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Open book exams allow you to take notes, texts or resource materials into an exam hall. They test your ability to find and apply information and knowledge, so are often used in subjects requiring direct reference to written materials, like law statutes, statistics or acts of parliament.

Then what is your first reaction when the teacher announces that your next exam will be an open book test? Most students breathe a sigh of relief, because they think they’re getting a break. But are they?

In fact, open book tests are not easy tests. Open book tests teach you how to find information when you need it. The questions are designed to teach you how to use your brain. And contrary to popular belief, you do not get off the hook when it comes to studying for an open book exam.

You just need to study a little differently.

Do not underestimate the preparation needed for an open book exam:

your time will be limited, so the key is proper organization in order to quickly find data, quotes, examples, and/or arguments you use in your answers.

Open Book Exam Questions

Most often, the questions on an open book exam will ask you to explain, evaluate, or compare things from your text book. For example:

“Compare and contrast the different views of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as they pertained to the role and size of the government.”

The answer to this question will not appear in a single paragraph in your text book–or even on a single page. The question requires you to have an understanding of two philosophical views that you could only comprehend by reading the entire chapter.

During your exam, you will not have time to find enough information to answer this question well. Instead, you should know the basic answer to the question and, during the test, look for information from your book that will support your answer.

In open book exam you will be expected to

  1. apply material to new situations
  2. analyze elements and relationships
  3. synthesize, or structure
  4. evaluate using your material as evidence

Preparing for an Open Book Exam

  • Read the chapters ahead of time. Don’t expect to find quick answers during the test.
  • Know where to find everything. Observe headings and sub-headings and make your own outline. This reinforces the structure of the text in your mind.
  • Mark all important terms with sticky notes and flags. If the teacher allows it, mark your texts wherever you notice important concepts and terms.
  • Review lecture notes for themes. Your teacher’s lectures usually provide an overview of the themes and concepts that appear on tests. You won’t always get this by reviewing the book alone.
  • Make your own notes if allowed, and write down important formulas or concepts that you’ve covered in class.

During the Open Book Exam

The first thing you need to do is evaluate each question. Ask yourself if each question asks for facts or interpretation.

The questions that ask you to provide facts may be easier and faster to answer. Those will start with expressions like:

“List five reasons . . .?”

“What events led up to. . .?”

Some students like to answer these questions first, then go on to the more time-consuming questions that require more thought and concentration.

As you answer each question, you will need to quote the book when appropriate to back up your thoughts. Be careful, though. Only quote three to five words at a time. Otherwise, you will fall into the trap of copying answers from the book–and you’ll lose points for that.


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