The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Open-note assessments emphasize critical thinking skills which promote deeper conceptual knowledge

5 min read
Taken from above, a table is occupied by five laptop computers, an array of electronic devices such as portable chargers and headphones, and several mugs.

Discussing concepts in class and synthesizing information through practical examples helps students retain concepts they learn in class. Marvin Meyer | Unsplash


Staff Writer

Open-note assessments provide a more effective measurement of students’ knowledge than closed-note tests because they allow for professors to write more intricate questions, they reduce test anxiety and they rely on a student’s ability to take comprehensive notes. 

When a professor announces that a quiz will be open-note, I can pay better attention in class and retain the information rather than stress about memorizing information I will later forget. For me, paying attention in class and engaging in discussions helps me learn to apply concepts to various situations rather than just the one that appears on the test.

Additionally, students perform similarly on open-note and closed-note assessments, since open-note assessments present a chance for professors to ask more in-depth questions that require students to explore the concepts within their class materials. 

“The grade outcomes [between open-note and closed-note assessments] have also not been wildly different,” said Jason Hayob-Matzke, a professor in the classics, philosophy and religion department. 

Hayob-Matzke gives both open and closed-note assessments depending on class modality. “I imagine that many students expect open-book/notes assessments to be easier and hence perhaps do not prepare as carefully for them, but in addition I can ask tougher questions in an open book/notes format since I know students have the material in front of them,” Hayob-Matzke said. “A well-written open book/notes assessment should be more than simply a hunt-and-peck exercise (though some of that is fine if it helps reinforce certain ideas or concepts).”

For students like us who have lived through a global pandemic, leading to the switch to virtual education, open-note assessments make the most sense. 

According to a study researching the testing effects of closed and open-note assessments, “[Open-note assessments] encourage students to use higher-level thinking skills like problem solving and reasoning.” These are the skills we need to succeed in our changing world. While memorization has its time and place, being able to synthesize concepts and utilize our many resources makes more sense in today’s ever-changing society.

“Even before COVID-19, I had switched to open-note final examinations, as what I was looking for from students was larger conceptual understanding, and so it didn’t matter to me if they needed to refer to notes for specific factual details,” said Brooks Kuykendall, chair of the music department. “That seems to me more like ‘real life,’ anyway.  It’s good to be able to have a working grasp of the facts, but it is seldom necessary to be able to cite ‘chapter and verse’ on your feet.”

According to another study, open-note tests allow students to improve their practical application of integrating source material into their lives. This is more useful of a skill since we have access to thousands of resources online in our everyday lives and workplaces. In these modern times, the limitation of knowledge comes not when we can’t find a resource, but when we don’t know how to use it properly.

“In real life you are always using notes: the internet, peers, experts, etc.,” said undeclared sophomore Alison Herrera who works as a vet assistant. “At my job, there are times where we don’t know the answers. It is useful to look up things and ask co-workers what they think to get an idea.”

The hesitance towards open-note assessments in classes that prepare students for the medical profession is reasonable, for those positions require quick and active recall of factual information. 

“If you want to be a doctor, in real life you aren’t always going to have time to check notes and, in those cases, you need to know what you need to do quickly,” said Herrera. 

For this reason, some tests should be closed-note, but the modality should depend on the career someone is pursuing. For example, it is important that tests such as the MCAT are closed-note because being in the medical field requires that one is able to diagnose a patient without having to reference their notes, especially in an emergency situation. The information that future doctors learn in school is vital for them to remember after they graduate, therefore having to memorize concepts is pertinent to their major. 

Tests for students in other fields have more flexibility in regard to modality because the careers that those majors tend to lead to are not as dependent on instantaneous, life-saving information recall. 

That being said, while some tests should be closed-note due to the nature of the information, all quizzes should remain open-note, since they give students an idea of what information their professors focus on without the high stakes of an exam grade.

“I think some quizzes could be beneficial to having open notes because quizzes are more of a progress check before moving to the next topic,” said Haylie Stevenson, a senior American studies major in the elementary education program. 

Quizzes serve as more of a benchmark to assess how well students are understanding the information, thus it makes sense for them to be open-note. They are a chance for students to learn what concepts they are grasping and what concepts they need to study more. By relying on their notes, students can also learn to connect the ideas in class to the questions on the quiz. This rounds out students’ ability to apply knowledge from sources and teaches critical reading and thinking skills.  

“Everything we do here is part of learning a broad wealth of knowledge, how to think more carefully, how to read more critically, how to speak more thoughtfully,” said Hayob-Matzke. “Both [modalities] have merit, but neither strike me as directly related to how one operates in the real world.”

If neither manner of administering tests reflects the ‘real world,’ then what is their use?

Assessments, whether they are open or closed-note, prepare us for the unexpected academic challenges we will face in our professional careers. Open-note assessments teach us how to utilize the information we have in hand (or on our phones) in order to come to a solution or answer a question. Closed-note assessments prepare us for the times we have to recall information we’re currently learning now in college, making us learn how to memorize important concepts that will frequently occur in our daily lives and professional careers. 

In addition to relieving anxieties about memorizing all the content a professor has provided, open-note assessments are beneficial because they ensure that students are paying attention during class. By writing their own notes, organizing and synthesizing material and using their resources, students are preparing for success later on in their professional careers because they strengthen their ability to apply information rather than just regurgitate it.