As is the case with most nations of the world, Pakistan’s education system primarily relies on traditional examinations to evaluate student performance. Functionally, this means that after a certain period of study has lapsed, usually a term or an academic year, students are required to appear in examinations that test for knowledge gained throughout the duration of the course by recalling answers from memory.
And therein lies the rub.
Memory, like most physical and mental traits, is dependent on our genetic predisposition. Sufficient scientific evidence substantiates that people with a certain variation of the ‘kibra’ gene, active in a part of the brain associated with memory called hippocampus, have to tax their brain a lot harder to recall studied information than people who have a different variation of the same gene.
Further, memory-based exams are a leading cause of anxiety among students, especially those competing to enter professional majors in universities. If careers are decided by memory, those with better retention skills have a significantly higher likelihood of triumphing.
To perform optimally in these ‘closed-book exams’, students often resort to rote learning – they cram information and reproduce it on paper till utility lasts in a three-stage process consisting of memorising, utilising and discarding (MUD). Because the exams feature little or no analytical exercises to indicate insights developed during the course, grades scored during the said process do not necessarily speak to an individual’s knowledge about the subject.
Though Pakistan’s contribution to global academia by a select few is proof enough to validate our fondness for regurgitation, consequences of surface learning were also highly visible in an employer survey recently held by a popular job portal. The data gathered was eye-opening as hiring managers felt that over 85 percent of engineering graduates in the country had top grades but not the skills to effectively plan and construct technologies, thus rendering their percentiles moot.
The data gathered was eye-opening as hiring managers felt that over 85 percent of engineering graduates in the country had top grades but not the skills to effectively plan and construct technologies, thus rendering their percentiles moot.
Is it any wonder that while neighbouring India and China have helmed several game-changing apps since the turn of the century, Pakistani engineers – even those from prestigious private universities – are yet to conceive intellectual properties that have the potential to change the global software landscape?
The open-book system aims to address that very same conundrum. Though often perceived as a radical new concept, open-book testing has been a topic of great debate among educationists since the latter part of the 20th century.
For the uninitiated, open-book testing is a system of examination that allows students access to their textbooks, study guides, notes and other materials to answer questions in the exam. The purpose is to encourage lateral thinking and foster critical reasoning abilities so as to understand the subject matter fully. Rather than simply memorising and transmitting, test-takers make use of reference materials to draft answers that are original and reflective of their unique approach to understanding a math problem or analyzing the downfall of a civilisation in history. Discussing a context in class and then providing a new context that requires students to apply learnt knowledge provides a more practical and functional education.
Critics of the open-book approach often argue that allowing students access to their study materials is just another form of plagiarism masquerading as reform. Though true in certain respects – asking a student to merely define gravity or write essay-type answers, for instance, would undoubtedly lead to plagiarism. However, reimagine the same question to tap into higher-order thinking of a candidate and the exam dynamic changes dramatically — simply asking the right set of questions transitions students from mere crammers to thinkers mindful of cause and effect of any given topic.
Internalisation of fundamental knowledge is important but considering champions of memory-based quizzes as learned isn’t pertinent. In the contemporary digital world, how often do we come across researchers who hypothesise theories without googling for references; coders who can switch between syntaxes of different programming languages on the fly, or chemists who have the entire periodic table of elements committed to memory?
In the contemporary digital world, how often do we come across researchers who hypothesise theories without googling for references; coders who can switch between syntaxes of different programming languages on the fly, or chemists who have the entire periodic table of elements committed to memory?
Every age of human progress has led to certain breakthroughs that have catapulted the human race forward. The agricultural age gave us sustainable farming and the industrial age, an efficient production. The greatest gift of the information age has surely been to put the power of the internet front and center. Information of all kinds has been organised and made accessible at lightning speeds with just a few clicks. Essentially, this makes memorising anything but core knowledge obsolete.
The open-book method has already gained momentum in some of the most prestigious universities around the world, and India has been quick to jump on that bandwagon. Recognising it as a promising new medium, India’s CBSE (equivalent to our BISE) implemented open-book testing beginning from 2014 for the annual board exams for 10th and 12th grades – in a system that quite accurately mirrored our own. Leading researchers in the country are deeming the results encouraging. Signs of self-study, aggressive research and enhanced critical and mental faculties were observed as a direct result of improvements in the testing system.
With an education system that’s negligently marred by lack of funds and infrastructure, it’s all the more vital to devise a method that ensures better absorption of knowledge without requiring any significant upgrade in resources or facilities. The open-book testing system is a promising new avenue that has the potential to convert learning to an active process that is purposeful and multifaceted for both students and faculty.
If we as a nation are to avoid yet another rude awakening then it’s high time to abandon surface learning and embrace deep learning. Only then we’d be able to produce a thinking workforce capable of making a dent in the universe.