Are ‘closed book’ examinations a bad idea?

Changes to the GCSE English Literature specifications are, apparently, starting to bite. As well as abandoning the modular approach to assessment in which students sat 2 separate modular exams and completed an extended piece of controlled assessment, students are now expected to sit two terminal exams.  One change to these exams which has upset lots of English teachers is the move from ‘open book’ to ‘closed book’ exams. What this means is that students are no longer permitted to take copies of the texts they have studied into the exam and are instead required to have learned quotations by heart.

The TES reported recently that as a consequence of a petition with over 100,000 signatories being presented to parliament, MPs will debate the whether such an exam is fair. The petition to authorise open book exams reads as follows:

The introduction of closed book examinations, for GCSE English Literature, requires students to learn and memorise quotes for this exam. There are 2 literature papers which include the content of: 15 poems, 2 plays and 1 novella. Exams shouldn’t be a test on the student’s memory, but how we interpret texts.

Students are expected to remember: quotes from each character & themes and context that are incorporated within these texts – it is estimated that 250+ quotes could be potentially memorised for this exam. On top of 20+ exams, students are experiencing high levels of stress – due to the paper being more demanding for a higher grade. English is a subject that all employers & universities look at, therefore if students are unable to realistically achieve high grades – there will be lower employment rates.

The government’s response is that, “GCSE English literature content requires students to read the full texts of the books and poems they study. Students will not need to remember the exact words of poems by heart in order to succeed.”

Let’s have a think about the concerns raised by the petition. Firstly, there’s the claim that exams shouldn’t be a test of memory but of the ability to interpret a text. Why is interpreting a text more important than knowing it? I think this is a ’21st century skills’ argument is disguise. If we prioritise a skill of interpretation over knowledge of the texts studied we can then also claim that it doesn’t much matter what it is that students are interpreting. You can claim that the ability to interpret texts offers potential employers some insight into your intellectual capabilities which will somehow transfer to being able to interpret financial statements or legal reports. As regular readers will know, I’m deeply sceptical that such generic, transferable skills can be taught. You can’t think about – or interpret – something you don’t know. The idea that a student’s interpretation of text they don’t know much about is an any way worthwhile is, I think, both sad and deeply limiting for students. All too often in English lessons students learn that everyone’s opinion is equally valid, that there are ‘no wrong answers‘ and that arguing what you think is more important than knowing a text in any depth. Anything which challenges these orthodoxies is, in my view, a good thing.

Second, we have the claim that the new GCSE are unduly stressful. What’s causing this stress? We all accept that exams are stressful by nature – it’s always a cause of anxiety when someone judges our performance in any area. But would we be doing students a favour by eliminating stress from their lives? Would this better prepare them for job interviews, presentations, moving house or whatever else they’ll encounter in their lives?  The implication is that the stress is caused by expectation to memorised over 250 quotations. I think learning quotations seems stressful because it’s something many teachers haven’t had to do before and so it’s perceived as overwhelmingly difficult. Not only that, memorisation is often used pejoratively as if being able to ‘regurgitate’ a quotation is trivially simplistic. Can you spot the inconsistency? Either learning quotes is either hard or it’s easy – I don’t see how we can argue that it’s both.

Happily, there’s very little correlation between intelligence and the ability to commit information to long-term memory: any fool can memorise stuff. Everyone reading this has memorised many thousands of vocabulary items, hundreds of letter/sound correspondences and a  complex system of grammar and semantics. Although it might seem like a Herculean task to sit down with a list of these things and attempt to deliberately memorise them, in practice it’s something we do with relatively little effort. Children who teachers might perceive as ‘less able’ will still have memorised vast quantities of football statistic, pop lyrics and any other information they deem important. Our problem is that many students don’t see what’s studied at school as sufficiently important to actually learn.

Everyone has a strictly limited capacity to pay attention to new information, but if  your working memory is slightly smaller than average then you are at a serious disadvantage educationally. You can hold less information in mind at any one time. The only way around this limitation is to commit information to long-term memory. In an open book exam, students are at a major disadvantage. Because they can rely on looking up whatever quotations they want to use in the exam, they have no need to commit anything to long-term memory. But this is a false comfort. The additional effort of finding relevant quotations and copying them out reduces students’ capacity to think analytically or creatively. Instead of freeing working memory to make an interesting inference, attention is on trying to find the right page number. And the students who disadvantaged most are the ones with the smallest working memories.

The idea that some students – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds or those perceived by teachers as ‘less able’ are somehow unable to learn quotations is particularly pernicious. This is likely to result in self-fulfilling prophesies: if you don’t think ‘kids like these’ can learn quotes they’ll probably prove you right. After all, nobody rises to a low expectation. But if we treat all students as perfectly capable of learning a few lines of poetry and a couple of snippets from Shakespeare, they’ll quickly see how empowering and joyful learning quotations can be.

But, as we can see from the government response, students aren’t expected to know exact quotes anyway – they’ll just need to provide the gist of what’s said, convey the meaning, maybe remember a few key words. No one is expecting children to rote learn over 250 quotations. But still, my contention is, the more students have learned by heart, the better they know the texts they have studied, the less stressful they will probably find the exams. Ask any actor, learning your lines is a lot less stressful than wandering on stage trying make it up as you go along. This might also help students understand that they must prepare for an English exam as they would for any other subject. For too long students have been under the impression that ‘you can’t really revise for English’. Au contraire. You can bloody well revise those quotes!

But what about the love of the subject? Schools Week reported today that “English A-level applications drop 35% due to new ‘harder’ GCSEs“. Apparently, students have been put off choosing A level English because they perceive it as ‘too hard’. This has, we’re told, resulted in a fall of 35% in students studying English at A level next year. How do we know this? Because applications are down 35% in one 6th form college! The entire chain of causation is constructed around provisional data from just 8 6th forms. But hey, let’s be charitable and assume that this fall will be replicated across the country: is that a savage indictment of the new GCSEs? Well, it might be, but equally it could be a testament to their rigour. As a Head of English, I used to spend quite a bit of time attempting to persuade Year 11 students that actually A level was quite hard – certainly a lot harder than GCSE. They were rarely convinced and were often shocked at the step up. My view is that English has been too easy and that if it is now perceived as a more challenging academic subject this might actually be a good thing.

In short, I do think the new GCSE is tougher but this is not due to the closed book nature of the final exams. I accept that adapting the way we teach to the new reality might be a challenge but as we get used to the linear system I hope English teachers will realise that closed book exams are fairer, less stressful and, because they encourage students to know whole texts, allow for richer interpretations.

35 Responses to Are ‘closed book’ examinations a bad idea?

  1. Mark Featherstone-Witty says:

    Straw men arguments, l’m afraid.

  2. Holly Daher says:

    Interesting point, but I’m not sure about, ” they’ll just need to provide the gist of what’s said, convey the meaning, maybe remember a few key words.” How are students meant to achieve any decent AO2; ” Analyse the language, form and structure used by a writer to create meanings and effects, using relevant subject terminology where appropriate.” with just a few key words?

    If you go to Level 6 of the English Lit AQA mark scheme, it asks for, “Judicious use of precise reference” and “Analysis of writer’s methods with subject terminology used judiciously, Exploration of effects of writer’s methods on reader” all of which are calling for the use of quotations as far as I can see. “Precise reference” without quotations? Not that precise then!

  3. L Poortman - Head of English says:

    We’ve taught closed book exam for WJEC at a top performing state school in Devon for 15 years or more? I don’t understand the point of this article?

    • David Didau says:

      The point? There’s a petition signed by 100,000+ people calling for an end to closed books exams. This is be debated in parliament on 17th April. The point is to use what little influence I have to convince readers that a return to open book exams would be a mistake.

      PS. Glad you’re doing a good job 🙂

  4. Jane Elam says:

    Hear hear!

  5. Kate says:

    Totally agree. With open book, top performing kids learnt them anyway because they recognised it was much more efficient, some didn’t bother but never used the books in the exam anyway, some spent half the exam looking for quotes and not writing enough. I’m so happy I’m not spending my Easter holiday sorting out coursework by the way

  6. thinklish says:

    Hi David, I agree with you on novels / plays where I prefer a closed text examination. Open text examinations can also place a huge strain on department budgets for little discernible benefit (i.e. having 100 copies of clean texts gathering dust in the Exam Officer’s cupboard). However, in the case of the poetry cluster I think that the case of the petition is very strong. The whole point of poetry is that it is written in particularly precise (and yes, hopefully memorable) turns of phrase. In this way, you do need to know the exact words (pace the government statement) in order to write a cogent response. Asking a pupil to memorize 15 poems (often written in free verse and for which they may feel no particular affinity in some cases) seems punishing rather than rigorous. Learning a few (or a lot of) poems off-by-heart for pleasure would be a different endeavour of course.

    • David Didau says:

      I see your point about poetry. Fair enough.

    • adamcporter says:

      I also agree that there is an argument for provision of poems, however I do not believe that students are really required to learn all 15 poems by heart. In exam they will only really be required to discuss one poem from memory (in comparison to one printed). Whilst the subject of comparison is unknown in reality students can enter the exam memorised quotes from three to five poems as their go to second texts.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I think closed book is better for poetry. If you don’t know the poem well how can you analyse it well? Why should the candidates have more affinity for the plays and novels than the poetry?

  8. Absolutely spot on. Memorising is something everyone can do. Exams where memorisation is required level the playing field. It means that if you put the effort in, you can do well, and your mind will be filled with great cultural capital into the bargain.

    The problem here, as you rightly point out, is in attitudes towards education. I hope these kinds of exams will help to shift those attitudes.

  9. I am fully signed up to the fundamental point that you can’t think about something without knowledge of it, that the more you know about something the deeper and more successfully you can think about it, and that talk of 21st century skills is a dangerous distraction – although this is still all often patiently explained to me on Twitter, where checking for nuance is often taken as ignorance of the basics…

    But how conscious and how explicit does ‘knowledge’ needs to be, in order for it to fuel thought? I really don’t know. I have difficulty remembering names, even of people I know quite well but especially of people in public or cultural life. This can often stall me in conversations, when I suddenly can’t bring a name into conscious memory. It’s there, but it’s fogged. I wonder if a lot of ‘knowledge’ is like this: working away but not necessarily readily available in language. This seems pertinent to the ‘open books’ debate. Is it necessary to remember verbatim the wording of a passage or sentence, or even a phrase, in order for it to form an important part of your ‘knowledge’?

    Also, what does ‘knowledge about’ a text mean? You can’t quickly navigate your way to a quotation in a text without knowledge of it. I often, in lessons, fumble when trying to recall exactly how a writer has worded something; I then startle students with my ability to find the exact wording in seconds, perhaps from the middle of a long novel. Is this an example of the text acting as a ‘prop’? When a writer takes a book down from a library shelf to check a half-remembered reference, are they being ‘propped up’? Or are they, in fact, using their knowledge to crystallise new knowledge? When you see a student leafing through a text for a quotation, are you observing ignorance or are you observing scholarship?

    Of course, it is undoubtedly desirable for students to remember quotations. It would be desirable for them to memorise the whole text. It would certainly help them to think about it. But the issue here – in the context of exams – is of opportunity cost. I get that ‘balance’ has become a ‘weasel word’ in education, but here I think it is crucial. Could time spent memorising quotations be better spent in building better knowledge of different interpretations, of context, of critical theory or of authorial intent? Or in practising the construction of argument? Or even (and this is starting to sound regressively progressive) in exploring, shaping and debating personal responses?

    As an A-level student and at university, I sat closed-book literature exams only. I struggled to remember quotations. This was not for lack of effort. I remember pacing up and down for hours, memorising key fragments of texts. It took me ages. Perhaps I lacked techniques for memorising, but others seemed to remember with no effort at all. I am perplexed by people who remember the lyrics of whole songs – not because they have made an effort to do so, but because they just have. I am perplexed by people who can reel off great chunks of Shakespeare plays – not because they have consciously attempted to memorise them, but because they just have. These friends would go in to sit a Shakespeare paper able to select quotations from swathes of remembered text, from across a large number of plays, then look for a question which interested them; I went in armed with the quotations which I had managed to learn, at great cost in time and effort, and looked for a question which I could fit to my prepared essay. It didn’t feel like a “level playing field”: it felt terribly unfair. And it feels unfair now when people say that memorising is ‘no big deal’ or ‘just requires effort’.

    The only time at university when I felt engaged in proper scholarship was when I wrote dissertations. That was when I did my deepest thinking about texts. I can’t quote from the texts I wrote about in those extended pieces, crafted 30 years ago, but I still feel connected to them. I inhabited them and felt like I really began to understand them. They still resonate, emotionally and intellectually. And what I wrote about them is still – I think – worth reading. It was certainly worth writing. But I didn’t memorise a single phrase.

    Of course, this is all anecdotal. It would be interesting to see research into differences in facility for memorising texts. It would be interesting to see research into the relationship between the availability of an open text and students’ ability to synthesise understandings in response to a question, and then to express those understandings with clarity and precision.

  10. […] more, making students memorise chunks of text (and what’s wrong with that, Didau argues here). At first they balk at me and say “We can’t do that Miss! That’s long!” but […]

  11. Vicky says:

    I don’t think it’s true that any fool can memorise stuff; ask any primary teacher about multiplication tables. If you don’t know your tables, of course, you will be hugely disadvantaged when attempting multi step operations and will be overloading your working memory. But it doesn’t mean memorisation is an easy way to level the playing field. It means people who are good at memorisation are at an advantage.

  12. I usually agree with a lot of what David says: I am very much up for knowledge, and very much down for generic skills. Otherwise, what’s the point of my subject, History?

    However, and clearly I speak from a position of some weakness not being an English teacher, I don’t quite get the “Open = Bad, Closed = Good” nature of this debate. It is not inevitable that someone who can use a book won’t learn quotations, any more than someone who can’t use one won’t be able to interpret. I would have thought that teachers whose students face open book exams would want to prepare them in the best way possible: surely that must mean ensuring they have an arsenal of quotations, but also of page references where particular themes are especially well encapsulated (or something – you get the picture, I hope).

    It is easy to come unstuck in open bookers; I remember vividly it happening to me at university (Constitutional Law, from memory), spending precious minutes looking for cases or analysis that I hadn’t committed to memory. But that wasn’t because the exam was open book; it was because I didn’t prepare properly for it. Equally, I don’t buy the argument that “knowing quotations is just as important as understanding the text”: I can recite “hic haec hoc” really really fast but I haven’t the first idea what it means any more, so it’s pretty pointless and does nothing for my appreciation of Latin.

    So, at the risk of sounding like an erstwhile and now maligned PM, surely there’s a third way. If you don’t like open book exams, and think your students will do better if they don’t use the texts, then teach them in that way. If you think differently, teach differently.

  13. Jenny Clarke says:

    But what good would it have done you in an exam to have a complete works of Shakespeare? You could not have found the quotes you wanted. I have seen candidates in exams wasting time looking for a quotation in a new, unmarked copy of a novel, and believe me they would have been better off learning the quote. The problem of finding the right words often particularly (but not exclusively) affects candidates of lower ability, who cannot, like you, instantly find a quote. Knowledge is, I guess, knowing things + having reflected on that knowledge: both necessary if writing essays in an exam. I too took closed book exams, like you I worked hard on learning chunks of Shakespeare, Fielding, D.H. Lawrence, Chaucer, Milton etc (and also shed loads of relevant dates since I studied economic history) none of which I now remember, though I recognise the words when I hear them. It was an effort; it paid off, and hard work though it was I am glad that I did it. Ruffling through a copy of a book to find what I wanted would have wasted a lot of exam writing and thinking time.

    • Jenny Clarke says:

      I remember a lot of the dates, of course, and the whole, both literature and history, is lodged in my long-term memory to be used when I think about a topic.

    • Recognising the words when heard is exactly it: known but not retrievable, as it were. I’m now trying to imagine the ‘Complete Works’ on the desk! Actually, I think I probably could have found quotes from it; however, the current debate is about school students with a single novel, a play or even just a poem. It seems to me that many of the objections to ‘open book’ are based not on principles of what students should know, but on bad experiences of watching students in exams struggling to navigate texts, because they haven’t been properly prepared to do it. Will they do better with a closed book? And while a student might save ruffling time by knowing a quote, will it be the best quote – or just the one they’ve learned?

      • Jenny Clarke says:

        I think the problem is that knowledge has been downgraded and replaced by skills, which are actually not transferable from one subject to another. It has become fashionable to decry knowledge as rote learning of facts, but without knowledge of a topic you cannot think about a topic. I am not now looking up references about Shakespeare or skills or knowledge, I know about them and can therefore use them. Knowledge is not the same as information, and teaching pupils how to use a book in an exam is a total waste of time – unless you know where what you want is located it is virtually impossible to find it, especially for pupils who don’t read very well or quickly. I recently needed a reference from a book for a piece I am writing. Even though I had marked the relevant pages with slips of paper I could not find it without reading large chunks of the text – very time consuming.

  14. simonfa says:

    ‘English is a subject that all employers & universities look at, therefore if students are unable to realistically achieve high grades – there will be lower employment rates.’ – isn’t this just false?
    The same proportion of 4s and above and 7s and above as last year is being used to set a bench mark. The chances of higher grades do not change this year (the grade boundaries will probably lower unless this year’s cohort is substantially improved on last year’s).

  15. Alan says:

    I’m all for closed book exams. Knowing a text well along with some important quotes should be a source of pride I would think. I also like the no wrong answers approach though. It just needs the condition: If you can back it up from the text. This, I feel, actually agrees with the overall argument of your article as it require a good knowledge of the text.

  16. chestnut says:

    Students know many songs off by heart – it isn’t a hardship asking them to learn quotes – even from poems. It is just adults falling into the trap of letting teenagers off the hook from hard work.

    ‘Judicious use of precise reference’ means that they don’t have to fill their essay full of quotes.

    • In years of demanding that students be able to navigate quickly and knowledgeably to ‘precise references’, within texts prepared with considerable intellectual rigour, I don’t believe that I was ever just falling into the “trap of letting teenagers off the hook from hard work”.

  17. Joe Eden says:

    On ‘you can’t argue that it’s both’ – I think you can. Take as an analogy the Myth of Sisyphus. Rolling the boulder was a simple task – not particularly complex. But having to do it forever made it mythically arduous. If I asked someone to add 1, that’s an easy intellectual task. Now add 1 until you get to a vast number like 10 million. It’s a hard – burdensome – task. Learning by rote might be a simple intellectual task in isolation (and a bit dull to do the deliberate practice to lay it down) – but asked enough times to do this and it could become overwhelming (hard). Perhaps it’s that ‘hard’ is actually highly ambiguous, so no contradiction is necessarily generated if two different senses of it are being used.

    • David Didau says:

      Ok, so what you’re actually arguing is that learning quotations is too hard for students because it’s a bit dull? Maybe if Sysyphus got to roll a new boulder up the mountain each day he might not have found the process so enervating. He might even have found it rewarding. There’s also the little matter that learning lines from works of literature is possibly more inherently interesting than pushing stones uphill. I think that learning by heart has worth and as such it behooves us to demonstrate both the facility on the process and joy of the outcome.

  18. […] purpose of this blog is not to state the case for closed book exams. Others, such as David Didau, have already put forward very convincing arguments. Instead, this blog is intended to offer an […]

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