Keeping them in the dark: What research has to say about the choice between offering seen vs unseen exams.

The ‘exam’ continues to be one of the most widely employed assessment methods in HE, despite well-known reservations regarding its drawbacks and limitations (Williams and Wong, 2009). In an attempt to address some of these drawbacks a number of examination formats have been explored, particularly the choice between open and closed book exams, although the relative merits of these two formats are also hotly debated (Bacon, 1969, Green et al., 2016). However, it is interesting to note a comparative absence of discussion relating to another potentially significant exam formatting choice, the choice between seen vs unseen exams. The ‘seen’ exam format allows students to see the exam questions well in advance of the exam itself, whereas the ‘unseen’ exam format withholds the questions from the students until exam has begun. Many educators appear to have reservations about seen exams, but often these reservations are based on little more than anecdotal arguments about increased risk of plagiarism, rote memorization and other poor practices. But, what does the research in this area have to say regarding the merits of both the seen and unseen exam formats?

In this paper we will explore the findings of a critical literature review into the research relating to the seen vs unseen debate. We will discuss the purposes of exams as an assessment format (Denscombe, 2000) so as to then consider how both seen and unseen exams fare in helping to achieve those purposes. Research will be discussed which explores the perceptions of both staff and students on seen and unseen exam formats (Race, Brown and Smith, 2005; Reimann and Robson, 2011), hoping to reveal the preferences on both sides and the origins of those preferences. We will also review the findings of studies investigating the impact of the two exam formats, as the impact on the depth-of-learning achieved in the approach used by students to prepare for their exams (Krathwohl, 2002), the impact on student well-being (Habeshaw, Gibbs and Habeshaw, 1986) and impact on assessment outcomes such as transferable skills (Brightwell, Daniel and Stewart, (2004). Finally, we will explore some of the methodological issues related to the research methods in this area such as a potential lack of ‘student voice’ in the research. Ultimately we hope to stimulate an informed debate among education researchers and practitioners on this somewhat overlooked option for the effective use of the exam assessment method.