FROM THE ARMCHAIR
SOMETIME soon, those who debate the proper role of examinations and papers in course instruction are going to realize that the examination is a test of the teacher as well as the student. In an exam, the educator can prove that his course was a venture in teaching, or that it was devoid of all content save rote memorization; that the reading offered perspective as well as raw data; that the lectures were designed to teach rather than merely to reflect the teacher's personal intellectual abilities. Conversely, the exams may simply demonstrate that the lecturer had nothing better to do than read formulas and dates and imply that the only use of the student's learning is that it can be regurgitated upon command.
If the President's committee that is now studying exams should recommend that students be allowed to bring any materials they wish into the examination room, the initial furor would be enormous. But just this kind of rule is needed to encourage professors to think out their courses more carefully and to give students a sensible degree of responsibility for their own education.
Making all exams open-book would be perfectly practical in introductory language courses and in the sciences, where the change seems most implausible. The doubtful may try selecting the book that will enable them to translate a language they do not know, or to solve a problem in organic chemistry. Open-book exams would transfer emphasis from the memory to the application of knowledge, and invite the teacher to consider the creative possibilities of what he is teaching.
Students should be competent to decide for themselves whether memorizing a fact is more convenient than having to look it up. Some may choose to learn logarithm tables; others to look up even the basic axioms of mathematics when a problem confronts them. But there is no reason why a student who can make sense of a historical situation by looking up the associated dates and names should not be permitted to do so--in the end his essay or his translation will either make sense or not--unless, of course, a teacher has nothing more to offer than a selection of dates, places and publication, or lines of verse.
The essential reason for making open-book exams universal is that they are sensible and realistic. Harvard is not training people to do chemistry on a desert island, nor is it graduating men to practice law in out space. The library is part of the world in which people work, and an examination that rejects it is just a kind of one-handed push-up.
The conflict between final exam and papers is mostly based upon the differences between emphasis upon memory and upon understanding. This should not be, for papers Open-book exams place a responsibility on the professor and demand that he do more than tell student which formulas, dates, names, and theories to memorize. Perhaps it is time to consider whether memorization-for-credit should really be a credit course at Harvard--and if so, it is also time to consider whether the open-book exam should become the rule rather than the exception.
Open-book exams place a responsibility on the professor and demand that he do more than tell student which formulas, dates, names, and theories to memorize. Perhaps it is time to consider whether memorization-for-credit should really be a credit course at Harvard--and if so, it is also time to consider whether the open-book exam should become the rule rather than the exception.