Top tips for taking open book exams 1 - preparation

Posted in: academic skills, exams

During the exam period, you may be asked to take a home-based online open book exam. Open book exams allow you to consult external sources such as textbooks and your own notes during the exam time. Here are some tips from former Academic Skills Course Leader Tom Reid to help you prepare for this form of assessment.

Tip 1 - Logistics

Before you do anything, you should find out:

  • when you'll be able to access the exam
  • the time and date the exam should be handed in
  • where, how and what format the exam should be handed in
  • how much time you have to complete the exam
  • the topic areas the exam will cover
  • how long answers should be
  • whether you need to reference
  • the types of questions, essays, short answers, report, etc.

Getting this information should help to steady your nerves.

Tip 2 - Get organised

During the online open book exam, you may be tempted to have a large amount of notes and resources at your fingertips to make you feel more secure. However, this can lead to confusion, loss of focus and wasted time. It's best to work from a few pages of relevant, concise notes and carefully selected texts.

Before the exam

  • Use tables of contents and index pages to locate relevant sections in the books you plan to use.
  • Bookmark useful chapters or pages with Post-it notes.
  • Prepare brief summaries, e.g. in margins of texts, to provide a quick reference.
  • Prepare a list of key information (formulae, key definitions etc) likely to be used.
  • Use index cards to list key topics and relevant page numbers of texts. Use one card per book. This can help you find information quickly.

Effective note-taking

  • Review the subject to get a good overview
  • Work out the key themes and topics
  • Identify key concepts, information, arguments, theories, conceptual frameworks
  • Make brief and legible notes
  • Summarise important information
  • Use clear headings
  • Organise notes by topic
  • Identify how topics are connected
  • Include real-world examples to illustrate concepts.

Tip 3 - Avoid pre-preparing model answers

When preparing your notes, it's best to avoid preparing a 'model' answer to a predicted question. Essay style questions tend toward a 'free' response rather than a fixed 'single right answer' question, so formula answers just won't work.

Revise around the topic and look for key points, arguments, evidence, examples, relevant conceptual frameworks and theories etc.

In other words, approach your revision for the open book exam in the same way you would approach a 'normal' exam, or even a quick-time assignment.

Tip 4 - Check past papers

The University Library has a large collection of past exam papers, listed by department, course and year. Past papers will provide you with really useful and relevant questions that you can use to revise and practise. Tutors often recycle or adapt existing questions, so it's possible that some questions may make a reappearance!

Remember, don't pre-prepare a model answer and don't second guess the content of the exam.

Tip 5 - Application, not regurgitation

Because this is an online open book exam where, in theory, you have access to unlimited resources, the questions are more likely to focus on testing your ability to critically assess facts, methods, ideas, theories etc rather than simply recycling learnt information or answering true/false type answers.

When studying each topic, you'll need to demonstrate a critical, analytical and evaluative approach in your responses, and consider areas such as:

  • issues and problems related to the topic
  • impact and implications of the study or research
  • arguments for and/or against
  • limitations of research/future research opportunities
  • examples to illustrate successes and/or problems in practice
  • the real-world application of theories/frameworks
  • your overall evaluation of the topic, based on the evidence you have presented.

The video below is also a useful guide to help you prepare for open book exams.

Blog post adapted from:


Posted in: academic skills, exams

Now read our Top tips for taking open book exams 2 - on the day


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response