Why I allow open-notes quizzes and tests

Every teacher has his or her own educational philosophies and teaching style. One of the things I’ve learned throughout my teaching career is that while good teachers learn from others and take bits and pieces from others to incorporate into their own classes, you can’t be another teacher. No two teachers are exactly alike, and trying to be a carbon copy of another teacher, no matter how incredible that teacher may be, isn’t going to be as effective as developing your own personal teaching style.

That being said, I learned a long time ago that I espouse some unique philosophies on education and teaching, and I run my classroom differently from most teachers I know. Which is fine. I would NEVER try to tell another teacher how to teach. I do not like it when others do that to me, so I don’t do it to them. Suggestions and tips are fine, but I shy away from saying things like, “You have to…,” or “You should…” Instead, if I notice a teacher is struggling or having a certain issue, I share with them, “What works for me is…” and let them adapt it for their own classroom.

If you read my blog regularly, you’re probably already aware of this: I assign seats in secondary classrooms. I don’t allow backpacks at desks. I grade through growth and gains. I accept late work. I rarely assign homework. I allow corrections. Many teachers disagree with my teaching style because that’s not what works for them. And that’s okay, as long as they don’t try to force me to do what works them.

In this vein, I offer another perspective that I have found to be quite rare in my educational experience: open-notes assessments. I’m not talking about a few here or there, I’m talking about every single classroom assessment being open book and open notes.

I can hear it now: “You must be joking!” But I’m not. Much like my philosophy on assigning homework, my perspective on assessments has evolved over the years. Here are the top five reasons why I now only give open-notes assessments:

  • It encourages consistent and high-quality note-taking skills. If my students know they will be able to use their notes on an assessment, they work harder in class to pay attention and write neatly so they can use them effectively later. Yes, they should be using them to study, but allowing them to use notes on an assessment provides another incentive to be on task and pay attention to detail.
  • It provides support for me when parents or administration questions a student’s grades. Much like my reasons for accepting late work, I find many arguments silenced when I tell a parent or an administrator that students are welcome to use their notes, and if they aren’t passing my assessments, it’s likely because they’re goofing off in class rather than writing down the key information.
  • Assessments should be authentic. Again, much like my decisions behind the assigning homework issue, I’ve really come to think critically about what purpose my assessments serve. I used to give assessments that were focused on rote memory skills. Could a student memorize a definition? Could a student memorize a formula? They didn’t focus very much on actual problem-solving skills or application. I realized I wanted to be more interested in whether or not my students understood the material. Had they internalized it? Could they render it useful in a given circumstance? I thought about how in the real world, if a student needed to find the circumference of a circle or develop a subplot in a story they wrote, it wouldn’t be in isolation. They would have access to and use various resources to find what they needed, and then use their knowledge of the concept to apply it. So I allow open-notes assessments because memorizing rote facts isn’t authentic.
  • Piggybacking on this idea is that both my teaching and my assessments are of higher quality because I allow students to use their notes. I have to carefully design my assessments so they don’t have problems that are too similar to what was given in the notes. I have to make sure that they present opportunities for students to apply what they’ve learned and not just copy from what was shown in class. I have to be more creative and have more depth in my instruction and my assessments.
  • Because of this, I’ve found that allowing students to use their notes on assessments honestly doesn’t make that big of a difference in their grades. Aside from a few formulas that they have access to, being able to use their notes doesn’t change the outcome by much for students. If a student truly understands the concept, takes conscientious notes, and studies, s/he’s going to succeed on the assessment, whether s/he has access to the notes or not. If a student doesn’t understand the concept, or didn’t take good notes, or didn’t study, s/he’s not going to succeed on the assessment – and having access to notes isn’t going to change that. The previous 4 benefits still make it worthwhile, though, so I continue to allow open-notes assessments.

“But wait!” Some may shout, “What about the state tests? Students can’t use notes on those!”

I’m aware of that, and I remind students of that at every turn. Most states, however, give formula sheets on the math assessments, which reinforces the idea of authenticity. I have found, though, that on state assessments, my students consistently perform at or above the level of my colleagues who do not give open-notes assessments, which negates this argument.

Is there a right or wrong philosophy here? No. As is true with nearly all aspects of teaching, it’s about finding what works for you and your students and running with it.

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