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Open-Book Assessment

In an open-book assessment (OBA) students are explicitly made aware that they will have access to class notes, textbooks, readings and/or online sources during the assessment window. OBAs may take place over a number of hours/days or in a compressed exam window. Reference to take-home exams overlaps with the concept of open-book exams, but it is important to remember that some open-book exams are completed under face-to-face exam conditions. OBAs can thus be used in ‘continuous’ assessment practice or for summative exam purposes: they can take place in person or online and may or may not be invigilated.

Typically used to:
  • assess how students can apply their knowledge (such as how they can adapt/manipulate/apply they learning in particular contexts) rather than showcase what they know. 

  • probe conceptual or applied knowledge. 

  • test students’ capacity to manipulate knowledge. Open-book assessment tasks should require students to manipulate and apply knowledge, not just locate or summarise/rewrite it. 

Does [an open-book approach] mean that students don't need to "study" for examinations? No. It implies that studying should not be equated with memorising; instead, it should be understanding concepts, and using these concepts (along with available information) to practise the skills of modifying and building knowledge, thinking critically, and solving problems (Mohanan 2001).  

Key considerations when designing open-book assessments

If you are integrating open-book assessments into your assessment strategy, keep the following points in mind: 

  • What is the purpose of the assessment? Is it the most appropriate way to assess student learning outcomes in this instance?
  • Are you intending to use the assessment for formative or summative purposes, or both?
  • Make sure that students understand what and why you’re assessing in this context, e.g. clarify that the nature of the assessment task is both outcomes and process-based. Keep in mind that open-book and closed-book assessment tasks ask students to showcase and demonstrate their learning in different ways. Questions suitable for one mode of assessment are not always appropriate for the other. 
  • Have you ensured that the open-book assessment task(s) align with module/programme learning outcomes? 
  • What criteria will you use to assess students’ assessments? Have you provided students with a rubric? Does the rubric align with the relevant learning outcomes?
  • Is the open-book assessment to be individual or collaborative? If collaborative, how will you assess and give credit for individual contributions?
  • Have you provided students with clear guidelines on the format and requirements of the assessment? For example, do they have a clear understanding of the exam time window, submission guidelines, referencing requirements etc?

One of the key challenges which can often arise when using open-book assessments relates to ensuring and maintaining academic integrity: students may (un)intentionally plagiarise, they may collaborate (unauthorised) and/or use ghost writing or essay mills. To minimise threats to academic integrity consider asking students to:

  • adhere to an honour code (which could be integrated into the setting/instructions of the open-book exam).
  • submit their work using a plagiarism checker tool such as Turnitin —such tools can easily generate a ‘similarity report’ which may constitute a potential indicator of (accidental) misconduct.
  • submit a ‘draft in progress’ at different points of the semester—this can mitigate binge writing and support learners to create their own work.
  • include evidence of personal engagement as part of their assessment submission e.g. an annotated bibliography, screenshot of search histories, picture of handwritten notes, calculation evidence or a brief personal reflection.
  • undertake supplementary oral exams and/or ‘Part B’ questions (e.g. justify your answer/evidence your calculation) to evidence mastery of content and thought ownership.

Open-book assessment tasks should not exceed the workload required of a student in a closed-book context. Consider setting (firm) limits on the time students should spend on an assessment.

  • Think about how students will compile and submit their assessment. What platforms/tools will they be required to use? Remember that your students may not be familiar with using particular digital technologies as part of an open-book assessment. Check what institutional supports and guides are provided for this and share with your students in advance.
  • Give students the opportunity to see relevant sample open-book questions and to practice submitting their responses in advance.
  • Any/all modifications to assessment strategy (e.g. a move towards open-book) should be communicated with staff and students: ensuring academic integrity in open-book assessment contexts requires students to understand the instructions provided for the task as well as the process underpinning the task itself. A move to an open-book assessment strategy might also be discussed with external examiners and the nature of open-book assessment tasks reflected in rubrics and task guidelines.



Trinity-supported tools:  

Voices from the disciplines

Dr. Cicely Roche is an Associate Professor in practice of Pharmacy and co-ordinator of online modules completed by students when on experiential placement in the final 2 years of the MPharm programme in Trinity College Dublin


Open-Book Assessment - A Handbook for Academics

This handbook by Johnston and Rooney (2021) provides an introduction to open-book assessments and contextualises guiding principles for their design, development and implementation in a Trinity context. For many colleagues, open-book approaches to assessment may be unfamiliar territory. This handbook aims to support all staff with teaching responsibilities to find out more about the merits of open-book assessment approaches and it outlines key issues to consider when designing effective open-book assessments.

Rewriting the (exam) script? Assessing student learning in an unusual end-of-year context

In this journal article, Johnston and O’Farrell (2020) document an institutional development project focused on enabling a transition to open-book assessment practices at Trinity. The case study outlines curricular and institutional context, before engaging in an in-depth review of development methods focused on supporting the transition to open-book examinations mandated by the emergence of COVID-19 in Ireland. Its main output is a reference resource outlining potential methods for repurposing exam questions already pre-ratified by external examiners for closed-book purposes, for novel use in open-book contexts. It also outlines potential implications for future practice in assessment.

Repurposing face-to-face exam questions for open-book assessments

This resource, adapted from Johnston & O’Farrell (2020), outlines sample questions from across the disciplines which have been either modified from, or used in, previous exam sessions at Trinity. The questions listed here would typically have been ‘approved’ by externs for use in face-to-face, closed-book contexts, as part of standard procedures.

Open-book examinations  

In this article, Mohanan (2001) provides an overview of open-book assessment and outlines the impact of this assessment approach on teaching and learning strategies.

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