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Exam preparation: Strategies for open book exams

In Open Book Exams, students are allowed to bring notes, texts, and/or other resources into the exam room. They test your ability to find and apply information. Students often have wrong ideas about these exams, such as:

“I don’t need to study much for my exam because the information will be right there for me to look up”

OR

“All I’ll need to do in the exam is copy the answers out of the text.”

Here is the truth about open book exams and how to prepare for, and write, them.

What should I expect?

  • The instructor knows that you have your notes and text right in front of you, so is unlikely to ask questions that just call on you to copy information.
  • Instead, open book exams tend to ask students to apply, analyze, synthesize, compare/contrast or evaluate1 information.  They test whether you understand the “big picture” of the course and how course concepts work together.
  • For example, you might be given a problem or a scenario and asked to apply concepts from several parts of the course to it to develop an answer.
  • The instructor will be looking for well-structured and presented arguments or solutions.
  • The exam is likely to be more challenging than others, and the instructor is likely to have higher expectations for the quality of your answers and the extent of your critical and analytical thinking, knowing you have course materials available to draw upon.

How should I prepare?

  • Find out from your instructor exactly what you are allowed – and not allowed – to bring in to the exam, and make sure you follow the rules.
  • Find out if you need to cite sources in your answers.
  • Learn your material as thoroughly as you would for any other exam.
  • Do not count on having time to look up all your answers.
  • Organize your resources so that you can find the information you need efficiently, without wasting precious time:
    • Decide what you are going to bring in.
      • Bringing excessive materials may distract you, clutter your workspace, and tempt you to waste time by looking up facts unnecessarily.
    • Write key concepts on sticky notes and use these as tabs to index your textbook, notes, and other materials so you can find them quickly.
      •  Tab and label any tables of contents or indexes of books
      • You may even colour-code the tabs for quicker access.
    • Prepare a condensed set of notes, or summary of the course.
      •  Include page references for where you can find the “long version”.
      •  Include notes or concept maps showing the relationships or connections between different concepts and parts of the course.
      •  Colour-code and tab the summary as well.
      •  You may be able to collaborate with classmates on this.
      • If formulae will be part of your exam, put these in a separate, easily accessed place.
  • Once your summary is complete and your material is indexed, take your resources for a test drive by practicing answering questions of the “apply”, “analyze”, “synthesize”, “compare/contrast” and “evaluate” type.
    • Previous or practice exams are a good source of questions, or you could work with classmates to develop practice questions for each other2.
    • Although you may decide to bring your written answers to practice questions into the exam, do not expect that you will be asked the exact same questions and be able to copy entire answers.  Your answers need to directly answer the question that is asked, not the somewhat related question that you may have prepared.

What should I keep in mind while writing these exams?

  • Time is likely to be scarce.  First answer the questions that you know without extensive referral to materials.
  • Know the basic answers and, if necessary, look up an exact formula, a numerical value, or supporting evidence for your answers.
  • There may be sufficient time to quickly refer to materials, but not to learn something new – such as how a formula works, or the relationships between various course concepts – from your materials during the exam.
  • Copying long passages or quotes is a waste of time; instead, paraphrase and condense any information you find in your materials.
  • Aim for concise, well-supported answers.
  • If you have time for review at the end, you may check your materials more extensively to verify accuracy or to find additional points.

1. For information on these types of questions and how to answer them, see Levels of Learning and Understanding Action Words in Questions on the Exam Preparation webpage.

2. A study found practice testing to be one of the two most effective study strategies, the other being studying a little bit almost every day.  See Dunlosky, J. K.A. Rawson, E.J. Marsh, M.J. Nathan and D.T. Willingham (2013).  Improving Students’ Learning Techniques:  Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology.  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58. 

Acknowledgements:

  • Open Book &Take Home Exams ,The Learning Centre, University of New South Wales.
  • The page also drew upon on pages from the National University of Singapore and Charles Sturt University which have since been removed from the universities' web sites.