How to study for open book exams

Last Updated on July 30, 2023

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How to study for open book exams

Open book test tips

Open Book Test Preparation Tips

Unlike traditional closed book exams where students are required to rely solely on their recall of exam topics, open book exams allow students to consult reference materials (notes, textbook, etc.) in the course of completing the exam. But don’t be deceived. Just because an exam is an open book doesn’t mean it will be easier, or any less challenging, than a closed book exam. In fact, the opposite is often true. While closed book exams place emphasis on memorization and recall, open book exams place focus on higher level learning and typically require students to evaluate, analyze, or synthesize information, rather than simply remember it. The strategies outlined below will help improve your performance on open book tests.

Preparation is key

Open book exams focus on “higher level learning”. What does this mean? It means that you don’t focus on rote memorization or recall. The purpose of the open book exam is to test your understanding of a subject matter. You’ll be asked to formulate, compare, analyze, evaluate, or synthesize information, rather than just recall it. Consequently, open book exams are often more challenging than other types of tests – even with a plethora of reference materials at your fingertips. Since open book tests can be more challenging than other types of tests, you must adequately prepare. Approach your preparation for an open book exam like you would any other test.

Don’t place too much emphasis on reference materials

One of the biggest mistakes students make when preparing for an open book exam is placing too much emphasis on reference materials. During an open book exam, especially a timed exam, extensive notes, textbooks and other reference materials can quickly become a crutch rather than an asset. Don’t expect to have time to review your notes, re-read your textbook, or discover new information during an open book exam – because you won’t.

You can greatly benefit by writing down important facts or information on a separate sheet of paper right after getting the test. This will decrease the time you spend using the book. It is very probable that you will not complete the test if you use it for every question.

Organize your reference materials

There is a famous quote by Barbara Benedek which says, “More isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just more.” This could very easily be applied to open book exams. In the case of open book exams, and test reference materials, not only is more sometimes just more, sometimes it’s actually less. Taking extensive notes, books and other reference materials to an open book exam is rarely beneficial, in fact, in most cases it will hinder performance. Your reference materials should be exactly that, “reference” materials. Make sure all reference materials you bring to the exam are organized and that you know ahead of time exactly where all information is that you may need to assist you in answering questions. Carefully select what you bring to the exam. It may even be useful to create an outline of your reference materials so that you can quickly find important information once the test has begun.

In preparation for your open book test, identify key concepts and terms which will more than likely appear on the test. Use your class lecture notes to pinpoint what the instructor is likely to include on the exam. After you’ve done this, locate where this information is covered in the book you’re permitted to use for the test or in your notes. Once you’ve begun your test, with respect to your reference materials, your main concern is locating information, not studying it. You should come to the test already having studied all key concepts and topics.

If it’s permitted, highlight sections of the book where important subjects are covered. Also, write notes in the book’s margins to utilize during the test. It is also useful to place post-it notes with important information in key sections of the book for easy accessibility during the test. In the case of open book math and science exams, list out important data and formulas separately for easy access during the test.

Familiarize yourself with key concepts

Many students do not familiarize themselves with key concepts before open book tests. Students often figure that they can simply look up answers while they’re taking the test. However, open book tests usually cover more information and take longer to complete than traditional tests. You’ll likely run out of time if you rely on your book for every answer. Your book and notes should only be used as reference resources for difficult questions or questions that require specific information.

Don’t plagiarize

Never copy information directly from the book and pass it off as your own work or answer on an open book test. Teachers are concerned with what their students have learned, not whether they can locate information in a book. It is permissible to use quotes from the book, or lecture notes, to support your positions or analysis, but do not rely too heavily on them.

Manage your time effectively

The same time management rules that apply to general test taking also apply to taking open book tests. First, at the offset of the test review how many questions there are and determine how much time you can spend on each question. Then answer the questions you are familiar with before answering those that are more difficult or will require using your reference materials. Finally, don’t over answer questions. Be concise, accurate, yet thorough. This will make it possible to complete the open book test on time and achieve a higher score.

how to study for open book exam reddit

  • 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.

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