Are open book tests too easy? In the long term, students actually learn more from them, says Marjolein Heijne-Penninga. She will be awarded a PhD on 8 December 2010 for research into this subject.
Heijne-Penninga compared open book tests and closed book tests in a major research project among Groningen medical students. She discovered that open book tests provide students with a better grip of the subject in the long run because they force them to make connections themselves. When they have to remember something later, all the connections also surface, and not just that isolated fact. Open book tests thus make the acquisition and use of knowledge more efficient.
However, the effect of open book tests applies only to the long term. Heijne-Penninga demonstrates that students in the first three years of their degree programme perform better learning things off by heart for closed book tests. This is because they cannot yet see the overall picture. Only later do things start falling into place.
The UMCG is the only medical university in the Netherlands that offers its students open book tests as standard right from year one. Heijne-Penninga thinks that more universities should follow this example. In fact, they won’t have much choice soon, she says. ‘Our knowledge is growing apace, and you can’t expect students to remember it all. Nor should they, because the state of knowledge is constantly changing. The future lies in open book tests.’
According to the theory, open book tests stimulate students towards ‘deep learning’. They develop an understanding of the material by writing summaries and consulting other literature. Heijne-Penninga discovered that that was not always the case with the Groningen students. According to her there is a simple explanation – the open book tests last too long. That makes students lazy – they know that they will have enough time during the exam to look everything up. Another result of Heijne-Penninga’s research is that open book tests are just as hard as closed book tests. The quality is also comparable.
Marjolein Heijne-Penninga (Terheijden, 1980) is a curriculum consultant for the Institute for Medical Education of the University of Groningen/UMCG. She conducted her PhD research at the Centre for Innovation and Research into Medical Education (CIOMO) of the UMCG and within the SHARE research school. The title of her thesis is ‘Open-book tests assessed: quality, learning behaviour, test time and performance’. PhD date: 8 December 2010
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