Is it even possible to set an online open book mathematics exam?

When trying to offer advice on how to modify exams for the coming semester exams, some subjects have presented with unique issues. Mathematics, for example, has the unenviable dilemma of not being able to set calculation type questions as students can simply type them into an online calculator and be presented not just with the solution, but the workings out too.

The remedy presented to other subjects that require numerical calculations, such as statistics and accounting, of randomising questions, both through the formula question type in Canvas as well as question banks, is not appropriate for mathematics.

The only hope of confidently reducing the amount of ‘Googling’ during the exam is to create more complex questions, questions that require deeper understanding or the application of knowledge, which also requires deeper understanding. Whilst this is of course the ultimate goal of any subject, if such application demands haven’t been taught, then the likelihood of students producing quality answers in exams is limited. If the amount of content that has been introduced determines that only superficial understanding is possible, a breadth rather than depth approach, then question types in the exam can’t change because it’s now open book – students simply wouldn’t have been prepared sufficiently, and thus the exam will not produce valid inferences.

In defense of mathematics, many of the calculation questions that an ordinary invigilated exam would test are designed as such to strengthen fundamental processes and skills that are required for further study in the discipline. The building of the schema is essential to be able to apply understanding in further contexts. But open book exams now pose a large threat to such a design of curriculum. It may be in the future that a depth rather than breadth approach is the only feasible option, so that the depth of understanding in less of the content can open opportunity to assess the application of the knowledge, and thus mitigate against cheating.

Baby with the bathwater?

However, there is something that mathematics’ exam designers should also be conscious of before eliminating all questions that a student could simply look up. The beginning of an exam should really be designed to ease students into the process, to provide a quick boost as they solve a question they find relatively easy. The anxiety, practically 100% concomitant with sitting university examination, is immediately partially assuaged, and thus reduces cognitive overload and allows a student to think more clearly. Exams that begin with very difficult problems can throw off students’ confidence significantly, even those who know enough to pass. It may be that you still set those initial questions as fundamental skill questions that could be looked up but knowing that for the majority, who won’t need to look them up, they will benefit from gaining some confidence in the initial stages of the exam that will facilitate better attempts at the more difficult questions later on.

In the end, it’s not about those who will cheat, it’s about those who won’t.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a Learning Designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

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