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A take-home exam as a specific assignment format

Last updated on 2 November 2022
Take-home exams require students to complete a task and submit their work within a strict time limit while working off-campus. Take-home exams have advantages over regular invigilated exams because they lead to longer material retention, reduce test anxiety, and are more in line with professional practices. Yet, they must be designed and conducted with care.

Take-home exams give students a reasonable amount of freedom to choose where and when they want to complete an assignment and show their research skills and academic writing skills. Students are allowed to consult their own notes, course texts and other materials as with open book exams, but the take-home exam is not invigilated. The response format is typically a long open-ended question format (essay, report, multiple pages). The overall condition – students working unsupervised, with a time limit – can include various methods of assessment such as case studies, essays, reviews, summaries and mini-projects. It is however important to consider, and prepare for, the pitfalls associated with this type of examination. Let's have a look!

Advantages of take-home exams

Ensure longer retention of the material

The research by Rich (2011) has shown that when studying for a take-home exam, students more frequently review the textbook and notes, compared to studying for an in-class exam. Additionally, students were more likely to summarize the material in their own words and ask questions in class.

Reduce stress and performance anxiety

Students have much more freedom in selecting the most convenient time and place to take the exam. This is positive for students who cope with performance anxiety (Rich, 2011).

More in line with the professional practice

A take-home exam gives a teacher the possibility to develop an examination that consists of items or assignments that are more authentic and matches professional practice.

Challenges of take-home exams

Just learning the essentials

The research by Haynie (2003) has shown that students only focus on the information that is needed to complete the take-home exam. They don’t tend to gain more insight into other learning material. More complex exam questions or -topics will prevent that from happening, as well as prepare students more extensively for this type of examination.

Cheating is a possibility

The student can ask for help when processing the information. It is therefore important to be clear about the rules. Tell students for example that collaboration with other students is possible, but that the personal part must be visible in the end. Another option would be to give every student a different type of question or assignment, to diminish the opportunity for cheating.

Correcting the exam

It is more difficult to correct the examination because of the diversity in answers between students. Therefore, determine before each period what the learning goals are and which certain elements must be present in a specific answer.


Tutors and course conveners may want to allow ‘time shifting’, which makes it possible for students to start when they want, provided this takes place within a limited time period. The clock only starts ticking when students download the exam paper at the appropriate local time, from which point they all receive the same amount of time to submit their scripts. Thus, time shifting creates the possibility of allowing students to self-schedule their take-home exams. For example, students could choose any 8- (or 24-, 48-, 72-) hour time period within a specified week, allowing them to work in the best circumstances possible and to take into account their other work, domestic or caring commitments. 


Take-home exams can vary from a short 3 hours with a 24-hour prior reading period, to 24 hours, 48 hours or 72 hours between the release of the exam paper and the submission of scripts. The length of the exams should be determined by the learning outcomes identified for each specific course, and the type of questions and the marking criteria will have to be modified according to the format adopted. Amongst current users of take-home exams, there is some support for a 24-hour exam with a clear word or page limit. In the case of shorter take-home exams, there is also some evidence supporting the distribution of questions up to a week in advance of the actual exam so that students can prepare their answers. This is thought to be an effective way of encouraging students to think critically about the material covered in the course as opposed only to memorising it.

If used in conjunction with other types of summative assessment, the use of take-home exams should be carefully planned at the programme level to ensure that student assessment loads remain manageable, that students have enough time to revise for other exams, and that dates of summative take home exams do not clash with submission dates/times of other formative/summative coursework. In that context, allowing students to decide the specific time at which they want to do their take-home exams (see the previous section) would minimise these problems.

The following questions would be useful for any discipline

  • Compare and contrast. For example, the question could ask students to compare and contrast three theoretical perspectives or three specific readings with particular detail to several points and the requirement to quote extracts from these readings. Similarly, it might be interesting to ask students to write a conversation or a debate between the course’s main authors or readings.
  • A more practical angle could be provided by asking students to answer a question using several ‘real life’ examples. They could also be asked to comment on a newspaper article using theoretical concepts from the course readings.
  • Alternatively, students could be provided with a short essay and asked to identify theoretical perspectives related to the themes discussed in it. 
  • Longer take-home exams are often based on case studies, such as the ones typically used in American business schools. There is some evidence for these case studies to be distributed to students at the beginning of the course so that they can become familiar with their nuances, relate the course material to the assigned tasks and produce pre-examination thinking and connections between the question and the material. Students may be encouraged to form study groups so that they can discuss and share ideas with each other.

Quick tips for successful take-home exams

Tip 1: Prepare multiple topics or case studies for students and assign them at random to the students. Or let students choose their own topics. The exam itself has a generic approach for answering and students need to apply it to their specific topic. See the tips on designing engaging questions on the page of open book exams. Additionally, mention explicitly that cooperation with fellow students is positive, but that in their solution, the student has to demonstrate their personal processing of the whole. This approach reduces academic misconduct possibilities.

Tip 2: Let students - within some bounds - select their own mode of response. They could make a piece in writing, but maybe responses in the form of a video, a presentation, a PowerPoint or other format could work too. See the possibilities presented on this page about assignments in active blended learning.

Tip 3: The length of papers should be limited to a set number of words/pages to ensure fairness among students and limit an unduly high amount of marking.

Tip 4: Communication about the take-home exam is key. If a teacher's instruction is insufficient and ambiguous, it can cause stress and an incorrect interpretation of the assessment by students. Make clear instructions about the practicalities, mode of submission and timing of the take-home exam. Make sure to have a late submission policy in place. Check with your local exam board on particular guidelines and regulations.

Tip 5: Formulate generic criteria with which the answer must comply. On this basis, for larger responses, develop a rubric with four to five possible answer levels. It is important to create (or at least discuss and calibrate) a grading form together with a colleague to score the examinations fairly and reliably.

Tip 6: Discuss the grading and evaluation criteria with the students beforehand.

Tip 7: Use a plagiarism check to ensure that the written work of the student is original. See information about VU Amsterdam plagiarism tools. Point out to students the guidelines concerning academic integrity.

Tip 8: Not fully sure if take-home exams fit with your faculties policies? Then get in touch with your examination board.

Parts of this text are based on NOTES OF GUIDANCE 9, Take home examination papers: guidance for tutors and course conveners, London School of Economics, Teaching and Learning Centre and amended to suit the VU Amsterdam context.