Open book tests in the English language classroom


Photo courtesy of Tory Byrne

There is a good deal of debate over the use of tests in education and while I don’t agree with everything that is being discussed, I do believe there is a need for an overhaul in how to approach testing and assessment in the classroom. One of the major problems is how tests are used and what they are assessing. I am an English language teacher and what I am assessing is quite different from what someone in mathematics or geography are measuring. To make a blanket statement regarding all subject areas is as misguided and dangerous as the standardized testing that many are fighting against. I am lucky in that I have more autonomy in how I assess my students. I have chosen to continue using tests as a small part of my assessment of their proficiency, partly due to what the students want and also what is needed to properly evaluate their progress.

One of the ways in which I use tests in my classroom is to have students write open-book tests. This looks different in each subject area and has taken me a few tries to make it work the way that is good for both the student and myself. Here is how I approach it:

  1. Give students plenty of notice: My class changes every four weeks, so on the first day, I clearly lay out how they are going to be assessed and the important dates to know regarding when they will be writing quizzes, handing in assignments, and so forth.
  2. Explain how open book tests work: On that first day, I tell them how the open book quizzes will work and even give them example questions. I explain that these tests are NOT looking for how well they know the structure of the grammar, but it will be testing their ability to choose the proper grammar in a given situation. These are open answer type of questions and are always based on real-life situations (ex. read a newspaper article and comment on it based on a set of criteria).
  3. Give them respect and trust: I let my students know they are able to use whatever materials they would like as long as they do it on their own (ie. no calling/texting friends, talking with other students) and they do it within the time frame given. I do give them more time if a majority of the class is still working on it as we approach the deadline. I tell them that I trust them to do what is best for them and I try to give them latitude in regards to leaving the room, etc. One of the main things I stress in the classroom is that they are adults and I will treat them with the respect they deserve and I ask them to give each other as well as me the respect we deserve by not cheating, going on Facebook during class, and so on.
  4. Make it a low-stakes test: The open book tests I use are only worth a fraction of their overall mark. I make sure this is clearly spelled out for them. I explain that this test will help me know where the class is at and where we can spend more time on review. I also let them know that the test helps me and them to find areas they need to target for more practice. Part of their formative assessment is to see how they progress from one quiz and project to the next. If they are making clear progress, no matter how low the quiz mark, the higher percentage of their overall mark will come from their ability to build on the areas that they are weakest. That means, a student who scores low on the first quiz and then makes strides to work on the areas they had problems with will improve their overall grade more than a students who does well on the first test, but doesn’t make any effort to improve on the areas they are weakest.
  5. Give oral feedback on the test: One of the best ways to encourage students and to help them notice areas that need improvement is to make an audio recording based on their quiz results. When I mark the tests, I only make a small mark, such as an underline, to designate areas that need work or are well done. I then make an audio recording for the student which I post on our closed class webpage that they can access on their own. I talk about the problems and how they can fix them. I also stress the areas they did well and also on the content of their writing. I have had students tell incredibly personal stories and I don’t want to just focus on the English. I also want to treat them as people by acknowledging what they have written.
  6. Follow up: I give a lot of followup to make sure students understand where they can make improvements and where their strengths are. I do this by giving specific work for each student and also class work based on areas the whole class needs work.

I understand that there are going to be people who disagree with using tests as part of assessing a students ability in a subject area, but I believe that this can be done with care and support that encourages the student and helps them focus their attention on areas they need work. It is great to allow students the flexibility to take control of their learning, but it is the instructors job to guide them towards the areas they could be missing.

How do you feel about tests? Have you used open book tests before? How well did it work for you and the student? Add you comments below, send me a Tweet at @nathanghall, or email me using the form on the contact page of this website. Thank you.


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