Sitting your Take-home and Open Book Exams: A Student Guide

Monday, May 18, 2020

Last week, I shared some guidance for students facing take-home or online open book exams, focused on how to revise and prepare effectively. In today’s post, I offer you some advice for the day of your assessment itself, with seven tips to help you do your best.

1. Eat something!

Your normal routine when you’re working at home might not be to eat breakfast, or to have meals at different times than you would during a day working on campus. But your exam is going to require you to think hard, and that uses more energy than many physical activities. Making sure you’ve had something nutritious to eat will help you maintain concentration without feeling tired as you’re working.

2. Trust yourself

You won’t have time in the assessment to look everything up, and to learn about topics that you have not revised. That’s why I recommended making sure you have a good overview of the material, have thought about the connections within the material, and have prepared a prompt sheet with key equations and details.

In the exam itself, resist the temptation to start checking your notes as soon as you see the questions. Instead, trust what you’ve learnt, as if you were in an invigilated exam and didn’t have your notes, and map out your answer using that knowledge. Use your notes only to check facts or details that you really can’t remember. If you do need to consult your notes, use the indexing you’ve created (see last week’s post), and pull out what you need, then focus on writing your answer. Don’t keep going back to your notes to look things up – it’ll interrupt the flow of you writing a well-structured answer.

If you find that there’s a question that you really don’t know how to answer, leave it to the end, and come back to it. Do all of the other questions, and then you can use any remaining time to revisit the question you couldn’t answer, and consult your notes and books.

3. Don’t turn the exam into coursework

If you’re sitting a take-home paper with a submission window of, say, 24 hours, you are not expected to spend all of the time working on your answers. Your tutor may indicate how long they expect the paper to take you, but as a guide, it’s unlikely to be much longer than your originally scheduled invigilated exam. So, don’t spend a lot longer and end up turning your exam into coursework. Bear two things in mind to help with this.

First, your tutors are expecting you to submit exam answers, not polished pieces of coursework. You need to present your ideas clearly, using the right content and with logical structure. But spending hours redrafting the text so it says the same things more eloquently, or finessing presentation, will not lead to higher marks.

Second, you are not expected to undertake literature research in the exam. You are being tested on what you’ve learnt during the course, not on what additional learning you can cram into the assessment period. Doing loads of additional reading may decrease the clarity of your answer, as you squeeze more in, and bury the key points from the core learning material that your tutor is looking for. Stick with what you know, and use that competently to demonstrate your learning. Good marks will follow this, not masses of extra detail.

4. Beware of plagiarism

You’ve probably had the seriousness of plagiarism drilled into you, and know how to avoid it in coursework. But under the pressure of a timed exam where you have your notes, books and even the Internet as reference material, it can be easy to commit accidental plagiarism. Take special care of copying and pasting material, or reading and then using material in your own work. If you copy and paste or paraphrase text, use a different colour type, so that you remember to reference it properly before you submit.

5. Create your own exam conditions

One of the benefits of doing your assessments in a traditional exam hall is that distractions are minimised. Give yourself the best chance in the assessments you are completing at home by establishing conditions that will allow you to be highly focused.

Turn off your phone, and close any social media applications and your email on your computer. If you think you’ll struggle to avoid accessing these whilst you are doing the exam, you might benefit from downloading an app that will block them – see this website for some suggestions and reviews.

Also think about distractions at home. Tell other people in your household that you are doing an assessment, let them know when, and ask them not to disturb you. Consider making a polite notice for your door to remind your family or housemates – putting up the notice can also be a good cue to yourself that you are entering exam mode, and need to focus.

6. Submit on time

It probably sounds obvious, but it’s important to make sure you submit your work on time. So, don’t leave it too late in your allotted time to start scanning or capturing your work, saving your file, and uploading it, to ensure that you don’t go over time.

7. Think about the social aspect

Exams under any circumstances can be stressful. On campus, you’d probably manage this by meeting up with friends afterwards, so that you can reassure each other by discovering that you all found particular questions difficult, and by comparing what you wrote for different answers. Don’t underestimate the importance of doing this, and of maintaining a social connection, even though you’ll be isolated from your friends as you sit the exams.

Plan ahead, and think about when you might check in with each other afterwards. Schedule this in advance, so that you know you won’t be disrupting each other trying to work, and then meet online to debrief and decompress as you usually would face to face.

And finally…

Although the style of assessment you are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic is probably different from usual, remember that it remains simply an opportunity for you to demonstrate your learning. Keep calm, and read the questions carefully. Once you think you understand what to do, read the question again to check that’s what it’s asking for. And then do your best – that’s all you can ask of yourself. You can do this, and by the time you come out the other side, you’ll have a great example of your resilience and ability to cope under pressure with short deadlines for your next interview! Good luck!

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