Why I went from proctored exams to an open book



March 2020 was a whirlwind. When COVID-19 was first mentioned in the media, many of us had no idea what impact it would have. Some of us thought we would have gone back to our usual routine by the start of the spring term (myself included) – we couldn’t have been more wrong.

The times before

At my institution, I teach introductory nutrition both in a traditional face-to-face format as well as a fully online version of the course. This course is a high tuition general education course for non-scientists and regularly welcomes around 500 students in the face-to-face course and between 700 and 900 students in the fully online course. Before the pandemic, face-to-face course students took three non-cumulative exams in person, while virtual course students took their exams on our learning management system (LMS) using a monitoring company Virtual. Since 2018, I have worked closely with the virtual surveillance company and my team of teaching assistants to make sure we have a solid protocol for exam day, including troubleshooting anything. technical issue (they always arose), quick communication with distressed students, “on-call” scheduling with the team, how to handle make-up exams, and more. Through many terms of trial and error, our team was able to establish a relatively smooth exam taking experience for our students.

However, the concept of virtual surveillance was always something that invoked fear among students. There were concerns about privacy, anxiety about unfamiliarity and unequal access to technology, as students needed to have strong Wi-Fi, a working webcam / microphone, and could not use tablets / chromebooks due to software requirements. The format of a timed closed-book exam (45-60 minutes) in a high-school classroom also left little room for questions that could demonstrate critical thinking skills.

Rethinking assessment

The pandemic has encouraged me to rethink how we can assess student learning in major general education courses. Last spring, surveillance centers had to close and live surveillance with a person on the other end was no longer an option. There was an automated system in place, but there were technical difficulties with the system. I was faced with a decision and felt that trying to navigate this new system with over 1,200 students enrolled in the course during a pandemic was not feasible. So began my pivot to open book exams.

A few years ago, one of my graduate school colleagues asked me about the decision to take proctored exams online (she does open book online exams). At the time, I thought proctored exams were the gold standard for maintaining academic integrity. However, I could feel tired of the closed-ended questions regularly produced in my exams and felt that the exam materials did not fully reflect my goal of the class. On the first day, I tell the students that my goal is to give them the tools to be able to make at least a small improvement in their health. So what if they couldn’t list all the enzymes involved in carbohydrate digestion? I wanted them to be able to describe why or not they were at risk for heart disease and how they could improve their eating habits, their physical activity habits and lifestyle choices.

Design an open book exam

Writing an open book review was no easy feat. It took countless hours to craft questions and seek feedback from education specialists, as well as my team of teaching assistants. I have been doing the open book exam format for a few quarters where each exam has several question banks (> 25) made up of a combination of short answer open questions, checking all that apply, filling – blanks, drop-down menus and some multiple choices. I now have two non-cumulative exams (instead of three) which are each designed to be one hour long, but students have a three hour block to take the exam. In announcements and review sessions, I go over the expectations of the open book exams and have them accept and sign the honor code with their digital signature worth one point on the exams.

Exam honor code:

The following

Yes, the grading load has increased compared to automated proctored exams. But going completely online also took away some of the in-person responsibilities our education team used to take on, such as in-person monitoring.

Another question that comes to mind with the open book: does everyone get an A? When I did a comparison between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020, I found the average for Exam # 1 to be 84.5% and 85%, respectively. While we still see some academic integrity issues, most of them were due to students having different expectations of the open book exam. Once we were able to discuss the situation during office hours, we moved forward and used the conversation as a learning experience. Typically, students took exam instructions seriously and even shut down their communication channel on Discord on exam days at my request. My team and I were delighted to see the demonstration of critical thinking skills and the thoughtful responses students write on their exams. In the real world, students will be able to use resources to do their work, and the open-book exam style presents a situation where students need to synthesize information and identify credible sources they can use.

Some guidelines for preserving academic integrity with open book exams:

  • Recognize that you cannot force students to follow the honor code; you will have to trust them to follow the exam expectations
  • Establish a clear guide to exam rules and permitted resources
  • Provide consistent reminders throughout the course
  • Disable student-managed communication channel (i.e. discord) on exam day
  • Google search for disclosed course materials
  • Develop multiple versions of a question
  • Make continuous updates to course content to create new questions
  • Incorporate open-ended questions where students cannot all write the same answer

Example of a structured open question:

During the last term, I collected student feedback on open book exams. The students appreciated the flexibility and the extra time that helped them feel less pressured and able to think clearly. One student wrote: “I preferred the open book style. This makes the exam much less stressful and focuses on our learning rather than memorization. Another student wrote: “The open book format was great because it didn’t make the course a memorization course. Even though it was an open book, it still tested our understanding of the topics we learned about, which reflects my acquired knowledge well. Students were also open to the questioning style, with one student writing, “I liked the variety of questions ranging from short answer to multiple choice allowing me to apply what I learned in different ways. The open book format was certainly useful and I prefer it. In the comments, the students also recounted their experiences with using a monitoring system in their other classes and expressed a sense of unease, stress and overall a “horrible experience”.

Moving forward

Each course is unique and has different learning objectives. Open book exams are not for all courses and adding short answer questions increases the grading load which may not be possible to manage. But, this experience opened my eyes to the different ways of evaluating student learning in high tuition courses. So where do we go from here? For my own class, I will continue to experiment with new questions and maybe even consider restructuring the “exams” into take-home assignments. As another student wrote: “The open book is cool, it’s more flexible.” I haven’t heard the word “cool” used in conjunction with a review yet, so I think that might be a good sign.


Debbie Fetter, PhD, is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Nutrition at UC Davis. She teaches “Nutrition 10: Discoveries and concepts in nutrition” both face-to-face and in a fully online version. In addition to teaching, she conducts research on studying the differences between face-to-face and online teaching.


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