open exams, opening minds

by Paul Maharg on 19/09/2005

We all have exam stories.  My first experience of an open book exam was a memorable one.  It happened in a literature course, on seventeenth century English prose, and we were allowed to take into the exam hall one of the key course texts.  I took in a copy of Bacon’s Essays, apprehensively, having written fairly extensively on the pages of the text, as we were allowed to do.  Two hours later I emerged, stunned.  The first forty minutes or so of the two hours were spent riffling and trying to control the tide of everything I gradually became aware I wanted to say to answer the question on the exam paper.  Having the text there in the exam beside me called up ideas incessantly, bewilderingly, and for the rest of exam I wrote frantically.  It was like being tumbled over by a heavy surf of ideas, concepts, memory of textual, cultural, historical links and, surprisingly, a creativity that had never occurred before in an examination. Previously in closed book exams, no matter what the subject, it was always a cautious intellectual pinball game, flipping essays against the point-scoring nodes of textual memory, relevance to the question and critical analysis, until game over — and no tilting.  Here, there was an immediate connection with what I wanted to say about the text.  I found a voice in which to speak to a seventeenth century text which, to be frank, I hadn’t taken that much to (preferring  baroque prose such as Browne’s Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall) and in such circumstances!  What went right? 

There was a rich context of ideas; there were the leadings of ideas in my notes; there was sense of urgency in the two hours that made me think furiously; and above all there was a growing sense of the examination being a learning experience as well as an assessment — the sense of being assessed to find out, in a dynamic way, what I had to say about the text in the exam hall that I didn’t really know I had to say before I came into the hall.  Looking back on it, it was one of the best assessment experiences I had as an undergraduate.

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