Preparing for an Online, Open-Book Exam
Writing an exam remotely probably wasn’t your original plan, but Academic Skills can offer some helpful tips as you mentally prep for new exam formats! Many instructors have transitioned to open-book exams; here we’ve laid out some strategies to help you prepare (yes, you still need to study for this type of exam!).
- Challenges of an open-book exam
- Keys to success
- Steps to Prepare
- Tips for test time
While open-book exams offer the opportunity to look through notes during the test, they are not necessarily easier than closed-book exams. Why?
Open-book exams often still have time limits; you generally cannot look up the answer to every question and still have time to complete the exam within the time limit.
Open-book exams focus on synthesis, analysis, and application, rather than memorization. This means that open-book exams generally require higher-order thinking and writing skills.
It is more tempting NOT to study for an open-book exam, leaving students unprepared for writing them well when the time comes.
We’ll get into the details of how to prepare, but here is a brief overview of the keys to writing a successful open-book exam:
- Knowledge: a solid understanding of the course content
- Systems: organized notes and a systematic way to find content quickly
- Structure: plan for completing the exam within the time limit and commit to that plan
- Academic integrity: make sure your work is your own – otherwise it’s not your success!
All work you submit for credit must be individual, original, and free from unearned advantage.
For an online, open-book exam, it is important that you understand what materials you are permitted to access and reference. You may be limited to use of your course notes and textbook, which means you should not access your web browser, social media apps, or messaging platforms during the exam. Take note of all exam instructions in advance of the exam date, and if necessary, ask for clarification on permitted materials.
It is also important to note that you should not be posting or accessing exam questions or responses to questions on sharing sites or social media. Learn more about the Academic Integrity Policy and How to Protect your Academic Integrity in Online Learning.
Give yourself plenty of time to prepare for your open-book exam. Follow these steps to prepare efficiently and effectively.
Make sure you understand your instructor’s expectations for the exam and that you clearly understand the exam framework:
- When will you have access to the exam?
- How much time will you have to write the exam?
- Do you need to complete the exam in one chunk? Or can you take a break and come back to it later?
- What types of questions will be on the exam? E.g. multiple choice, short answer, synthesis, application
- What materials are you allowed to consult? All course materials? Google? Outside research articles?
- How can you ask for clarification, if you need it, once you’ve started writing?
- Do you need in-text citations and/or a references page for your exam? Academic integrity still applies!
This is a great place to start setting up a framework for organizing your notes, starting your review, and beginning to make connections between course ideas that will be important for those higher-order thinking questions.
First, review your syllabus:
- What are the course objectives? What do you professors say that they would like you to understand by the end of the course?
- What are the major themes or topics of the course?
- How is the course organized?
- What have been the most important readings?
- Can you sum up the main idea(s) or guiding principle(s) of the course?
As you take note of the objectives/themes/readings, start to think about connections between them – how does one lead into the next? How are they related to each other? How do they relate to the assignments you’ve done?
This is the bulk of your open-book exam prep, but completing the previous steps will make this step easier!
- Start by preparing good study notes from the lecture notes/slides, course readings, and other course materials:
- Organize your notes based on the course organization: themes, units, systems, modules, etc. Hint: use your framework and summaries from Step 2!
- Identify the type of material you need to understand: concepts or theories, processes, equations, data trends, etc.
- Summarize and synthesize content using study charts (Figure 1), tree diagrams (Figure 2), concept maps (Figure 3), reference or equation sheets, index cards, etc.
|Key Theorist||Historical Context||Main Idea||Application|
|English||Author||Title||Major Characters||Key Events||Important Themes|
|Business Admin||Concept/Skills||Main Theorist||Historical Context||Main Ideas||Application for Workplace|
|History||Module||Time Period/Region||Major Events||Key Vocabulary||Connections to course themes|
- Consider the pros and cons of using paper versus digital study notes, and go with what you think will work best for your learning style. Here are some ideas to think about:
- Flexibility in design and organization
- Accessible if you cannot open any other programs while you write your exam (or if your computer tends to run slowly)
- Can integrate print textbook and other resources from the course
- Content is searchable
- Can create linked content in one document (e.g. create linked headings and link them in a table of contents or bulleted list for quick access)
- Can split screen for exam and resources (if permitted for the course)
Effective studying goes beyond just reading through your notes. If you’ve completed Step 3 and worked on highlighting themes, organizing ideas, and making connections between those ideas, that’s a great start. Remember that open-book exam questions will likely be looking for more application examples or more evidence of analysis and critical thinking – i.e. more than simple recall of information. Keep that in mind as you try out some of these methods to prepare yourself for your exam:
- Anticipate potential questions and then test yourself by writing answers to those questions
- Ask your professor or TA for a practice question (well ahead of time)
- Try teaching a course theory, explaining a course theme, or showing how to do a sample problem to someone else. Or even your dog! With physical distancing, of course!
- Try Professor Smith-Chant’s SPEW method:
- Use the list of key terms in a chapter or table of contents to create a short list of relevant concepts
- Set a timer for 2-5 minutes and free-write anything you know about each concept
- When you are finished, check your responses
- Make a note of any ideas/concepts for which you couldn’t provide a complete response or enough details – review those concepts and then repeat the SPEW method for these concepts again.
As a last step to prepare for the exam, make sure you have a system in place for finding the information you need quickly! Here are some tips for developing your system:
- Set up your test-writing space so that you have room to write and room to lay out the resources you will need so they are close at hand
- Have your notes in a binder so that you aren’t shuffling through loose pages. Make use of physical dividers, sticky notes, etc. so that you can quickly jump to the section you need.
- Make a chart or table of contents for quick reference to big concepts, key systems, or other forms of organization. Annotate your chart or table of contents with summaries of main ideas for each unit, topic, category of information.
- Colour code your charts and notes. Use sticky notes, highlighters, etc.
- Mark important pages in your readings or textbooks. Use labeled sticky notes to help you quickly find key information.
- If you are using digital notes, make use of highlighter tools, or insert comments in key areas so that you jump to sections. Use a digital table of contents with links to headings.
You’ve thought about the test expectations, reviewed the course objectives, prepared your notes, practiced, and developed a system for quickly accessing your notes. Now it’s test time! Here are some tips for actually writing the exam:
- Timing – the most important component! Plan the time you have per question based on grade/weighting and total time allocated. Check your pace and skip ahead if you need to.
- Example: 75 multiple choice questions in 2 hours = 1.5 minutes per question – 20 questions should take 30 min max. Check your pace!
- Reading the question – understand what the question is asking; identify key words in the question.
- For multiple choice questions, review all responses before selecting – analyze your options. See more on writing multiple choice exams.
- For questions that you aren’t sure about, take time to refer to your notes. Use your study charts or table of contents (or the search function for digital notes) to find relevant content for the question quickly.
- For free response questions, write full and complete answers with appropriate detail to demonstrate your understanding of course concepts. See more on writing free response exams – i.e. short answer and essays.
If your test is online, make sure you have any technology troubleshooting done ahead of time. Here is some additional great technical advice from Student Accessibility Services.
Good luck on all of your exams, from the Academic Skills team! Please note that Academic Skills appointments can be booked through the Student Experience Portal – feel free to make an appointment to further discuss study strategies.