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02/13/2013

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Lewis Powell

If you are testing the students' ability to recall facts that are simply printed in the book, then an open-book exam is ill-advised.

If you are, on the other hand, asking students to critically reflect on material from the course, and don't want your assessment of their abilities on that front to be skewed by their ability (or lack thereof) to recall various details from the readings, then an open book exam makes more sense.

Moti Mizrahi

Lewis: Thanks for your comment. Could you say a bit more about what you mean by "critically reflect on material"? What exactly do you expect your students to be able to do on an exam?

Lewis Powell

When I taught professional ethics, I had an exam that featured questions from both categories. Here is an example of a question that seems silly to ask if the exam is open-note/open-book:

"List Bernard Williams’s two reasons for thinking it is important to elect politicians who are reluctant to do morally questionable things, even when it really is necessary for them to do so."

If this is given as a question on an open-book exam, I am not testing the student's retention of course material, I am instead, giving them a scavenger hunt.

On the other hand, I also have questions more like this:
"In lecture, Professor Powell explained the Rule of Reciprocity, and discussed some ways that ‘predators’ could take advantage of the rule to manipulate us. Give an example of how a ‘predator’ could take advantage of the rule of reciprocity in a professional workplace."

Since the exam contained both types of questions, students could not refer to their notes and refresh their memory of the "Rule of Reciprocity" when I gave that exam. But the real goal of the question is to get them to use their understanding of the rule to think through a way that someone could exploit the rule in the workplace. Since they are supposed to come up with a novel case, the main point of that question is not undermined in an open-book/open-note context.

Now, the exams from which those came were a mixture of both sorts of questions, so the whole exam had to be closed-book. But in other courses, I have assignments/exercises for the students that focus exclusively ont the latter sort of task, and I typically give those in the form of homework exercises rather than in-class exams. A student can re-read Berkeley's dialogues as many times as they please if my request is that they articulate the different ways one could challenge a specific argument offered by Philonous.

Trevor Hedberg

Take-home exams can actually be pretty useful if you want students to develop genuine philosophical skills. Since good philosophy requires careful and considered reflection on difficult questions, it's hard to test students in the appropriate manner on an in-class exam that lasts a mere 50 or 75 minutes.

Moreover, since we have plagiarism detection software now, it's not too difficult to ensure that students turn in original work. (I'm consistently amazed at SafeAssign's ability to detect plagiarism.) As Lewis suggested, it really just depends on what type of skills you want them to demonstrate on the particular assessment.

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