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Comparing Open-Book and Closed-Book Examinations

A Systematic Review

Durning, Steven J. MD, PhD; Dong, Ting PhD; Ratcliffe, Temple MD; Schuwirth, Lambert MD, PhD; Artino, Anthony R. Jr PhD; Boulet, John R. PhD; Eva, Kevin PhD

Author Information
doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000977


Today’s health care professions students and trainees have access to an unprecedented amount of information thanks to the rapid expansion of knowledge and the emergence of information technology. This easy access to information raises fundamental questions about the adequacy of closed-book examination (CBE) practices commonly used by the health professions. Some scholars argue that any examination of relevance must assess the examinee’s ability to find, understand, evaluate, and use external resources. Such proponents of the open-book examination (OBE) argue that OBEs are more authentic to real-world practice and that success is not about “rote memorization.”1–3 Because professionals of the future will not be able to “know” all the information needed for competent performance,4 meaningful assessment of medical practice, the argument goes, should allow individuals to look up information when taking an exam.

Scholars defending CBEs cite literature that has consistently found expert performance to be closely tied to rich, well-organized content knowledge of a subject. For example, studies have found that high performance on CBEs is associated with better practice outcomes.5,6 In many situations a physician’s ability to look up unknown information is restricted by time constraints and Internet access, and well-organized, content-specific knowledge remains paramount for expert performance. Merely putting more information at a physician’s fingertips is, therefore, not likely to result in improved care because the physician needs knowledge to guide his or her search and to integrate new information with previous experience. Thus, reliance on information technology could detrimentally increase cognitive load (i.e., mental effort), decrease learning and critical appraisal of information, and ultimately harm patient care.7

Views on what defines a competent health care professional are changing. Where formerly the focus lay almost entirely on the possession of knowledge, currently physicians are expected to effectively use external point-of-care knowledge. For modern assessment to be aligned with this changing notion of competence, educators require better understanding of the various pros and cons of OBE and CBE assessment approaches. This is true both in terms of promoting assessment-for-learning and in contexts such as credentialing and licensing assessment.

To inform this issue, which affects the examination of physicians across the continuum of their careers, we conducted a systematic review of the literature comparing the two assessment strategies. Our questions were (1) What is the evidence regarding the comparative effectiveness of OBEs and CBEs? and (2) How might these findings inform current examination practices and future research in health professional education? We broadly defined OBEs as tests or assessments that allow the use of any resource such as the Internet, a textbook, course notes, or journals, and we searched for studies in all educational fields.


Scoping search

We were aware of no prior systematic reviews on the topic, so two authors (S.J.D. and T.D.) conducted a scoping search to better understand the breadth and depth of the relevant literature. This initial search of MEDLINE and ERIC (Education Research Information Center) was conducted in the spring of 2013. A third investigator (a research librarian) conducted a separate scoping search using the same data sources. The scoping search identified 488 articles. We excluded articles if they were deemed to be unrelated to our review, available only in abstract form, not available in English, or representing textbooks; this resulted in 78 citations that were discussed and underwent further review. During this further review, we iteratively generated themes that could be used as preliminary outcome categories for the systematic review and also used this step to further refine our inclusion and exclusion criteria and our search strategy and terms (Supplemental Digital Appendix 1 at

Systematic review

We followed PRISMA Guidelines8 and guidelines provided in the medical education literature.9 We limited our search to full-length, published, peer-reviewed, English-language journal articles involving learners in either descriptive reports or educational interventions, using any study design related to our research questions. We further limited the papers reviewed to those that empirically compared (either directly or indirectly) OBEs and CBEs.

Relevant studies were identified by searching three databases during the summer of 2013 and included no date restrictions (i.e., we searched everything available through the date searched): (1) MEDLINE via Ovid (June 2013), (2) Embase via Ovid (July 2013), and (3) ERIC (June 2013). To identify additional studies, we searched the bibliographies of articles found by our electronic search, contacted experts in the field, and conducted a Web search using Google Scholar and PsycINFO. Supplemental Digital Appendix 1,, displays the terms used for the systematic search.

We used a data collection form (Supplemental Digital Appendix 2, to rate each article. This form was constructed based on the findings of our scoping review and refined through conference calls among the authors. The form was pilot tested and revised by having each member of the investigative team use the form to review two articles. We discussed additional articles until consensus on the form was achieved.

Three authors (S.J.D., T.D., T.R.) independently reviewed the titles and abstracts of the retrieved publications. Each was initially categorized as include, exclude, or uncertain. All include and uncertain titles and abstracts were reviewed in the subsequent stage (i.e., review of the full-text version of the papers; see Figure 1). Authors disagreed regarding inclusion for 44 of the 4,192 titles and abstracts (see Figure 1), all of which were subsequently included in the full paper review. After the full paper review, 299 articles remained. The same three study authors then reviewed the full text of all 299 articles (see Figure 1) using the same categorization framework (include, exclude, uncertain). In doing so, 193 were deemed beyond the scope of this review. The remaining 106 full-text papers underwent a more detailed review and coding by the larger study team with each paper having at least two reviewers. Sixty-nine articles were excluded following this additional round of review, which included a series of conference calls and detailed coding using the data extraction form. Ultimately, 37 papers were included in our review.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
Flowchart of article selection for a systematic review comparing open- and closed-book examinations. The review was conducted in 2013–2014 and included all literature published as of the search dates.Abbreviations: ERIC indicates Education Resources Information Center; OBE, open-book examination; CBE, closed-book examination.

We structured the outcome categories according to the themes that were generated from our scoping review. We report them here in the sequence in which they would occur in the testing process: (1) examination preparation, (2) test anxiety, (3) exam performance, (4) psychometrics and logistics, (5) testing effects, and (6) public perception. Any article could have multiple outcomes and was reviewed for relevant themes by two of the study authors. Following review and coding, conference calls were held among all coders until complete agreement was achieved for the coding of every article. A third coder was needed to resolve conflicts for 3 of the 37 papers.

The quality of each manuscript was examined by addressing the extent to which the research found was fit for purpose. This was done by having each reviewer code the manuscript for the presence of explicit research questions, hypotheses, conceptual and/or theoretical frameworks, and by recording additional quality judgments. Reviewers used a five-point rating scale (1 = strongly disagree, 2 = disagree, 3 = neutral, 4 = agree, 5 = strongly agree) to assess four domains: trustworthiness of findings, study rigor, implementation of study findings, and appropriateness of data analysis. These latter judgments were made in relation to the degree to which each study effectively addressed a research question comparing the relative benefits of OBEs versus CBEs.


Our search identified 4,192 articles, 37 of which were included in our review1–3,10–43 (see Figure 1 and Appendixes 1 and 2). The frequency with which outcomes were identified was as follows: (1) exam preparation (n = 20; 54%); (2) test anxiety (n = 14; 38%); (3) exam performance (n = 30; 81%); (4) psycho metrics and logistics (n = 5; 14%); (5) testing effects (n = 13; 35%); and (6) public perception (n = 5; 14%).

Study quality

Overall, the quality of the articles included in our review was deemed to be adequate for our purpose. Explicit research questions were presented in 31 articles (84%), hypotheses were stated in 14 (38%), and hypotheses were justified in 10 (27%). Conceptual and/or theoretical frameworks were described in 7 articles (19%).

Study context

Thirty-four investigations (92%) were single-institution studies. Nearly half were performed in the United States (n = 18; 49%). Other locations included the Netherlands (n = 5; 14%), the United Kingdom (n = 4; 11%), Greece (n = 3; 8%), and Australia (n = 2; 5%), and 1 study (3%) was included from each of the following locations: Canada, Denmark, Norway, Africa, and Israel. The majority of studies pertained to college-level students (n = 24; 65%); 2 studies investigated high school students (5%); 8 investigated medical students (22%; 2 of these were multi-institutional); 2 investigated other postcollege instructional settings (5%); and 1 study (3%) included practicing physicians. For the majority, the stakes of the examination were rated as medium (n = 21; 57%) in that the assessments were generally end-of-course examinations. Two (5%) were considered high-stakes, being equivalent to national licensing examinations. Few studies included a formal incentive (e.g., extra credit or a small payment) (n = 6; 16%) to participants beyond earning a course grade.

Few studies reported enrolling participants with significant prior experience with OBEs (n = 7; 19%) or some experience with OBEs (n = 4; 11%); most articles either reported that participants had no prior experience or did not mention prior experience (n = 26; 70%). Because the findings did not appear to differ according to type of learner (e.g., high school, undergraduate, or practicing physicians), we describe the findings in each theme as a whole, unless otherwise stated. Appendix 1 provides detailed results for each paper by theme. Some papers included more than one theme.

Exam preparation

Exam format could potentially influence test preparation (and, hence, learning). Some argue that CBEs promote superficial learning by requiring students to memorize large amounts of material, whereas OBEs focus learners on the application of what they have learned. Others argue that CBEs, compared with OBEs, prompt students to study more because they will not be able to look things up during the exam.

In terms of preparation time, findings were inconsistent across studies, but in sum appear to favor CBEs. Some showed that students reported more preparation time for CBEs than OBEs10–12 (Appendix 1) or attended class less often if the test was an OBE.12 Others reported that students prepared for OBEs and CBEs similarly13,14; no studies reported more preparation time for OBEs than CBEs. Of note, an increase in preparation time could indicate insufficient prior engagement with the material rather than being a proxy for improved learning and performance.15

Reviewing the articles examining preparation strategy revealed that students did not change study tactics for OBEs versus CBEs,16,17 and no correlation between test format and deep versus surface learning approaches was found.17

Thus, research exploring exam preparation was equivocal with respect to whether students prepare differently (or at greater length) for CBEs or OBEs. When differences did exist, they tended to show that participants studied more when they expected a CBE.

Test anxiety

Emotions affect cognitive performance.44 Although negative emotions were once thought to have exclusively deleterious effects on performance, contemporary theories of emotion suggest that such an assumption is overly simplistic.45 For example, a negative emotion like anxiety might actually motivate a student to study for a CBE, which could result in superior performance when compared with an unstressed student preparing for an OBE. Regardless, reducing test anxiety is often reported to be a primary motivation for considering OBEs. Our findings indicate, however, that anxiety effects were typically examined as a secondary issue relative to a study’s primary purpose (see Appendix 1), and all studies that assessed emotions lacked a theoretical grounding. In particular, of the 14 studies with emotion-related outcomes, none employed a theory of emotion to help frame the study or explain the findings.

Evidence suggests that students may overestimate the effect that OBEs or partial OBEs (i.e., exams in which students can bring some prepared material like a “cheat sheet” rather than having access to any desired material) have on reducing their anxiety. Several studies suggest that students associate OBEs with less anxiety,16,27,28 but only a minority of students actually report lower anxiety.24,28 For example, Baillie and Toohey24 found that anxiety associated with taking OBEs instead of CBEs was not reduced as much as expected, with 45% of students reporting being just as stressed with OBEs as with CBEs. It has been suggested that certain aspects of OBEs, such as the belief that examiners will choose questions of greater difficulty, can be anxiety provoking for students.19 It remains to be seen whether students overestimate the impact OBEs have on reducing their anxiety because they lack familiarity with the test format.

On balance, these findings suggest that students may overestimate the impact that OBEs have on reducing their anxiety and, by extension, on potentially improving their performance. Not only was the reporting of methods and analyses for examining anxiety effects incomplete, but these effects are often explored as an afterthought in extant studies, and they lacked theoretical grounding.

Exam performance

The most common outcome explored was examination performance, defined as comparing learners’ achievement on OBEs versus achievement on CBEs (Appendix 1). Intuitively, one might expect that examinees would perform better on OBEs because they have the capacity to look up answers. Opponents suggest that the OBE format does not inherently lessen difficulty but, instead, frees the examiner to focus questions on the test taker’s ability to apply knowledge (i.e., testing what cannot simply be “looked up”), and the time required to look up information can increase difficulty by creating pressures requiring learners to retrieve and communicate answers efficiently. Two caveats are noteworthy when considering exam performance as an outcome: (1) In most studies, students had little to no experience with OBEs—only one study21 that addressed examination performance reported that students had prior OBE experience; and (2) exam performance is a challenging outcome to study because the difficulty of an exam depends on the questions asked, and some proponents of OBE argue that its main advantage is enabling instructors to pose questions with a different style or focus. Different questions across different examination formats may, therefore, be required to enable the advantages of OBEs to be recognized.

The majority of the examinations were MCQ format, but some were also essay and/or short answer (Appendix 1). Typically, no significant difference in examinee performance was found,30,34,38 or performance was better on CBEs (Appendix 1). In investigations demonstrating better performance on CBEs, when reasons for this finding were explored, the authors generally suggested that the difference in performance related to examination preparation. Some studies did show better performance on OBEs immediately after learning, but even those differences did not persist over time (i.e., OBE and CBE performance were equivalent, or CBE performance was superior on a subsequent delayed test; Appendix 1).

An investigation by Block25 is useful for understanding the relationship between test preparation and exam performance. In the first experiment, learners who were expecting a CBE performed 10% better on a subsequent test over those who were expecting an OBE. In a second experiment, which again demonstrated improved performance when learners expected CBEs, participants reported spending less time studying (i.e., less preparation) when they expected an OBE than when they expected a CBE. In a different study by Carrier,18 students scored significantly lower when expecting an OBE than when expecting a CBE for their final examination. The author suggested that this finding may be due to examinees’ deeper approach to learning (defined as studying lecture notes, making chapter notes, highlighting text, and coming to office hours—all activities that correlated with higher exam scores) when preparing for a CBE. In another study,17 students commented that they were less prepared for a final examination that they knew would be an OBE because they expected to be able to find the answers in the book during the exam. To counter the notion that lower performance is due to examinees’ inability to find material in a resource during an OBE, three studies reported that the preparation of OBE materials (e.g., note cards) was not sufficient to improve performance on a CBE.23,25,26 Finally, in an investigation25 comparing performance on OBE and CBE tests earlier in the term with performance on a CBE final examination, students in the experimental section scored lower on their final exam and recalled significantly less about topics that were covered on preceding OBEs than those covered by CBEs.

In sum, studies comparing exam performance appear to favor CBEs. However, the combination of relatively little experience with OBEs and the differences in exam preparation noted in several investigations highlighted in this section leave open the possibility that OBE performance could be improved through instructing students about OBEs or providing practice tests. On this point, three sets of authors indicated that students need to have the right expectation for what it takes to do well on OBEs.19,21,24

Psychometrics and logistics

Research has generally shown that the validity of a test is determined more by the content of the questions included than by the examination format.46–48

However, two studies directly examined the impact of the exam format on the psychometric utility of the assessment. One comparison was limited because test content and number of questions were confounded with assessment format,3 whereas the second study concluded that a suitably constructed set of questions could be used to discriminate student abilities in either an OBE or CBE environment.32

In practice, it may not be realistic to compare reliability across test formats while keeping the number of items constant. Three studies that compared CBEs with OBEs with respect to their influence on the time required to take the test found that students took 10% to 60% longer to complete OBEs.10,30,32 Thus, if one controls for amount of testing time, it is likely that fewer questions would be asked in OBE format, and, hence, the reliability of the equivalent CBE-formatted exam can be anticipated to be higher.

Testing effects

Testing effects occur when taking an exam improves subsequent performance. Such benefits can arise in indirect ways (e.g., being prompted to study) or from direct effects of the material becoming more memorable when participants are tested on it than when they simply study for a test.49 Most commonly, direct testing effects are demonstrated by separating research participants into two groups, one of which is asked to study material and then take an intervention test, while the other is asked only to study (multiple times to equate the time participants are exposed to the material across groups). The testing effect is demonstrated when the tested group outperforms the study group on a subsequent outcome exam. This testing effect (test-enhanced learning) has been well documented in multiple fields.50

Proponents of CBE argue that learning requires active construction of memory that is less likely to occur when one relies on external resources to answer test questions. OBE proponents argue that OBEs may enhance the ability to apply knowledge because rote memorization is not emphasized.

Both OBE and CBE demonstrate testing effects (Appendix 2). Four studies comparing OBEs and CBEs demonstrated testing effects that were roughly equivalent10,13,31,37 (Appendix 2). The testing effect of CBEs was superior in one study.12 These researchers demonstrated that during a summative CBE participants performed worse on material covered by an OBE intervention relative to a CBE intervention.12 Testing effects were observed regardless of examination format. Consistent with prior studies, students’ collective self-perceptions ran counter to the empirical finding that testing effects occur regardless of test format; students felt that studying alone was more effective preparation than taking either an OBE or CBE.31

Public perception

Public perception (i.e., different groups’ opinions about OBEs and CBEs) was examined from the learner’s and the teacher’s perspective. Studies suggest that learners have a more positive perception of OBEs over CBEs.2,17,19,22 On the other hand, students also commented that OBE questions were more difficult and that they desired additional practice or training for the OBE format.17

Teachers’ views often challenged the implementation of OBEs.17,23 Teachers expressed concerns over the increased resources associated with preparing OBEs, as well as the perceived additional time required for learners to take OBEs.2,22


Overall, the empirical literature comparing OBEs and CBEs is fairly limited. Among the studies that do exist, there is a fair amount of diversity, both in terms of learner level and the subjects studied (see Appendix 1). Although it can be challenging to generalize these findings from diverse learner groups and academic subjects to the field of medicine, this diversity is potentially beneficial when attempting to gain a general understanding of the influence of exam format on learning outcomes.

The studies we reviewed were generally of adequate quality for the questions addressed, and we did not identify any systematic differences in the use of OBE versus CBE by the field studied (e.g., medical education versus education versus other) or level of content (e.g., graduate versus undergraduate student). Prior to the examination, findings were equivocal; if test format does affect outcomes, it favors the argument that people prepare more for CBEs. This may be driven by the finding that students anticipate lessened anxiety with OBEs even though this does not appear to translate to actual experiences of lessened anxiety. During the examination, examinees appear to take longer to complete OBEs, which could either influence the test’s reliability, if testing time is kept constant, or influence the length of time that must be offered to candidates to complete an equally reliable exam. Studies addressing examination performance favored CBEs, particularly when learners reported spending more time preparing for CBEs than for OBEs. With respect to postexamination outcomes of CBEs and OBEs, we did not find robust evidence for differences in testing effects or public perception. That said, one might imagine concerned patients who wonder, “How can you be an expert if you need to look things up on the Internet?”51

The type of examination used might need to be based less on learning and performance outcomes and more on logistical limitations, as well as the desire to authentically represent what individuals do in practice. Given that we found evidence of the testing effect under both OBE and CBE conditions, and that participants’ perceptions of testing effects run counter to empirical findings, a related question is how often an individual should be examined to maximize testing effects. A further exploration of contemporary learning theories might provide a useful lens for understanding and interpreting how environmental factors and personal factors interact in dynamic ways to influence examination performance52 and the pedagogical value of testing.

It is challenging for high-stakes testing organizations that value test security to allow learners to have unrestricted access to the Internet during an exam.53 At the same time, choosing a limited number of Web-based external resources erodes authenticity, could disadvantage examinees who are less familiar with the chosen tools, and potentially affects fairness if technical difficulties arise during an examination. Additional feasibility questions include the cost of allowing Web-based resource access and the additional time required to achieve the same reliability with OBE relative to CBE. Issues such as cost and fairness have not been addressed in prior investigations.

In terms of authenticity, the studies conducted to date have rarely looked at “high-stakes” assessment. Although there is good reason to argue that a physician’s ability to find information is an important skill to maintain, there can be a perception that OBEs are easier than CBEs. Although studies are lacking, an excerpt from the American Board of Ophthalmology regarding changes to their recertification examination captures the sentiment of many:

The decision to change from an open-book, take-home examination to a closed-book, computerized proctored examination was based primarily on the recognition of the value of the certificate within the public domain … state medical licensing boards are increasingly asking for a proctored examination.54

We believe this preference is indicative of the perception that OBEs are perhaps less rigorous and/or less valid than a proctored examination.

The findings of our review are subject to several limitations in the existing literature. Only a minority of studies reported that learners had significant prior experience with OBEs. Providing learner training and making OBEs more prevalent could greatly alter perceptions of OBEs. Second, very few of the investigations reviewed included electronic resources (e.g., the Internet) as a parameter for OBEs because most were conducted before the Internet was widely used. Third, few investigations have involved practicing physicians. Fourth, the majority of studies were conducted within a single institution, which limits their generalizability, and only a minority of papers included a conceptual and/or theoretical framework, which can make interpretation difficult.

As the volume of medical knowledge continues to expand rapidly, education and assessment will have to instill within trainees the motivation and learning strategies needed to become lifelong, self-regulated learners. We wish to point out that the outcomes used in the studies reviewed here did not capture elements deemed to be essential by the current assessment-for-learning discourse. For example, no study looked at whether the incorporation of CBEs or OBEs yielded differences in reflection-on-action or receptivity to feedback when examinees formulated learning goals or were presented with external data.

OBEs and CBEs can contribute to an assessment program in part because of their complementary pros and cons. OBEs should not be thought of as an alternative to CBEs, but their value may be in expanding beyond what is measured by CBEs. For example, exploring the “skill” of looking up information on the Internet seems unlikely to be accomplished through CBE. A strategy, therefore, could be coupling OBEs with CBEs to explore these different “skills” without compromising reliability. Furthermore, testing effects are not currently being optimized given the infrequency of examinations. A series of mandatory but ungraded OBEs might help to improve aspects of these processes, such as capitalizing on the testing effect without dramatically increasing learner anxiety. One examination each decade, as is practiced by many certifying bodies, is unlikely to maximize the educational impact of testing or induce habits of continuous professional development. Further, by including some OBE items, the opportunity for improving authenticity and reducing the stigma with the need to look things up could be leveraged. Any such benefits, however, may only be realized by recognizing the need identified by several authors that OBE training is necessary for both students and examiners. Expectations need to be established regarding the types of questions used, the need for preparation, and how much time examinees can use to search for information.


Given the data collected to date, there does not appear to be sufficient evidence for relying solely on OBE or CBE formats. Therefore, we believe that a combined approach could become a more significant part of testing programs, including physician certification or recertification.

Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank Rhonda J. Allard, MILS, reference librarian at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, for her assistance with our search strategies.


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                      Coding Results for the 37 Articles Selected in a Systematic Review to Compare Open- and Closed-Book Examinations, 2013–2014

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                      From a 2013–2014 Systematic Review of 37 Articles Comparing Open- and Closed-Book Examination, Selected Articles That Explicitly Stated the Use of the Testing Effect as a Theoretical Frameworka

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