Preparing for Take-home and Open Book Exams: A Student Guide

Monday, May 11, 2020

As COVID-19 has made traditional invigilated exams in exam halls impossible, they have given way to online alternatives, commonly including take-home or open-book exams. If you are a student, you may be anxious about this change, and if you’re a member of staff supporting students, you may wonder how best to help your students prepare. In this post, I’ll offer some pointers and guidance.

Different kinds of online assessments, with different kinds of questions

There are two main types of online exams you may face: take-home papers or open-book exams. Both of these are papers which you will access online, complete, and then submit your work by a specific deadline. The key difference is that take-home papers typically have a window of time from release until the submission deadline, often 24-48 hours, so that you can choose when complete the paper and submit your work. In contrast, open-book exams will have a more defined period, perhaps two hours plus some time to upload your answers.

For both types of assessment, you will have access to your notes, textbooks and even the Internet whilst you are preparing your submission. This means you can expect different kinds of questions. Traditional invigilated exams test recall and memorisation, whilst take-home or open-book exams involve evaluation, analysis, synthesis of information, critical thinking, interpretation, and application. In other words, they test not just what you know about your subject, but what you can do with it.

Preparing for the assessment

Getting ready to do your best in these new assessment formats still requires preparation. You’ll still want to create a timetable for revision, and commit to revisiting and sharpening your learning. But the kinds of activities you do in that time will be different. Here are five things to consider, as you get ready for the test.

1. Know what you’ll face

Is it a take-home paper, or a shorter open-book exam? When is it released, and how long do you have to complete it? Check how long the paper is expected to take – it’s an exam, not coursework, and so if you have 24 hours to submit it, you will not be expected to spend most of those hours working on it. It’s likely to be 2-3 hours’ work, but if your tutor hasn’t made this clear, ask him or her to clarify. 

2. Get a good overview

Make sure you have a good working knowledge, in your head, of the material that the exam will cover. Look back over your notes, lecture slides, and textbook and identify the themes. Be able to talk about key concepts and how they relate to each other. You could capture this thinking as a mind-map, a spider-diagram, a bulleted list with sub-bullets, even a series of doodles and sketches. Annotate your map with the location of relevant material, (e.g. ‘Week 7’, ‘Part 2’, ‘Chapter 6’, etc.)

This preparation is important to enable you to locate questions you face in the exam within the material you’ve covered, and to know quickly, from memory, which part(s) of the course you need to draw on to answer each question you find on the paper. For questions that require you to look over the whole course, this overview will help with structuring your answer and with justifying it, if required. 

As you build this overview, and indeed throughout your revision, resist the temptation to do lots of additional independent reading. Stick with what you’ve covered throughout your studies, and aim to be able to work with that material – which is what you’ll be tested on – not to expand it.

3. Don’t rely on reference material

In the exam, reference material is there as a reference – to check quick facts, equations, etc. – not to learn about a topic you have not really studied before, such as how a formula works, what a theory describes, or relationships between ideas. Exams are not coursework, and marks will not come from demonstrating lots of independent literature research and new approaches. Instead, you need to show that you can use what you’ve covered in the module, and think about and around it for yourself. 

So don’t plan to bring an entire library to the test, but instead prepare the reference material you’ll use carefully. 

If you are using a textbook, or your lecture notes, put them together in a folder, and use labelled sticky notes to bookmark the different sections and topics, linking these to your mind-map. This will enable you to quickly access details you may need when you are working on your assessment. 

Draw out the key facts you’re likely to need into your own notes. Got an exam that will require equations and formulae? Key dates? Quotations? Lots of specific terminology? Capture these things onto a single page or two, to make a quick reference for yourself.

4. Practise, and keep your work

Because of the rapid switch to different exam formats, past papers are unlikely to be available, but look out for an exemplar paper or sample questions your tutor may release – and ask for these if they are not readily available. 

To supplement available examples, think about where there’s scope to do things with the knowledge you are revising, that may include, for example: interpreting, applying, modifying, analysing, discriminating between concepts, critiquing, making choices, constructing, creating, designing, reconstructing, synthesising, arguing, appraising, comparing, justifying and interpreting. Practise doing these things. You could work with your course-mates to quickly build up a bank of sample tasks, but share only the questions, and have a go at answering them yourself.

You never know if one of the questions you’ve practised, or something similar, will come up on the actual assessment. So, save all of the answers you write down when practising, and file and categorise them exactly as you have your other notes, so you’ve got them to hand.

5. Prepare your environment and test your technology

As the assessment gets closer, think about where you’ll work to complete it. Choose somewhere quiet, and make sure other people in your household know not to disturb you – a polite sign for your door might be helpful. Ideally, find a workspace with a table and chair, good lighting, and an appropriate temperature.

Think also about what you’ll need in your workspace – your computer, a good Internet connection, stationery, some drinking water, your reference materials, and a clock (ideally not your phone, to minimise distractions). Aim to have everything you’ll need to hand, so you can focus on your work, and not be interrupted by having to move away from your workstation.

Finally, think about what technical tasks the exam might require. Have you got the right software installed on your computer? If you will need to scan handwritten or hand-drawn work, do you know how to work your scanner? And if you don’t have a scanner, have you got a suitable app on your phone to photograph your work? You might like to check out Microsoft Office Lens, which is available for Android, iOS and Windows (a quick guide is available here).

Good luck!

I hope that you find these suggestions useful, and reassuring, as you are preparing to sit your assessments this year. Remember that although the style is different, the aim – your proving and demonstrating the learning that you’ve done – remains the same. And in many ways, the type of questions you’ll face this year, and the open style of assessment, are more realistic of the type of applications of your learning you’ll face when you’re in a professional environment after graduation. You won’t ever have done past papers to help you prepare for a specific day at work: you have to be adaptable, and able to draw on your learning to solve problems, using your initiative. This is your opportunity to practise doing that, and to recognise and draw out these skills for your CV and applications.

Look out for my next post, on Monday, 18 March, in which I’ll share more tips for the day of your take-home or open-book assessment itself.

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  1. What my daughter is doing in preparation for her on line finals is that she is finding as many past questions as she can and is making notes on them, finding useful references, and writing a good couple of paragraphs on each. This means that when the paper gets released there are very few questions which she hasn’t already made a start on – the exact question might be phrased differently but topics are the same. So she doesn’t get the blank piece of paper moment – which I think can be even more stressful in the home environment. It has worked well so far (one more to go).
    When the paper is released a load of students get together for an hr or so and brainstorm the paper, discuss the questions etc, compare answers to any data handling etc. I think this also removes the stress a bit. The paper is open for 24 hrs and it is quite a stressful 24 hrs for all. Having 24 hrs though gives time to finish the answers, sleep on it, and then check it before submitting.

    1. Thanks for sharing this story. Practising and saving your responses in case similar questions are on the exam paper is part of the approach I suggestion in section 4 above, so it's great to hear that it's been working so well for your daughter. Managing time within the submission window is important, too - and I'll be talking more about that in next week's post on how to deal with the exam itself.