Is an open note exam really beneficial? Allowing students to use notes during a statistics exam

Submitted by Jennifer Shannon on

Students continually ask if they can use notes on an exam. My answer is always the same, NO! Notes do not help, they will cause more harm than good because students take longer trying to find the solution or how to do the problem. I decided on the 4th exam in my statistics class I was going to allow them to use notes to see if the notes truly do help them. The exam was over hypothesis tests and everything from forming the test to deciding which test is best and calculating the statistic, getting a p-value and forming a conclusion. There is quite a lot on the exam. While the students did take much longer to finish the exam I did find that based on two previous semesters, the students did do better overall. The average in fa13 was a 67%, the average in fa14 was 79% and the average this semester was 81%. I have taught the material exactly the same but I am comparing different semesters fall to spring instead of spring to spring, so I do not know if that would play a role. The time was much different though. Where I usually have only a few students remaining with about 10 minutes left, with notes I had about half of the class remaining.

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Average: 4.5 (2 votes)


Becky Baranowski Fri, 04/29/2016 - 5:35am

I am both surprised and not surprised that they did better.  Not surprised:  They had notes and they probably weren't as stressed out about the exam. They also had examples to use to help them.  

Surprised:  I have found that students tend to not study as much when notes can be used, so they are not prepared for the exam.  Then, they are frantically looking through their notes trying to find "help".  

Jennifer Shannon Fri, 04/29/2016 - 7:32am

I tried to control the observation by not letting them know ahead of time that they would use notes on the exam. I do not know if that is why they did better using notes.

Peter Turner Fri, 04/29/2016 - 9:45am

I applaud your risk-taking on this, Jennifer! And I like how you are not telling them ahead of time that they will be able to use their notes. So, what are you going to do in the future? Allow them to use notes or not? A dilemma . . . I would guess the most important influencing factor is which strategy will more effectively help kick the information over into long-term memory.

Norma Jimenez Hernandez Fri, 04/29/2016 - 8:29pm

Jennifer, I'm curious as to what notes they used.  Were they notes that they had taken during the semester?  Did everyone have the same notes?  I think what might be happening, too, is just a cohort effect.  That is, it may be that you had an exceptional class the last semester.