Published: 30th August 2020
Why I believe the Open Book Examination in Business education is the way forward
Prof Tania Saritova Rath from Xavier University, Bhubaneswar talks about her experience with Open Book Examinations, its significance now and why we need to conduct them in a much better way
I first learned about Open Book Examination (OBE) while pursuing my MBA in 2002, when fellow batchmates requested for an OBE to a Macro Economics Professor. I was surprised by the request and looked at the professor with an expectation that she would reject the proposal outright. But she smiled and agreed for an OBE. As I explored further, I came to know that such a mode of examination is being conducted at times in technical college education. However, the end term is usually the traditional closed book examination. Eventually, I experienced OBE where we can refer to books, class notes or any other resources freely to write the answers. My first experience was a total disaster. As I tried to write an entire answer from the book, it took me more than half of the scheduled time. I realised that I had to write the rest of the answers in just one hour. I closed the book and wrote them, recalling the rest of the answers from memory and somehow, with a lot of anxiety, was able to finish the paper on time. I found OBE to be much more difficult than a closed book examination.
Personal experiences apart, I still see students being excited about OBE and requesting for the same in MBA courses. During the pandemic, this mode of examination came in handy for most of the professors as they struggled to complete the courses and student evaluations. Closed Book Examinations (CBE) are well-established traditional modes of examinations based on the cognitive retrieval process. Students take the examinations without the aid of books or notes. Consulting any material is considered as cheating in the examination. Invigilation is an integral part of CBE. Conventional CBE primarily focuses on recall ability of students. However, situational, application-based questions designed thoughtfully can also judge critical-thinking, analytical and application skills of students, but the source of answer is memory recall.
OBEs permit students to refer to various sources such as books, class notes, reading materials and so on during the examinations. Currently, the source can be the internet as well. It aims at testing student’s reasoning in place of student memory recall. It emphasises on what they can apply rather than what they memorise.
As my experience demonstrated, OBEs may not be as easy as it appears to be. Students usually support OBEs because a major advantage of it, as research shows, is reduction in anxiety and stress-level of students which accompany any examination. In case of CBEs, students might prepare answers for selected expected questions and pass the examinations. Hence, surface-learning may help a student pass CBEs.
But OBEs indirectly test how well the student is able to apply theoretical knowledge to new situations. This promotes long-term retention by encouraging mastery orientation rather than performance orientation of CBEs. OBEs encourage deep-learning approach rather than surface-learning.
Some of the modes of OBEs employed by various institutes are:
- Online examination using the institute's intranet which can be remotely-accessed. Here, traditional examination can be replicated minus invigilation. A variant could be a proctored examination supported by tech professionals.
- Email-based examination where question paper is sent via email five minutes before the commencement of the examinations. Students have to write offline, save and send the answer papers within the given time duration.
- A term paper or assignment can be given one to two days before the examinations. Students have to write and submit the answers within specified time.
- Case study-based examinations where case is given beforehand, but case questions are given five minutes before the commencement of examination. Students write offline and submit the answer paper via email.
The main purpose of business education is to build a knowledge base as well as business acumen and attributes to enable the students to work in corporates or establish their own start-ups. For adding economic value to any country, acquisition of knowledge as a productive force is important. The ability to apply theoretical knowledge enables an MBA student to add direct value to socio-economic development of the country. OBEs based on higher order thinking required for applying and integrating knowledge to solve problems ensures formative development of the individual and ensures a lifelong learning orientation.
CBEs requiring more challenging retrieval questions ensure long-term retention. In MBA education however, long-term application requiring higher order inferential thinking is more important than long-term retention. Business professionals need to be able to apply knowledge to new situations on a consistent basis, especially when the knowledge changes and adapts constantly to new technological developments. Besides that research has evidence of little difference in memory benefits between OBEs and CBEs.
In case of OBEs, the ability to locate and apply relevant materials from books, notes or even the web enables them to do the same later, whenever confronted with a situation or problem. This becomes the foundation for lifelong learning orientation.
The open book approach simulates more closely with the way managers work in addressing situations and solving complex problems. In an OBE, there is no mere recall of information. The questions asked are comprehensive and students work at a higher cognitive level of analysis, synthesis and evaluation as per Bloom’s taxonomy. The examination process becomes an exercise of logic and problem-solving.
It encourages students to apply deep approaches to studying. As Biggs (1995) pointed out, this implies in depth coverage of subject matter. Students consult various sources to master the subject and are able to interrelate and infer from the information obtained from such sources. It also offers students a self-evaluation mechanism. They evaluate their learning gaps in mastering the course content and try to bridge the gaps. At the end of examination, they are in a position to self-evaluate their performance.
Some of the issues associated with OBE as suggested by research are the following.
- Students spend considerable time locating the source of information which affects their performance as they lose time for structuring the answer.
-It causes a tendency among students to not prepare adequately for the examination due to an increase in self-confidence.
- Faculty members’ workload increases while setting questions for OBE as well as while grading the answers. They have to stretch themselves to set up creative and meaningful tests which can not come from a set question bank.
- Also, while evaluating the answers they cannot follow standardised answers and routine grading procedures. Each answer has to be evaluated on its own merit and logic. This may dissuade teachers from conducting OBEs.
The research literature has revealed that there is no significant difference observed in student performance as far as CBE and OBEs are concerned. The author has compared the end term performance of two batches, one appearing for a CBE while other for an OBE in the same subject. There is no significant difference in average marks obtained. The present pandemic has compelled institutes to conduct examinations online as students are dispersed throughout the country. The option for closed book proctored examination is provided by some educational vendors like Mercer. But it cannot ensure a full-proof student monitoring. OBEs seem like a more viable alternative which requires the faculty to set questions in a different manner based on inference, application and higher order thinking. Proctoring to ensure monitoring against cheating from peers through WhatsApp or other modes can be ensured as student activity during the examination is recorded.The time to change our perspective towards OBEs and apply it in post graduate courses like MBA seem to have arrived. New and innovative ways of conducting OBEs hence, may be explored and applied by the faculty of management studies. This format will open up competition in a completely different way, as a student’s analytical and comprehension skills can be evaluated in a much better way. It will provide teachers with a better opportunity to understand learning outcomes and learning gaps and initiate remedial measures.
(Prof Tania Saritova Rath teaches at Xavier University, Bhubaneswar)