The Economics Network

Improving economics teaching and learning for over 20 years

3.1 Traditional closed-book examinations

Traditional closed book examinations are by far the most widely used and heavily weighted assessment component on the majority of economics modules. It is difficult to set a time-constrained exam where students have to answer questions that test their understanding of the entire module content. Typically, questions only cover a subset of the curriculum so both the level and specificity of any guidance is an important factor.

If the lecturer provides very little advice about the topics the exam paper will cover, then ignoring any of the course content is a risky strategy for students. The fear of not learning an examined topic could incentivise risk averse students to work harder and more consistently throughout the module.

However, students’ perceptions of the demands of the exam might not align with that of the tutor. They may believe it is possible to predict exam questions and so spend large amounts of time acting strategically[1] rather than focussing their efforts on mastery of the module content. This approach may also reduce the validity of assessment, as grades partly depend on luck.

If tutors provide more guidance, students may learn some topics in greater depth and gain a deeper understanding. However, there is a danger it reduces the perceived demands of the assessment, leads to lower effort levels and results in more inconsistent patterns of studying with students completely ignoring some topics. Some educational researchers also argue that traditional exams promote low quality learning activities such as attempts to memorise material and are a poor predictor of long-term learning and understanding of course content.


[1] This includes continual visits by some students in staff office hours with questions designed to reveal information about what is on the exam rather than about the understanding of module content.