Assessment Design: types of assessment task

Open book

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Author(s): Rod Cullen and Rachel Forsyth

Suggested structure:

Brief description of task

Time constrained unseen exams where students can bring in books or folders can be useful if you want to 

  • Test skills in application, analysis and evaluation i.e. higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, rather than knowledge reproduction.
  • Present students with new situations or scenarios to be addressed against a deadline

They can be particularly useful if you want to see how students cope with a particular professional situation without much time to consult widely. They also test students' ability to identify and bring with them the right kind of material. 

Advantages and disadvantages

If you are assessing at a distance open book is also a way of doing time-constrained testing - see Williams, J.B. (2004). Creating authentic assessments: A method for the authoring of open book open web examinations. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 934-937). Perth , 5-8 December.

and some people think that giving a test like this which is time-constrained, but not for the usual 3 hour exam, is also very effective for campus-based students:

Baillie, Caroline  and Toohey, Susan (1997). "The ˜Power Test": its impact on student learning in a materials science course for engineering students." Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 22(1): 33 - 48.

Things to think about when designing the task: size, preparation time, guidance to be provided to students

What type of material can students bring in? Folders they have prepared themselves? Text books? 

How much material  can students bring in? 

How will you check whether material is acceptable or not?

Students will need clear guidance on how to prepare their materials and themselves for the exam and what the purpose of using the open book approach is.  

Sources of help

For staff...

Biggs, John and Tang, Catherine (2007). Assessing and Grading Declarative Knowledge (ch 10), Teaching for Quality Learning at University (3rd Ed), OUP.

For students...

How to Take an Open-Book Exam 

University of New South Wales FAQ on open book exams

What students say about this kind of task (if known)

There is some suggestion that students are reassured by open book exams

Betts, Lucy  R., Elder, Tracey  J., Hartley, James  and Trueman, Mark (2008). "Does correction for guessing reduce students' performance on multiple-choice examinations? Yes? No? Sometimes?" Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 33 (1): 1 - 14

Eilertsen, Tor Vidar and Valdermo, Odd (2000). "Open-book assessment: A contribution to improved learning?" Studies In Educational Evaluation 26(2): 91-103.


This example is one that Rod and Rachel worked through for the school of physiotherapy.

Here is a typical 'closed book' question which tests what students have learned about the tole of the physiotherapist in a multi-professional team:

As a physiotherapist, you will be expected to be able to work within a multi-professional team. Critically discuss how the physiotherapist may contribute to effective teamwork.

If this were given as an open book question, it would encourage and reward students for copying/paraphrasing from notes and published literature on effective team work.  In that situation, they would in effect be asked to write (or copy) down everything they have brouhgt in about team working.  There is an obvious possibility of plagiarism.

How might this question be rearranged?

1. Present a scenario around team working (please bear in mind that we knew nothing about physiotherapy so this was just to get people thinking). For example:

You are the physiotherapist in a multi-professional team.  An elderly female patient presents after having a hip replacement operation.  The patient lives alone in sheltered accommodation and reports that they have no close family.

2. Present the students with a task that tests their ability to analyse and/or evaluate the scenario and apply their knowledge of team working in providing an answer. 

Which other agencies and colleagues would you expect to work with to plan her discharge?  Explain your role in the multi-professional team and the particular issues that relate to this type of case and how the team would ensure that they work together to provide the best patient care.


This doesn’t confine the student to a single way of answering the question and as their response has to be context specific, it reduces the opportunities for simply copying notes and plagiarism. It still allows the student to refer to theories about team-woring ("explain your role"). It also allows better quality students to suggest a range of possible outcomes and solutions.

The second part of the question could stay the same even if the scenario is changed from year to year further reducing the chances of copying and plagiarism.

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