Missing open book exams

Thoughts on ‘closed book’ and ‘open book’ exams

ThinkingParliament has debated whether students should continue to be allowed only ‘closed book’ exams in GCSE English and English Literature. (Really, of course, they are ‘absent book’ exams. Closed books would just be cruel.)

The arguments for ‘closed book’ exams – now dominant at GCSE, AS and A-level – have weight: ‘closed books’ are, in a way, levelling and more valid; they reward commitment and effort; they stop students wasting time ruffling through texts in an exam, perhaps futilely; and they save money, as there is no need for the stacks of ‘clean’ exam texts. It is argued that closed-book exams spur students to work harder and to avoid over-confidence. It is also argued, convincingly, that if details in the language are committed to long-term memory – are right there to think with – then this gets students closer to having real ‘expertise’.

The official DFE position, as cited in their response to the petition which triggered the debate in Parliament, is that “GCSE English literature content requires students to read the full texts of the books and poems they study. Students will not need to remember the exact words of poems by heart in order to succeed.” However, the AQA GCSE English Literature mark scheme requires that, for Grade 6, students show “Judicious use of precise reference”, “Analysis of writer’s methods with subject terminology used judiciously” and “Exploration of effects of the writer’s methods on the reader.” Meanwhile, AO2 requires students to “Analyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate.” Teachers have tended, understandably, to interpret this as meaning that students need to know more than just the occasional word or gist of a phrase.

Many of the arguments I have seen for closed book exams seem to boil down to ‘Knowledge good (true); therefore closed-book good.’ But this is a strange syllogistic leap. Does memorising verbatim a number of quotations necessarily give students a more ‘real’ knowledge of the texts? And what is the opportunity cost of the time and effort spent on memorising them?

It is, of course, true that you can’t think about something without knowledge of it – that the more you know about something the deeper and more successfully you can think about it. But how conscious and how explicit does ‘knowledge’ need to be, in order for it to fuel thought? I have difficulty remembering names, even of people I know quite well but especially of people in public or cultural life. This can often stall me in conversations, when I suddenly can’t bring a name into conscious memory. It’s there, but it’s fogged. I wonder if a lot of ‘knowledge’ is like this: working away but not necessarily readily available as words. Perhaps this is pertinent to the ‘open books’ debate. Is it necessary to remember verbatim the wording of a passage or sentence, or even a phrase, in order for it to form an important part of your ‘knowledge’?

Also, what does ‘knowledge about’ a text mean? You can’t quickly navigate your way to a quotation in a text without deep knowledge of it. I have often, in lessons, fumbled when trying to recall exactly how a writer has worded something; I have then startled students with my ability to find the exact wording in seconds, perhaps from the middle of a long novel. Is this an example of the text acting as a ‘prop’? When a writer takes a book down from a library shelf to check a half-remembered reference, are they being ‘propped up’? Or are they, in fact, using their knowledge to crystallise new knowledge? When you see a student leafing through a text for a quotation, are you observing ignorance or are you observing scholarship?

Of course, it is undoubtedly desirable for students to remember quotations. It would be desirable for them to memorise the whole text. It would certainly help them to think about it. But the issue here – in the context of exams – is of opportunity cost. Perhaps it is true that ‘balance’ has become a ‘weasel word’ in education, but here I think it is crucial. I have seen numerous accounts from teachers of how they are developing complex strategies, informed by the science of memory, to get students to memorise sets of quotations. The best of these are combined with deep reflection on the significance of the quotations being memorised, and on details in the language; but that’s always been a part of good exam preparation. What if time spent memorising sets of quotations was spent on building better knowledge of interpretations, of context, of critical theory or of authorial intent? Or on practising the construction of argument? Or on exploring, shaping and debating personal responses?

I am certainly not an expert on the cognitive science of all this. In fact, I have to confess that my discomfort is really driven by personal traumas. As an A-level student and at university, I sat closed-book literature exams only. I struggled to remember quotations. This was not for lack of effort. I remember pacing up and down for hours, memorising key fragments of texts. It took me ages. Perhaps I lacked techniques for memorising, but others seemed to remember with no effort at all. I am perplexed by people who remember the lyrics of whole songs – not because they have made an effort to do so, but because they just have. I envy people who can reel off great chunks of Shakespeare plays – not because they have consciously attempted to memorise them, but because they just have. Friends would go in to sit a Shakespeare paper able to select quotations from swathes of remembered text, from across a large number of plays, then look for a question which interested them; I went in armed with the limited quotations which I had managed to learn, at great cost in time and effort, and looked for a question which I could fit to my prepared essay. It didn’t feel like a “level playing field”: it felt terribly unfair. And it feels unfair now when people say that memorising is ‘no big deal’ or ‘just requires effort’.

The one time at university when I really felt engaged in proper scholarship was when I wrote dissertations. That was when I did my deepest thinking about texts. I can’t quote from the texts I wrote about in those extended pieces, crafted 30 years ago, but I still feel connected to them. I inhabited them and felt like I really began to understand them. They still resonate, emotionally and intellectually. And what I wrote about them is still – I think – worth reading. It was certainly worth writing. But I didn’t memorise a single phrase.

It seems to me that many of the objections to ‘open book’ are based not on principles of what students should know, but on bad experiences of watching students in exams struggling to navigate texts. But perhaps that’s because they haven’t been properly prepared to do it. Will those students do better with a closed book? And while a student might save page-ruffling time by knowing a quote, will it be the best quote – or just the one they’ve learned?

But what about rewarding commitment and effort? In years of demanding that students be able to navigate quickly and knowledgeably to ‘precise references’, within texts prepared (I hope) with considerable intellectual rigour, I don’t believe that I was ever allowing a form of laziness.

Of course, this is all anecdotal and I am very ready to be persuaded. At the moment, the published research* is equivocal and hasn’t, for me, addressed the real issue: the relationship between the availability or not of an open text and students’ ability to synthesise understandings in response to a question, and then to express those understandings with clarity and precision.

https://pages.wustl.edu/files/pages/imce/memory/2008_agarwal.pdf,  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26535862

(Thanks to Alex Quigley @huntingenglish for pointing me to this research)

4 thoughts on “Missing open book exams

Add yours

  1. Thanks James. A really thoughtful piece. For me it boils down to the unfair but inevitable fact that some people find doing exams far easier than others. And some people are blessed with the most phenomenal memories and others are not (I’m with you on the lyrics thing – I can never remember any!) My one consolation (because I was, like you, someone who had to mug up furiously to remember anything) is that two of my brightest friends who did the worst in their Unkversity exams have both gone on to be very successful in their careers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating James. I think my experience illustrates a relationship between memorising and understanding. I still remember much of “The quality of mercy… ” as I understood the meaning, but many of the poems I was supposed to learn just passed me by as I could not fathom them out and I could not quite a word now!

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