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Why I let students use notes on tests

I know the term “open note test” makes some teachers shudder. Many teachers are completely opposed to this idea. I get it. We love our content areas and want students to retain the information and really know it. How dare students not remember information from my AMAZING lesson on cell membranes?! This is how I picture my students going home to tell their parents about today’s science lesson:
But seriously, as engaging as I think my lessons are, studies have shown that students only retain 30-40% of information they see and hear. That leaves 60-70% of the information to be forgotten. I want my students to use their resources in order to become more familiar with that information they would normally just forget. Here are a few reasons why I let my students use notes on tests:

  • I know I personally don’t remember everything I learned, even after studying my notes. It’s not fair for me to expect my students to do any better. 
  • Once our students grow up and get jobs, they won’t be expected to go through their career without using notes and resources. That’s like asking a doctor to remember everything they learned in medical school, and not look things up as they make diagnoses. That’s insane, right?! 
  • Why do you have your students take notes if you don’t have them use them? We would all love it if our students went home and reviewed them every night, but we know that won’t happen for the majority of our kids. You need to give them opportunities to use their notes, and for me that includes tests. (If you want some more ideas on ways to get students to refer back to and interact with their notes, check out my Cornell note blog post HERE). 
  • It keeps students organized. Do you have kids that take notes and the paper disappears into their backpacks never to be seen again? Do you have kids that are absent and don’t bother to copy notes they missed? If students understand the value of notes and know they can use them on upcoming tests, they will keep them organized in their binders or notebooks.
  • Students will take better notes if they know they can use them on tests. When I’m teaching I often get the question “Do I need to write this down?” Instead of answering yes or no, I usually answer “If you were taking a test, would you already know this information or would you need help from your notes?” Let them decide. 

If you’re not convinced, try it out and see if your test scores increase. Sure, students will do better on level 1 questions, where they just have to find a definition in their notes. But I’ve found my test scores also increase on my level 2 and 3 questions, where students really have to think critically about information and can’t find the answer straight from the notes. And for me, I would much rather have my students leave my classroom understanding big concepts opposed to memorizing facts. For example, I would rather have my students understand why some of my cells do mitosis and others do meiosis, opposed to memorizing every little step of the cellular division process. Lets create critical thinkers, and have your tests reflect that.

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Hi, I'm Becca!

I help busy science teachers get your prep back by providing you time saving lessons, labs, and resources.

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