Questioning the Concept of Open Book Tests

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The story so far: In the year 2017, open book tests were introduced. This made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.

– Adam Duggal, Hitchhiker’s Guide to College

Before you get your hopes high or take offense (if you’re a part of the administration or an extension of it), let’s make it clear. This article is neither in praise of nor to bury the concept of open book tests. This is merely an objective commentary on the novelty, as introduced to MIT.

You walk into the classroom on assignment day with a newly issued book from the MIT Library. The fresh smell of old books still emanating from it. Honestly, you have no clue about the subject or what is being taught in class. Yet, by virtue of your tremendous page flipping skills, you somehow manage to get yourself a 6/6 in the assignment.

This is dangerous. Once you ace an assignment using a book, by fluke, you get captivated by the overwhelming sense of false achievement. That is exactly what open book tests are designed to instill in you. Because the next time, you might not be as lucky.

Understanding the motive


One cannot possibly dissect the concept of open book tests without questioning the reason for their introduction in the curriculum. An educated guess suggests the professors wanted students to get familiar with the prescribed textbooks, and refer to them more often. It’s a fair point, noting how few students would ever subscribe to textbooks in previous semesters. The librarians are almost exasperated with the marked increase of “tourists” coming in this week to issue books. Most of them are unaware of the procedure even in their third semester (or higher).

Some professors suggest that the concept was introduced due to recruiting companies not being pleased with the method of assignments in MIT, Manipal. The old method led to students studying only for marks, thus missing out on core fundamentals of the subject.

An open book test is to test aspiring engineers to use theoretical knowledge to apply and solve a practical problem. Thus I strongly believe textbooks are essential for students to invest time in. Speaking from personal experience, as I first picked up Cormen (a.k.a CLRS, a popular book on algorithms and data structures), I realised why it is revered in Biblical sanctity.

Too fast, too soon

Consider how different the teaching methodologies are: an average Indian engineering classroom and one in the Western world (read: America) for which most of the prescribed books are written. If not that, consider the fact that most authors of said books are professors who teach at colleges whose teaching style stands out in stark contrast to ours. Suddenly forcing textbooks in the course might not be the best way to make them more inclusive. Ours is a college where the predominant media of study materials are PDFs (prepared by professors) or notes from Om Xerox. If we are to make a conscious effort to indulge students into textbooks, we need a slower, gradual transition.

Also, doesn’t it seem grand of professors all advocating textbooks (which encourage higher order thinking beyond the scope of rote learning), while they’d point you towards existing literature on the topic from the Internet every time you ask them a question?
Note: Professors from my department (I&CT) seem to be exceptions here. They know their stuff. #FTW

Of ink, paper, and wastage

paper, and anguish

I cannot help but draw an analogy to the demonetisation move last December, to this. The government’s move came at a time when it wasn’t fully prepared to handle the massive amounts of transactions, and fell short of currency. Similarly, the open book tests arrive at a time, when even our otherwise well-equipped library cannot handle entire departments with four sections, all depleting a title from the shelf. The result? Monstrous amounts of paper and ink being wasted for printing notes, never to be used again. One can argue that the prints can be passed on to the juniors. But safekeeping them for two semesters seems implausible.
I mean, come on. Nearly everyone loses their combo/mess card at least once in four years, so printed notes aren’t the stuff you’re going to treasure.

“Challenge accepted!”

A lot depends on the professor setting your questions for the assignment. I was lucky to have my DBS professor set two derivation based questions straight from the book. While others report their professors nested questions within questions as a means to give students a hard time. If you are unfortunate enough to have an inconsiderate professor, they will take it up as a challenge to set the paper hard enough to nullify the handicap of possessing a textbook.

A level playing field

Much to the dismay of front bench high collar kids, open book tests easily flatten out the field giving everyone a decent chance. Or as some tend to believe: everyone messes up together. There’s no such thing as “free lunch”, or “free marks” if you’re in college. If the prospect of open book tests last semester made you believe you’ll have it easy, you surely have been proven otherwise now. Hence, needless to say that continuous and regular study trumps all others. And whether or not you know the subject or the assignment, it is imperative now to know the textbook. Pro tip: start with the index, and learn it by heart.

And honestly, if we are all looking for a shortcut to merit, ditching textbooks until the eleventh hour, thus producing a bad example before recruiting companies and dealing our juniors a bad hand, it is really on us, not the college.


– by Agnihotra Bhattacharya with inputs from the MTTN crew.
– photos by Dhruv Pandey, and Anmol Rathi

Agnihotra Bhattacharya

Being eternally hungry, and with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, I took to writing as an outlet for the wide spectrum of emotions that I usually portray.

Mercurial, loquacious, and always looking at the world through a broken pair of rose coloured glasses, I can never settle for anything, for too long.

I am the one who wanders.

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