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Open text book exam plan: five questions Smriti Irani must consider

Shriya Mohan | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:15 IST

Cheat sheets at board exams may soon be a thing of the past, if Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani has her way. Irani is fighting to give students the right to carry an entire text book to the examination centre.

This is the HRD ministry's plan to curb rote learning, and trigger more conceptual application. The ministry is making a push to convince state and central boards to have open text book examinations at the secondary and senior secondary level.

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So, what is an open text book exam? It's something that's common in Western universities and schools. You are allowed to bring your textbook, and sometimes even your notes, and have permission to refer to them freely while answering your time-bound examination paper.

According to news reports, school education secretary SC Khuntia suggested this at a meeting of 42 education boards held on 28 October last year. Consequently, the ministry set up a committee, which has made the 'open text-based assessment' (OTBA) one of its key action points.

On the face of it, the OTBA seems like an excellent way to test critical thinking and steer away from a rote-based system of learning. But will the transition be easy to make?

Catch spoke to educationists, teachers, parents and students on the matter. And they had some key questions for the HRD ministry to consider, before rolling out the overhaul:

1) Won't this widen the gap between government school and private school students?

Sudha Kumar, 42, teaches applied sciences and EVS to secondary and senior secondary students at the Delhi Tamil Education Society (DTES), a government-backed school in the capital. Having previously taught in a private school, Kumar can vouch for the massive difference of exposure in students from both backgrounds.

According to her, the gap will only widen if OTBA is made mandatory. What makes change even harder, in fact, is the reluctance of government school teachers to offer last-mile connectivity to the concepts being studied.

Open text book exams are common in the West. They remove the emphasis on rote learning

"At government schools like ours, students have no exposure to how concepts are applied. Testing application without reforming the curriculum and teaching methodologies will only upset an already-thin pass margin. Open text books will mean tougher exam papers. Government school kids can't even read their textbook properly; what they write is mostly by rote. Suddenly challenging them to use their textbooks to apply concepts will confuse them, and deprive them of the paltry marks they have been successively scoring," she says.

2) Will students end up learning anything?

Kriti Kumar, 16, studies in the 10^th standard at Delhi's Army Public School. She feels that the OTBA system will make students always rely on a crutch of information.

"I think we would become much dumber if we had open textbook exams. Look at the math abilities of American students, who are all given calculators to use in classrooms. They can't even do basic addition without help of calculators," she says.

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She agrees that while they won't need to mug up formulae any more, freeing them up to learn more about the application of concepts, she feels it would hamper students' ability to be able to solve a problem from scratch.

3) Kids have such little practice of using a textbook to apply themselves. How will they cope?

Madhu Anand's son is preparing for his Class X CBSE exams. Chennai-based Anand, 45, recalls the one time her son had an open book English exam at school, and went without studying.

"He felt it was going to be an easy sweep and refused to study for the exam. It was only after the experience that he realised having a text book was little help if you hadn't learnt to apply yourself. It would definitely make it harder for parents, because we don't know what to expect in such exams," she says.

4) Are teachers equipped to teach students how to apply themselves in the OTBA system?

Deepak Pental, former Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University, says he's all for an OTBA system.

"We have placed too much emphasis on on rote in our current system. So, students who are good at memorising score higher marks than students who are inherently more intelligent. Ultimately, you have to put a system in place that differentiates. For applied sciences, the open text book system is a good way to test problem-solving abilities," feels Pental.

Former DU V-C Deepak Pental feels Indian teachers aren't equipped to handle this new plan

However, he says Indian teachers aren't equipped to prepare students for such questions. The reason for this is because their B.Ed degrees from years ago become outdated, and there is no system in place that updates their skills according to the changing needs of India's education system.

"We should have excellent teacher-training courses in India. We should take school education very seriously. Teachers also need to be made to sit in exams, to constantly be up to the mark and adapt themselves," he says.

5) Are our examiners capable of framing questions that stimulate critical thinking instead of the usual memory questions?

Nitya Ram has taught for nearly two decades at Delhi's Vasant Valley School. Today, she is the Academic Head of Learn Today, the education arm of the India Today Group.

"From an academic perspective, I'm all for [OTBA]. So far, we've been habitually inclined to asking questions related to memory. When you allow the text book, you have to ask questions that stimulate critical thinking," Ram says.

"That being said, framing critical thinking questions are far more difficult than framing memory questions. Our examiners have to learn how to do that. Because if you frame memory questions and give students an open book, it defeats the whole purpose. Critical thinking forces students to synthesise information and arrive at their own conclusion with this."

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Ram also has another pertinent question to ask: Why restrict it to one book? And furthermore, why just books? Why not look for information wherever you like?

She advocates a system that is popular with many universities abroad, and within certain art streams in Indian universities like JNU. "Give them a question paper in the morning with a limited time-frame of, say, 12 hours and the freedom to look wherever they like for answers," she says.

"In order to do this, you'll have to frame a question that has no ready tailor-made answer that can be copied and pasted."

But how will government school children cope?

The solution, says Ram, is to not suddenly introduce critical thinking at the 9th standard, when students have no prior experience of answering such questions. Instead, the OTBA practice should begin from the 6th grade. That way, by the time they are in higher secondary, they have a sense of what to expect.

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First published: 13 January 2016, 10:21 IST
Shriya Mohan @ShriyaMohan

An editor and writer of development stories at Catch, Shriya has 8 years of experience as a development journalist, holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore and is a two-time winner of the National Foundation for India media fellowship award. When she isn't exploring the universe with her two-year-old daughter, she chronicles public anger and shelters relevant stories that don't hang sexily on news pegs.