (4.04 hours), followed by open-book exams (3.97 hours) and closed-book exams (3.32 hours).

“Open-book and cheat-sheet exams do not decrease learning and retention of materials, do not decrease study habits, but do decrease anxiety levels,” Phillips said. “Given the detrimental effect that anxiety can have on students, as well as the fact that retention of knowledge is the overall goal, it can be argued that closed-book exams and cheat sheet exams are superior to traditional closed-book tests.”

For more information, contact Sarah Gardner, Director of Communications, 415-485-3239, [email protected]

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