Open-Book Exams

You look on the syllabus and see that you have an open-book exam, now what?

IMPORTANT NOTE: Open-book exams are NOT easier than closed book exams – oftentimes they are harder.

An open-book exam will require you really understand material and be able to apply or analyze information and content rather than just remember it. This means you definitely need to study and get organized since you won’t be able to just memorize information! You don’t want to waste valuable exam time looking for things or looking at materials for the first time. You will need to be organized with the materials you are allowed to use.

1. Understand what “open-book” means

“Open-book” means different things in different situations, and it’s your responsibility to make sure you know what you are and are not allowed to access during the test. Your notes? Textbook or other books? The internet? Friends, a TA, or parents? A tutor? Your dog, cat, fish, or plant?

You also need to understand the format and logistics of the exam in general- you need to know the if the exam is multiple choice, problem-solving, or essay based. You will also need to know how much time you have to complete the exam. Every instructor and exam is different, so check Canvas and the syllabus to gather all the intel you can. If something is unclear to you, it is your responsibility to get that thing clarified.

2. Study: Preparation is key!

Remember, open book does not mean that you don’t need to prepare or study! This is even more important if your open book exam is timed. Because open-book exams require you to use “higher levels of thinking”, you won’t just be asked about facts or to recall. Instead you will be asked to compare, analyze, evaluate, or synthesize information. These ways of demonstrating your knowledge are more challenging than just spitting back facts and require that you deeply know the material and are able to see connections.

3. Organize your reference materials

There is such a thing as “too much” when it comes to your reference materials – the more you have, the more you need to look through to find what you need. Be selective in what you have available, and whatever you decide to use or bring as reference materials needs to be organized.

  • Organize your notes – though lots and lots of notes might help you feel more prepared, it might just be more to look through. Identify main themes and topics, summarize important information, organize notes by topic, identify how topics are connected, etc.
  • Prepare your materials – create indices of key topics and identify where you can find more information on each of them, bookmark important pages/chapters, prepare a list of key information (formulas, definitions, etc.), etc.

4. During the exam, manage your time effectively

Just like with any exam, look over all the questions first before you begin answering. Once you’ve gotten a sense of all the questions, start by answering those you are familiar with and then then move on the to more difficult questions that require you to use your reference materials. Sometimes with open-book exams students might be tempted to keep adding information or to keep going back to check answers again and again (especially if you have a few days to take the exam). It is important to not over-answer questions – you should be thorough and accurate, but also concise. And, don’t over-quote either – your own analysis is critical.

5: Don’t forget: You still need to study!

I think we’ve said this a few times already, but it is important, so we will say it again: even if your exam is open-book, you should still develop (and implement!) a study plan.


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