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Dear Faculty Commons,

I’m a big fan of open information (open access journals, open access textbooks, etc), and want to share the wealth of resources out there with my students. That said, I’m ambivalent about giving open book exams. One the one hand, I don’t want students to have testing anxiety that affects their scores. But, how can I be sure that students won’t just look up all of the answers when they take a test?


Openly Anxious

Dear Openly Anxious,

In short, you can’t. Students have found frustratingly creative ways to complete their work dishonestly for centuries. Starting from the point of “how can I prevent cheating?” when you design an element of your course is starting from a negative framework. Rather than start there, try starting from a perspective that assumes students will be successful if they work hard and honestly. That might mean reevaluating some of your exams, quizzes, or other assessments to make sure that a student who has prepared well for the class can do well on the assessments.

There are some questions you’ll want to ask yourself. For example, if you are aware of the pitfalls of testing and want to avoid the anxiety it produces, why test at all? Is there another way to assess student work? If you have concerns about grading time, or the time that students will spend on preparing for an in-class exam, consider giving students course credit for studying. One way to do this is to make it compulsory for students to turn in their study materials with their exams. Rather than having your exam be open book, make it open-notes or open-study guide only, and collect the notes or study guides with the exams to review.

Here’s another line of questioning to consider: how are your questions written or structured? If students can correctly answer your questions by hitting command-F in their browser, it might be time to write some more complex questions. Are all of your questions multiple-choice? If so, you can write more challenging stems that force students to choose a “best” answer, rather than a right answer. Try generating questions that provoke a judgement call, make students side with an argument, or select the most appropriate evidence to prove a point.

And finally, ask yourself if it is really so bad that students are looking up answers? Consider the way in which students access information today. There is so much information available–being able to find the correct piece of information to solve a problem or answer a question is not exactly a simple task anymore. If you have given your students high-quality sources of material and they are using it to appropriately answer complex questions in a short time frame, they are learning!

Questions about cheating are always tricky, and there isn’t one right answer to a question like this one. We’d love to hear from our readers about experiences they have had in their classrooms with questions like this one.

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