Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Do Open-Book Exams Impede Long-Term Learning in Introductory Biology Courses?

Academic journal article Journal of College Science Teaching

Do Open-Book Exams Impede Long-Term Learning in Introductory Biology Courses?

Article excerpt


Students in an introductory biology course who were given open-book exams during the semester earned significantly higher grades on these exams, but significantly lower grades on the closed-book final exam, than students who took in-class, closed-book exams throughout the semester. Exam format was also associated with changes in academic behavior; students who had upcoming open-book exams attended fewer lectures and help sessions and submitted fewer extra-credit assignments than students who had upcoming closed-book exams. These results suggest that open-book exams diminish long-term learning and promote academic behaviors that typify lower levels of academic achievement.

Although academic performance is influenced by many different factors, most science instructors know the academic behaviors associated with success in introductory science courses. Indeed, the highest grades are usually earned by students who come to class regularly, participate in course-related activities (e.g., help sessions), and take advantage of opportunities to raise their grades (e.g., extra-credit assignments). These behaviors are conscious choices (e.g., students choose to come to class), and these choices usually have important consequences.

We've often wondered if our course policies affect students' academic behaviors. An example of such a policy involves exams. Students often ask if we will give open-book exams, usually claiming that they would do better and learn more on such exams. Some students have even claimed that the in-class, closed-book exams that typify most introductory science courses are sometimes discriminatory because of students' different learning styles. We decided to test these claims.

In this study we examine how open-book exams affect students' grades, academic behaviors, and long-term learning in an introductory biology course. We wanted to answer several questions: Do students earn higher grades on open-book exams than on closed-book exams? If so, how much higher are their grades? Do open-book exams promote long-term learning, or do students merely look up answers without understanding the information or its context? And finally, what grades do students earn on closed-book final exams that cover the same material on which they were tested earlier with open-book exams? That is, do open-book exams impede long-term learning?


Site of the study and its students

This study included 351 students enrolled in a traditional introductory mixed-majors biology course offered during 2005-2006 at a large, research university in the Midwest. These students had an average ACT composite score of 19.8, an average high school rank of 57%, an average age of 19, and a gender distribution of 49% female and 51% male. We excluded students whose records did not include high school GPAs or graduation percentiles, as well as students who failed the course because of academic misconduct. All sections of the course were taught by the same instructor in the same classroom with the same syllabus, textbook, grading criteria, and pedagogical approaches. All students in the course were also enrolled in a separate lab course taught by teaching assistants.

Exams in control and experimental sections of the course

The course included three equally spaced lecture exams and a comprehensive final. All lecture exams included 40-50 multiple-choice questions that tested basic recall of factual information and synthesis of information, and were identical in the control and experimental sections.

In the control sections (N = 172), all exams were in-class, closed-book exams. Students had 75 minutes to complete each exam, and were not allowed to use any notes or books during the exams. In the experimental sections (N = 179), Exam 1 was an in-class, closed-book exam (i.e., like that of the control section). Exams 2 and 3 in the experimental section were open-book exams in which students could use any written or printed materials they brought to class. …

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