NEET, fingerprints, Madras high court
During an earlier hearing on October 16, the court had ordered the state government to investigate the fingerprints of 4,250 medical students who cleared NEET exam this year. Photo: iStock

Open-book exam not easy as it sounds; India not yet ready for it

In an open-book examination the questions are framed in such a way that the students cannot simply refer to their study materials and pick out the answers. Rather the questions require them to process the available information, interpret it, and draw inferences and write their responses based on their understanding of the concepts

With the final decision on conducting the Class XII board exams by the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) still pending, more than a million students and parents across the country are experiencing uncertainty.

A range of suggestions has been provided by different stakeholders (e.g. CBSE, the various state governments, parents and students) ranging from holding an examination of a shorter duration on a limited number of subjects based on objective type questions; postponing the examination till the entire community of teachers and students are inoculated; to cancelling the examination completely. While the different state governments are also thinking about holding state–level board exams in a truncated fashion, a very different proposal has been offered by the government of Chhattisgarh. It has announced that the examinations will be conducted through an open-book format, whereby the students will be provided with question papers and they will have to take the tests at home.

Also read: Explainer: How CBSE will assign marks to Class X students without exams

On the face of it this appears to be a progressive step. However, are the students, teachers and parents in India ready for it? Could an open-book system of examination become a game-changer for the nation in future?

Decoding the Open-Book Examination

Before commenting on the advantages and disadvantages of the open-book system it would be worthwhile to understand what it entails. An open-book examination like a conventional examination is based on a prescribed curriculum and is conducted under the strict supervision of an invigilator. However, here the students are allowed to carry their study materials – books, class notes as well as other resources and information that they have collected through research from diverse sources (e.g. online portals, library, newspaper reports) to the examination site. They are either provided the questions beforehand or during the examination and they are allowed the freedom to answer the questions after consulting their study material. Thus it is very different from a conventional system of examination where students are expected to study and prepare based on a prescribed syllabus, but are not provided with questions beforehand nor are they allowed access to study materials while taking the test. This may lead one to believe that the former system is a cakewalk and less burdensome on the students who can escape the drudgery and pressure of having to slog over months to remember a plethora of information, concepts, formulae, etc, before they appear for the examination. One may also assume that an open-book system does not require one to study at all as she can simply search and retrieve answers from the books sitting in the examination hall.

Also read: Lockdown weakened language skills, mathematical ability of students: Study

These assumptions are not true. In fact in an open-book examination the questions are framed in such a way that the students cannot simply refer to their study materials and pick out the answers. Rather the questions require them to process the available information, interpret it, and draw inferences and write their responses based on their understanding of the concepts. This cannot be achieved on the spot but requires a thorough preparation over a period of time. Of course, the system is so designed that it frees the students from having to memorise a plethora of facts, formulae and definitions. But they have to work hard nonetheless and prepare in such a way that they not only develop a thorough understanding of concepts, but are able to critically analyse it and apply the learning in a different context. This is very different from a conventional system of examination where students are primarily assessed on their ability to recall and comprehend.

Are We Ready for This Change? 

One has to keep in mind that the open-book examination requires the students to prepare in a specific way, which is very different from the manner they study for a conventional system of assessment and evaluation. It also implies that they are taught differently so that they become equipped with a different set of skills based on research, analysis and interpretation. Such skills also enable them to evolve as independent learners.

While the textbooks that were introduced post-NCF 2005 in most subjects have been conceptualised differently and have succeeded in incorporating higher order thinking skills based on constructivism and critical pedagogy, the same cannot be said about the way these textbooks are transacted in most classrooms. In most schools across the country the majority of the teachers continue to deliver the textbooks following a conventional pedagogic approach, which includes reading out and explaining chapters followed by marking out specific paragraphs and sentences from the same chapters as answers to a fixed set of questions. In many cases teachers also dictate prepared notes based on guidebooks available in the market.

Moreover, the manner in which the questions are framed both during internal assessment (held at the school level) and external board examinations (held by CBSE and different state boards) primarily test the learners on their ability to recall factual information and comprehension. There is little or no attempt to assess whether they have grasped the concepts and are able to apply the same in a different context or if they are able to think critically and respond to inferential questions.

All this has impacted the way students approach learning and the manner in which they view the purpose of education as a whole. Having very little or no opportunity to participate in the classroom process through bringing in their own lived experiences or take part in debate and discussion or look at issues critically, the students have been reduced to passive recipients of received knowledge, which they are expected to memorise and reproduce verbatim in the final examination. They have been left with little curiosity to explore or discover new knowledge and ideas. Learning for most has been reduced to a task that has to be somehow completed to score a certain percentage to get a job and move ahead in life.

The prevalence of a ‘textbook culture’ (Kumar 1988) has also reduced teaching as merely a task that needs to be somehow completed by covering a prescribed syllabus. The quality of teacher education (both pre-service and in-service) in the context of India has always been questioned. It has also been argued that the radical shifts introduced in the context of textbooks were not followed by required changes in the sphere of the teachers’ professional development and training. In the case of the textbooks published by the various SCERTs, the proposed shifts have not really been incorporated though all of them claim to be following the guidelines proposed by the NCF 2005.

For teachers, especially those who set question papers and are in charge of evaluating the answer scripts in the final board examination, the proposed changeover is therefore likely to throw up a new set of challenges. They will not only have to learn to frame questions very differently but will be required to set up a different set of success criteria to assess the answer scripts. This is something the teachers are not equipped to do currently.

Is the Open-Book System an Answer to the Current Challenges? 

In a context where students have not had a previous experience of handling an open-book system of assessment, it would be unfair to force them to appear for one in their final school leaving examination. And that too under the prevailing unprecedented circumstance of a raging pandemic, which have thrown up other multiple other challenges.

The diversity that characterise the demographic profile of the examinees needs to be considered here. Under normal circumstances also the students typically hailing from large metros, belonging to upper middle class families and studying in elite English medium public or private schools, are always at an advantage over their less privileged counterparts from peri-urban and rural areas with regard to their cultural capital inherited over generations and their ready access to internet, libraries and private coaching centres. This difference has only become more accentuated over the last one and a half years owing to the pandemic, which has resulted in shutting down of regular schools and the switchover to virtual mode of teaching and learning. While this has thrown up a lot of challenges for teachers and students everywhere, the changeover has brought in maximum difficulties for those from less privileged background, especially in smaller towns and villages. While some commendable efforts have been made both at the level of the state and private actors to make learning happen for all, the issue of access (irregular power supply, availability of appropriate devices) continues to plague a large majority. Under such circumstances when teaching and learning have not happened properly, it would definitely place a vast majority of students at a disadvantage compared to their more privileged counterparts if they are made to appear for an open book system of examination now.

Also read: Vaccinate teachers before reopening schools: Lancet’s India Task Force

The Chhattisgarh government has suggested that the examinees will be allowed to collect their question papers from designated centres following which they will have to take the test from home and then return the answer scripts to the assigned centres – all within a stipulated timeframe. This raises a few questions. Under the open-book system of examination the examinees are required to take the test within an examination centre and in the presence of an invigilator. This ensures that the examinees do not take recourse to unfair practices and provides the system the required legitimacy. Would the government’s proposal of ‘test from home’ format without the presence of an invigilator provide it with the same validity? Or would it defeat the whole purpose of appearing for a public examination by the students?

What is the Way Forward?

The proposal to opt for an open-book system of examination under the current situation appears ill-conceived and impractical. It certainly cannot be viewed as a quick-fix solution to address the challenges that have arisen due to the pandemic.

However, taking into consideration the long-term advantages it can provide, it certainly deserves a serious thought. Given the fact it creates a suitable learning environment to prepare the future generations of children to evolve as independent learners equipped with the 21st Century skills of research, analysis and critical thinking, it definitely holds the potential to usher in a breath of fresh air into our moribund and archaic system of teaching and learning as well as evaluation. But to make it happen, it will require a complete re-imagination of the education ecosystem and infrastructure. This would not only entail a redesigning of curricula and textbooks and a new pedagogic approach to deliver the same but a complete re-haul of the teacher preparation process (pre-service and in-service) as well as a fresh look at how the assessment and evaluation system need to be imagined.

Under an open-book system, where the examinees are expected to carry their study materials along with them, it would necessitate the examination hall to be spacious enough to allow the examinees adequate room to consult the same during the course of the examination. This would require some rethinking in the way examination centres are designed and seating arrangements are planned.

Also read: Wrap: In new education policy, mother tongue is teaching medium till Class 5

The open-book system also comes with its own set of problems. Critics have pointed out that it often makes it difficult for examiners to assess if all students are equally well prepared and hence does not ensure equality. Often, access to study materials can create an inequitable situation as some books may be too expensive and therefore beyond the reach of some.

All these issues need a serious thought before a final decision can be taken. It will take time, but it would be definitely worth the wait. Perhaps the open-book system of examination can be introduced in a phased manner as a part internal assessment to begin with.

(The writer works in the area of curriculum development and teacher education. She holds a Ph.D in Sociology of Education, and is based in Delhi)

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