The Pros and Cons of Open-Book Tests: Are They a Better Indicator of Understanding?

Open-book tests, also known as “reference-based assessment,” are exams where students are allowed to use their textbooks, course notes, and other materials during their test-taking process. This type of testing is becoming increasingly popular among educators, with many believing that open-book tests are a better indicator of a student’s understanding of the material. However, as with any testing methodology, there are pros and cons to this approach.

Pros of Open-Book Testing:

One of the primary advantages of open-book testing is that the exam more accurately tests the student’s ability to use the material, rather than merely regurgitate it from memory. In an open-book exam, the student is forced to think critically, to reason and apply the principles learned, and to challenge the application of those principles in a way that requires synthesis and analysis. Such a process demands a deeper level of thinking than a simple memorization test.

Another benefit of open-book testing is that students who are good at research and information retrieval have an advantage, which better reflects the skills needed in the real world. These skills are increasingly valuable in a society where information is increasingly available at the click of a button, and testing the ability to use this information is crucial.

Cons of Open-Book Testing:

Of course, open-book testing also has its drawbacks. One of the most significant concerns is that the test is too easy, leading to grades with less meaning. While an open-book test may challenge a student’s thinking, it doesn’t necessarily test their ability to recall information and use reasoning to arrive at an answer. Additionally, an open-book test may result in a test that has more questions because the assumption is that the student will be able to look up information quickly. The time limitations may still be strict, but the number of questions may increase to force the student to focus and use their time wisely.

Moreover, open-book testing may not be practical in all settings. For example, in the case of standardized testing, the tests are designed to be uniform, and the answers are supplied to be easily accessible. With open-book testing, the student doesn’t have the right answer given and must formulate their own answer, which can be challenging.


In conclusion, open-book testing has its advantages and disadvantages. While it can help to test a student’s critical thinking skills and ability to work with information, it may not be as effective in assessing their general knowledge of the subject. For open-book testing to be successful, educators must design tests to focus on specific skills that challenge the student’s understanding of the material. Then, they must balance these tests by making sure that they still measure the student’s ability to recall and apply the concepts. Sustainable and successful education requires a balanced approach that incorporates both open-book testing and traditional memorization-based testing.