Open book exams


In Semester 2 2021, Dr Sarah Yang Spencer and Dr Valerie Cotronei-Baird were wanting to improve the quality of the subject final exam for a postgraduate capstone accounting subject. Both are senior lecturers in the Faculty of Business and Economics.

This is a subject that focuses on integrating theory into practice, where students need to apply their critical thinking skills to a broad range of news events/case studies to analyse the accounting implications. Based on the subject learning outcomes, Sarah and Valerie set out to design an end of semester exam using the principles of authentic assessment. These principles depart from the usual practice of end-of-semester high-stakes invigilated exams that are commonly used in business courses. The exam re-design aimed to assess students’ content knowledge, enhance academic integrity, promote student collaboration, help students to practice and acquire higher order cognitive skills and develop their professional judgement and transferrable skills (employability skills).

The challenges and how these were approached

During the early spread of COVID, there was an immediate need to push all exams online, and consequently open-book. Once this hurdle was passed, it was apparent there were further opportunities to significantly improve the quality of assessments themselves. This included finding a way to assess applied critical thinking skills in a discipline that in practice is not so black and white, and to meet the overall goals of the subject, and more adequately address the needs of graduates.

One of the challenges was needing to adhere to accreditation requirements, such as the need to invigilate an end-of-semester exam. Fortunately, invigilation was not defined too strictly as needing students to work in isolation in an observed environment. Knowing this led Sarah and Valerie to develop a three-stage assessment:

Stage 1

Students are presented with current news events and required to work independently and respond to 3-4 questions within a limited time-period. Students are assessed on their critical thinking skills at this stage.

Stage 2

Students are then invited to a group meeting where they need to perform a structured role play. They can also share their responses to the questions from stage 1 with their peers and contribute to further discussion. This stage assesses students' professional skills.

Stage 3

Students are required to complete a reflection based on the previous two stages, including an evaluation of the discussion they had with their peers. This stage assesses students' reflection skills.

The impact

So far, this improved subject has been delivered for three semesters, and in each instance has attracted a lot of positive student feedback.

In traditional end-of-semester exams, students would not receive any feedback at all unless they requested it. But by incorporating a peer discussion and reflection component into it, it has allowed for greater feedback, and removes that sense of isolation that is typically felt by students when sitting an exam.

Another issue the three-stage exam addresses is the concern around cheating – by instructing students to discuss their responses with their peers, and incorporating a reflection activity into this, the desire to cheat may be replaced by a greater desire to behave in a genuine way. Students understand that they are allowed to make mistakes in the first stage of the exam but must demonstrate their learning and growth through the designed exam stages.

Furthermore, the improved marking rubrics that now have higher quality performance descriptors, which are not common for end-of-year exams, now make clearer to students how they will be assessed, and an easier tool for markers to mark with.

Lastly, the revised exam has ensured an authentic and experiential approach is implemented, ensuring all students are given the opportunity to practice, develop and enhance their employability skills via an end-of–semester exam.

Video explanation

Watch the video below to see Dr. Sarah Yang Spencer discussing the project.

References and resources

Authentic assessments

Additional resources

The re-design in practice

The following is a summary of the exam assessment schedule for this subject post re-design.

This semester, the ACCT90033IAS exam will become a multi-stage exam, emphasising assessment for learning, instead of assessment of learning. The exam will be scaffolded into three stages, with the previous stage feeding into the next stage and students transcending their learning from individuals to groups and back to individuals. The exam is also designed to be low-stakes, contributing only 40% to the total subject mark.

Key exam information

Exam Stage 1/Exam A

  • Time starting from 11am 3rd Nov 2022 AEDT, 75 minutes in total (including 15 minutes reading time) – the exam will finish at 12:15pm AEDT
  • Exam Download and Submission via Canvas Assignments (30 minutes for file uploading) – Uploading will not be allowed after 12:45pm AEDT
  • Exam content: From Week 1 to Week 11 (excluding Weeks 5 and 9)
  • Exam format: Maximum four questions related to one case with 40 marks in total, contributing 20% to the total subject mark.
  • Assessing critical thinking skills.

Exam Stage 2/Exam B

  • Time starting from 3pm 3rd Nov 2022 AEDT
  • MS Team meeting link will be available in the subject general channel.
  • Exam content and format: Group discussion (50 minutes) about exam responses with 20 marks in total, contributing 10% to the total subject mark.
  • Assessing teamwork, communication, negotiation and time management skills
  • Students who are late for the meeting (5 minutes late) or are unable to join the meeting due to technical issues will be referred to another supplementary session.

Exam Stage 3/Exam C (Please note Stage 3 may not appear in your exam schedule)

  • Time until 5pm 5th Nov 2022 AEDT
  • Exam submission via Canvas Assignment (30 minutes for file uploading) – Uploading will not be allowed after 5:30 pm AEDT
  • Exam content and format: 500-word individual reflection with 20 marks in total, contributing 10% to the total subject mark.
  • Assessing reflection and writing skills.

Hurdle requirement

Students must undertake all three final assessment tasks to pass the subject.