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An open book exam as a specific assessment format

Last updated on 29 July 2022
An open book exam might be the right form of assessment when you want to assess knowledge, insight and synthesis and evaluation skills of your students. Students can be stimulated to analyze and solve a problem from multiple perspectives. To adequately implement this type of examination in a course, it is important to realize how it is best constructed, and which potential pitfalls to take into account. Let's have a look!

An open book exam is a type of assessment that can be used in all forms of teaching. Just like a take home exam, it is a form of examination that should elicit students to demonstrate that they have understood the course material and are able to apply knowledge, concepts and procedures to a different situation than the one they know from the books. The response format is typically the short open ended question format. During the exam, students can consult for example their class notes and summaries, a “memory aid”, textbooks, or other approved material while answering questions. However, students are - in contrast to take home exames - invigilated.

Students often mistakenly think that open-book exams are easy and don't need much preparation as they can look everything up on the spot. However, a typical exam duration does not allow students to learn new conceptual relationship or solving procedures when they get application questions. So communicate the expectations clearly to all the students.

A pitfall for teachers is that they may not know how to develop and devise effective exam questions that require students to apply their knowledge through analysis and critical thinking. Below we sum up some tips for succesful open book exams.

Tip 1: Question design

Design your questions and overall exam paper with the learning outcomes in mind i.e. what skills and knowledge are you assessing? Create open questions based on the intended learning outcomes, preferably questions that will challenge students to analyse and apply their existing knowledge.  Examples of type of questions you can ask:

Knowing and remembering.

Recall knowledge of subject matter relevant to the discussion (but maybe better not test at this rote learning knowledge level - if this is an important part of the learning outcomes, consider a traditional multiple-choice exam).

  • § What, where, who, when, where …? § How many …? § List … § Describe … § Define … 


Demonstrate understanding by constructing meaning from information.

  • § In your own words, … § Explain how … § What did X mean when …? § Give an example of … 


Apply knowledge and understanding to a particular task or problem. 

  • § How would you use …? § What examples can you find to …? § How would you solve ___ using what you’ve learned? § What would happen if …? 


Examine different concepts and make distinctions between them.

  • § What are the parts or features of …? § What are the competing arguments within …? § Why is X different to Y? § Compare and contrast … § What is the relationship between A and B?

Evaluating. Make judgements about concepts or ideas.

  • § What is most important/effective? § Which method is best? § Which is the strongest argument?


Develop new ideas from what they know and understand. 

  • § How would you design a …? § What alternatives are there to …? § What changes would you make? § What would happen if …? § Suppose you could ___ what would you do? § How would you evaluate …? § Can you formulate a theory for …

Devise clear and unambiguous questions to limit student confusion and time spent interpreting the question so students can spend their time making use of their textbook or memory aid to effectively answer the questions.

The number of questions should be sufficient, but not too many. This way, students are tested on their preparation, but they still have enough time to formulate well-founded answers.

Tip 2: Use cases to construct question

Structure your exam questions around problem-based scenarios or real-world cases, requiring students to apply their skills and knowledge to the given problem or scenario

Provide information or background information on a given topic or area of study to load the case. For example present relevant qualitative or quantitative data and then ask students interpretative and application questions – What does the data show? What relevance does this data or does the scenario have in terms of [component of current topic]? What other factors could potentially affect this data? How would you test for these?

Tip 3: Make sure that students are well prepared 

Prepare students for an open-book exam by providing them with clear instructions and one or two practice exams.

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.