Are open book tests the answer to India's education woes?

When Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) chairman Vineet Joshi announced last week that the CBSE board was introducing an Open Book system for their board exams, a buzz emanated across drawing rooms from Banganga to Boisar.

Over 22 lakh students across India appeared for their CBSE 10th and 12th Board exams this year. And while the number of candidates from Mumbai was less than 10,000, this is clearly not just about the CBSE alone. The Open Book system, referred to as an “education revolution in India” has taken everyone -- children, parents, teachers -- by surprise. A happy surprise.

The Open Book system encourages students to hone their analytical skills and understand concepts instead of learning by rote. File photo

But what exactly is the Open Book system that the CBSE says will change the way kids study and rescue future generations from the evils of rote learning?

While CBSE has introduced Open Book exams, most other boards still encourage students to memorise answers. pic for representational purposes only

Historically, an Open Book system -- practiced in several countries, especially for school boards, law exams and some competitive tests -- encourages students to bring relevant, pre-chosen books and written material into the examination hall. This system ensures that students read entire books, develop analytical skills and understand how to apply their knowledge to specific areas without memorising answers in the way most Indian boards force their students to do.

How it works
Students will be allotted subject wise case studies four months before the exams. Thereafter, each students will be expected to understand the concepts mentioned in these case studies. Each of these sections across all subjects will be given a 20 per cent weightage in the final exams and the questions will all come from the given case studies. This, say CBSE officials, will genuinely show whether a student has understood a concept clearly and can articulate it well, instead of being a meter test of his memorising powers.
According to Joshi, the main purpose behind this step is to do away with rote learning and to help students understand and apply concepts instead.

For the record, the Open Book policy will be introduced across all subjects for Classes IX and X and for Economics, Biology, Geography and a language for the higher secondary level students, The case studies have already been finalised for the November, 2013 annual exams.

The first real test of this system will come in the Class X board exams in 2014 and then in the Class XII board exam in 2015. It will be part of the Summative Assessment II for Class IX. For Class X, it will be part of the Summative Assessment II under the Continuous and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) scheme (for students opting for School based Board exams).

According to CBSE officials, the Open Book system has been christened the Pre-Announced Test (PAT). And no, books in the exam halls will not be allowed.

Why now?
The big trigger for this move came apparently after Indian students did poorly in a recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Speaking to SUNDAY MiD DAY, Avnita Bir, principal of RN Podar School, Santacruz, says it was soon after, that the Board started rethinking how independent thinking could be fostered in students. “In the long run this system will help students. We are looking at what the global benchmark is. It will gradually gain popularity and be accepted. While children will grow up encouraged to think independently and arrive at their own conclusions rather than follow what a book says as the last word, teachers too will radically change the way they teach. The Board is conducting a lot of in-house workshops for teachers,” she says.

A question of answers
So what do academics, students and parents make of it? Will other boards follow CBSE’s lead and improve upon it soon. Or do they feel this is merely old wine in a new bottle and giving case studies to mug up is not going to suddenly develop analytical skills in teenagers? Is a genuine open book exam environment still light years away?

Bir says, “This will be an additional test that the Board will conduct. Children will get a case study along with some study material to read up and understand. Four months on, they will then apply the principles of what they have learnt to answer a specific case study.”
But what’s the big deal? Are they not still learning by rote then? Bir disagrees, “Students are used to questions which have straight forward answers. Worse still, over the years the questions have become predictable, so clever students simply memorise answers and score outstanding marks. We want the children to develop problem-solving and analytical skills. In the new Open Book system, one question could have linkages to various other questions.” Bir reconfirmed that the new tests would cover all five subjects included in the 10th standard exam, including social studies, English, second language and Maths.

The CBSE decision has perhaps not come across as that much of a surprise to those in international boards such as IGCSE and IB. When SMD contacted Farzana Dohadwala, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Advisor for South Asia, she said, “People think the Open Book exam is a very simple test. But it is not as easy as just opening a book and copying an answer. In fact it is a very tough exam as it requires students to not just study the entire book but also internalise the concepts and improve their analytical skills. You have to know the concept and understand it. The questions that are asked are very different. They are not direct questions but more application oriented. Of course there are advantages in this because it encourages children to move away from rote learning. In the long run, students will be the biggest winners. The way of teaching and learning in schools will change now. The IB system already follows this method, though we don’t still have a genuine Open Book system where students bring in written material into the exam hall. But our tests always focus on case studies and ask analytical questions.”

But how does all this help a student become a well-rounded individual? “Look at it this way: There are 10 different ways of going to point B from point A. Similarly, if it’s not about rote learning but more about your interpretation of a problem, then each student can well give different answers and still be correct,” she explains.

Surprise surprise!
Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education (MSBSHSE) chairman Sarjerao Jadhav does not see this half-way-house system gaining credence across India any time soon. “Our board does not have an Open Book exam system. It is an innovative idea and I guess the CBSE may be experimenting. CBSE students are mostly from urban areas and so the parents are aware of global benchmarks and systems,” he says.

Yet, of all the boards SMD spoke to, it is the MSBSHSE alone that boasts a genuine Open Book exam system where students are allowed to appear to for two papers where they have the right to consult books and write their answers.

“We set questions that are skill-based. The book is provided not so that they can merely copy from it, but so that they can substantiate their analytical answers with facts. Sadly, till now we do not have many takers for this test, since a majority of our students do not come from Mumbai or Pune,” he added.

Jadhav explains that in MSBSHSE Open Book exams the books are provided by the concerned department and not brought from home by students. “Or else students will bring books that have important pages marked. A student can refer to books when writing lengthy answers but for advanced maths, books are not allowed. Students will have to be motivated for self-learning to accept
this system.”

And while the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) has not introduced an open book system yet, some ICSE affiliated schools already follow this method till Class IX.

One such school is the Pawar Public School, which has branches in Bhandup and Chandivli. Speaking to SMD, Dr Madhura Phadke, principal of the school, said, “The Continuous Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) system which is approved by the government, includes an Open Book test, and we have that in our school from class I till class IX. For the past two academic sessions, we have been giving our students a topic and then allowing them to use their books in the exam hall. For every subject there is one open book test per year for all our students across all classes. But don’t think this makes it easy. It just helps them study in an intelligent manner. A student will not know an answer unless he or she has revised the lessons thoroughly. Because of this exam teachers also come to know whether a child is regular in his or her studies, has referred to the textbook or reference book that is prescribe and whether the child has applied the concepts correctly.”

Train the teachers
Of course, no amount of method teaching and innovative exam modules can succeed in fostering independent thought and encourage students to use their analytical skills in class, unless our teachers first change the way they approach teaching. Punishing or giving low marks to students who have failed to mug an answer or those who give a different point of view to the one argued by the teacher in class -- kill free thinking early. “It is evident that all boards will have to make an effort to change teaching methods first. The syllabus will have to be change; evaluation systems will need to change too and teachers will have to relearn ways of teaching,”
says Jadhav.

Agrees Dohadwala, “We will have to change teachers’ strategy, may be teacher-training colleges will now have to change their style. Every child will answer questions in their own way. I hope this happens sooner than later across all boards.”

Driving home a point
So are the students happy about being freethinkers and finally getting a chance to give one half of their brain a chance. Or would they prefer the old style of rote learning?

Janhvi Verma, a student of class X at RN Podar CBSE board, sounds excited when she says, “The Open Book exam is starting from our batch. To prepare us better, our school has introduced flipped classes. In this system, homework becomes class work and class work becomes homework. Our teacher first uploads a topic on our website before teaching it. We have to go through the subject material that is uploaded, understand and study it. Then we go to school and the teacher asks us what we understood before finally helping us clear doubts. We then do an activity based on that topic. This makes a topic easier to grasp. I am happy that I am finally getting a chance to use my brain in solving a question rather than writing what I have mugged up. I am happy with this innovation.”

Janhvi’s mother, Dolly Verma echoed her daughter’s sentiments. “We have taken this change in a positive way. In fact we are looking forward to such changes.”

Abhishek Acharya, student of class VIII at Pawar Public School already has had experience with the system. “I have given my Open Book test from class VI and it is easy if you study well and refer the books that the school suggests. The advantage is that you don’t have to memorise every answer. In such tests, if a student forgets one line, he often messes up the whole answer. But here it’s all about explaining a concept in your own words, using your own arguments. I wish the ICSE board introduces this system for board exams soon.”

What is Open Book?
The new CBSE system claims it will encourage students to grasp a concept before writing analytical answers in their own words. In the classical Open Book system too, the aim is the same, though the means employed, are a bit different.

In an Open Book exam, a student is evaluated on understanding rather than recall and memorisation. He or she is expected to have full access to content (books and notes, etc.) in the exam hall and in fact, they are encouraged to organise it in such a way that relevant sections can be found quickly.

Make your reference materials as user-friendly as possible so that you don’t lose time locating what you need.

Also another main difference between Open and Closed Book examination questions is in the way that they use theory. An open book question provides the candidates with the theory the question is examining and then asks them to demonstrate their ability to apply it to a scenario. A closed book question will require the candidate to state the theory from memory. In this respect, the Open Book examination is closer to the working environment where the employee has access to manuals and examples of past work to draw on.

An Open Book question will rarely use the words ‘describe’ or ‘state’ or even ‘explain’ as these words usually preface a question which requires the candidate to recall a theoretical approach from memory. An Open Book question can precisely specify the approach the examiner wishes the candidate to follow.  

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