Anyone who has ever prepared for an exam in most Arts subjects has had the miserable experience of cramming their head with quotations, predominantly the night before, and morning of, the exam. Some people go to rather drastic lengths – laboriously writing them out time and time again, so that doing so becomes as much a product of muscle memory as recollection. Then there’s the tactic which everyone extols but rarely tries – listening to them when you’re sleeping; really it’s just a lazy way of convincing yourself you’re revising. If you’re an English student you have to worry about where line breaks occur, if you’re a theologian you have to remembering countless bible references…

This is all frankly ridiculous, the ability to recall quotations from set texts proves nothing except how good your memory is and how much time you have committed to rote learning. Both of these are qualities which exams should not be testing; so as long as they remain ways of increasing your mark, whilst not reflecting your intellect or understanding of the material, they should be eliminated. The only way to do this is to make exams open-book.

This would be self-regulating, so to speak. Being able to write the essay without turning to the book(s) would still be an advantage, and generate best marks, since you would spend less time flicking through pages and more time writing. The candidates who get the highest marks would therefore be those for whom quotations arise organically as evidence for their claims rather than a means of buttressing them with appeals to authority.

Memorising a set number of quotations, which so many people do, also encourages the student to form their essay around them so that they have a quotation-filled essay. Allowing students to go and find the evidence to support their claims in their set texts would mean that essays are written supported by and furnished with quotations rather than structured around them. It will also stop students fabricating quotations or quoting them incorrectly as well as ensure that referencing is done accurately. No one should be expected to remember specific page numbers of the quotations they want to use – what does this prove? Sharp analysis? Precise understanding? Good expression? No. Could all your tutors do it? Often not. It’s not in the slightest indicative of anything more than rote learning and a good memory.

They’ve realised this in Law where you don’t have to remember all the statutes and, only recently, are allowed to take in case names. Good essays need quotations, facts, evidence. But good exams shouldn’t test our ability to remember these by rote; doing so is destructive for the essay and not at all an imitation of how real pieces of scholarly work are written. The only way to harmonise the two is with open-book exams.