Open sesame

Open sesame

The State government’s proposal to introduce open-book exams in primary schools has attracted mixed reactions. Here's an overview of this concept

Open-book exam

I have done only one open book exam in my entire scholastic life. And, this was when I was a doctoral student. As far as I can remember, this exam was one of the toughest I have taken. Students were allowed to bring any number of reference books into the room, but as it was a paper on Statistics, the books weren’t of much use. Sure, we could look up the formula for a one-sample t-test or check the book if we were unsure about an ANOVA or ANCOVA. But honestly, the books didn’t help very much because the test was designed to tap, or perhaps even tax, our conceptual and application skills. The answers to most questions couldn’t be found in any book.  

Karnataka’s Primary and Secondary Education Minister’s proposal to introduce open-book exams for students in Grades 1 to 5 is likely to be cheered by children. In today’s hypercompetitive world, kids are indeed under intense pressure right from preschool. Tired of memorising strings of facts, kids may be relieved by the idea of open book exams. If the minister’s aim is to downplay rote learning and make schooling more enjoyable for students, this is indeed a noteworthy aim. But are open-book exams necessarily the solution? And, more importantly, when and how should they be introduced?

Immersive experience

Contrary to what most students think, open-book exams are typically harder than the closed variety. They are usually designed to test a student’s higher-order thinking skills and do not simply require students to turn pages to ‘find’ an answer. Instead, students may use information presented to bolster an argument, solve a problem or analyse a situation. Learning cannot be equated with fact-finding. In fact, in the Google age, we don’t really need to train our students to find information when copious amounts of it are available at our fingertips. Education is not about gathering, memorising or regurgitating information. Rather, it is about giving children tools to evaluate, use, synthesise and apply information in appropriate contexts.

And, open-book exams are a great way to help build these skills in children. But do primary school students have the foundational skills to engage in these exercises? While I don’t dispute the fact that even kindergarten kids can benefit more from a conceptual versus a rote approach, the main aim of primary education should be to give children a strong base on which further learning can be built. And this involves equipping them with the ability to read fluently, spell correctly, write cogently, comprehend meaningfully and understand basic numeracy. So, if teachers provide children with activities and worksheets that help them achieve these skills, while also fostering their social and emotional sides, kids will indeed stand to benefit. 

Open-book exams may definitely aid high school students, who are required to use multiple facts in order to exercise their higher-order skills. But are they really required in primary school? In fact, do children in Classes 1 to 3 need exams at all? Instead, classroom activities should be designed such that children acquire prerequisite skills for higher-order thinking. Further, they should be fun and engaging for the child. And, learning should not be textbook- or even notebook-centric at this nascent stage.  

According to news reports, the minister says that he would like to enhance the “communication skill of the students.” Again, this is a laudable goal. But the best way to promote children’s communication is to give them immersive experiences where they listen and speak without inhibition. Besides reading textbooks, teachers may incorporate storytelling, mimes, role plays, skits, videos, games and hands-on activities into the curriculum. Further, teachers have to instil confidence in kids so that they are not afraid of making mistakes.  

Critical thinking matters

Children also need to understand that often there is no one right answer. For kids to gain such an appreciation, we need to dispel the notion that the textbook is king. This perception, which is prevalent in many Indian schools, reinforces the idea that a single textbook is the ultimate arbiter of truth. As a result, children don’t necessarily learn to consider alternative points of view, which, in turn, can lead to dogmatic and prejudiced thinking. Children should be made to realise that the words in a textbook are just that. Words. But it is the reader who injects meaning into them when he or she engages with the text.

In fact, the teacher may model what active reading is like by asking children to vocalise their thoughts as they read a text. After all, reading entails having a conversation with the text. Even though we don’t talk aloud while reading silently, active readers construct meaning by making connections with the text and themselves, the world and other texts. Active readers also ask questions, visualise what they read and synthesise this with what they already know. Good readers are also able to discriminate between main ideas and supporting details and draw inferences.  

Thus, a skilled teacher will convey to his or her students that learning primarily involves thinking. The teacher will also encourage kids to formulate their own thoughts which tie into their experiences and help them articulate them clearly and confidently. Of course, this is by no means a simple task. But open-book exams, where kids are expected to parrot what is written in a textbook, will simply make kids (not the books!) into page-turners. 

While we can definitely have some open-book exams in higher grades, we should not do away with traditional tests completely. Research shows that the act of recalling information in our own words actually makes learning more robust and less susceptible to forgetting. Finally, teachers should assess children on multiple dimensions from class participation, to homework, projects, and tests, both open and closed.

(The author is director,