Open-book exams

Prepare actively for open-book exams to achieve your best.

What are open-book exams?

Open-book exams are a type of assessment at university that allows you to use certain study materials in the exam. While on-site exams might limit what readings or resources you can use, home-based online open-book exams are less likely to impose these restrictions. This means you may be allowed to use your textbooks, study notes and other materials while you take the exam. Always check your subject LMS carefully for any specific exam requirements.

Online open-book exams

Online open-book exams usually have strict time limits. You need to find out early on what the start and finish time will be and prepared to sit the exam at the right time. Most exams cannot be paused once they’ve started, so it’s crucial that you understand the standards of work required and develop strategies to meet these within the time limit.

Getting prepared

Online open-book exams tend to emphasise critical thinking over rote learning. This involves higher thinking skills such as the ability to analyse and evaluate information, compare data, synthesise evidence and apply concepts to solving problems.

Open-book exam questions can take many forms: multiple choice, short answers, problem solving or short essays. It’s really important to find out as early as you can what types of question will appear in an exam and what marking criteria will be used.

Exam revision tips

If you have studied actively throughout the semester, this will put you at a great advantage when it comes to exam revision. In the weeks leading to exams, your focus should shift from learning new concepts to looking back at what you’ve learned, sorting out notes and creating a system of key content areas that meet exam requirements. Try the following strategies to increase your exam confidence and prepare actively to make the most of your exam time and open-book material.

  • Organise your knowledge and understanding
    • Use study notes you’ve taken throughout the semester, for example, lecture, tutorial and reading notes. Try connecting these notes by identifying key content areas they support. When combining notes, remember your aim is to reflect on material you’ve already learned rather than learn new material for the first time. Use your notes to take in the full picture of the subject.
    • Organise study materials into folders and themes so you can find and use them efficiently during the exam. Build clearly labelled folders for key content areas, then file into each folder relevant themes. You may even want to colour-code these for easy access. These folders and files may be physical, digital or both, depending on what is allowed. Even if digital resources are permitted, it’s still a good idea to prepare a hard-copy backup in case of technical failure. If you have a second device or monitor, this can be used as a reading screen, to avoid confusion with your writing screen for taking the exam.
    • Rely more on well-organised and clearly labelled notes than full-length texts when preparing your open-book material. Attach summaries and snippets of original texts to a theme where necessary rather than including the whole texts.
    • For all this careful preparation, aim to use your sorted material more for revision purposes than for the taking of the exam. An open-book exam is designed so that you won’t have enough time to look up all the answers, let alone writing them to high standard. So, focus on preparing YOURSELF for the exam by enhancing your knowledge and skills, not just preparing material to open during the exam. While it’s good to have a filing system out there to aid memory, it’s essential to have one that’s deeply grooved in your brain. There’s no substitute for that.
  • Get lots of practice well ahead of the exam


    • answering past/mock exam questions within the time limit. Consider beginning at your scheduled exam time so you develop better focus during the real exam. You can also create your own questions or use questions contributed by a study group to practise.
    • creating answer outlines such as an essay skeleton or draft plan. If you can plan an answer quickly, you’ll become more efficient in preparing for and taking an exam.
    • connecting theories/concepts and examples/case scenarios. Do it both verbally and in written form.
    • explaining and justifying an answer, not just stating what it is, even for multiple choice and short answer questions.
    • structuring answers so that you start with a direct answer to the question and then elaborate it with examples, evidence and analysis.
    • using simple signposting language to state and link ideas clearly. E.g. It is crucial to… [opinion]. This is illustrated by … [fact]. This evidence means … [interpretation]. Therefore, it has potential to inform … [significance].

Academic Integrity in online open-book exams

All students at the University of Melbourne are responsible for upholding academic integrity in all their scholarly work. This means that all work you submit for assessment must represent your own original ideas and work.

  • Effective note-taking will help you to apply good scholarly conduct during your open-book exams.
  • During the exam, you must limit the materials you access to only those permitted for that exam     as this differs subject to subject. Check your subject LMS or with your Subject Coordinator if you’re unsure.
  • Most importantly, you must only submit work that is your own.

To find out more about appropriate scholarly conduct and practices in online assessment, visit the Online exams page of the Academic Integrity website.

Final tip

During an open-book exam, you should rely on your own knowledge and understanding as the main source of information and insight for answering the exam questions. To develop this self-reliance, early preparation is key. Any open-book material should be treated as a memory aid and a source of supporting information to help you check your references, facts or examples. You need to prioritise formulating your own answers to the questions instead of searching for answers from other sources.

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