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Tips on Passing Open Book Exams

Updated on October 15, 2014
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.


If you’re in school, odds are you will face an open book exam at some point. This is especially true if you go to school online which is growing by leaps and bounds. Open book exams are becoming more the norm. They really easy which they can be, but they can also be the hardest and scariest of any exam you take. It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are a few tips that can help you overcome them.

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Read the Material

You have to have read the material to pass an open book exam especially if the professor wants you to cite your sources. Why? Because usually open book exams are timed and you need to know where to look for the information. Going in blind will be your downfall in the end.

Read the material thoroughly. Get an idea of where the information is located so you can find it quickly. You don’t need to be searching frantically for something that should be easy to find if you had read the material.

If you are told to go into a kitchen to cook a meal in a specified time period, it is always good to know ahead of time where the fridge will be, where the pantry is located, and where the utensils are stored. Think of all the time you are wasting searching for the basic materials. The same can be said about the material you are being tested on. Know that the biography of a ruler is located near the end of the material instead of searching through hundreds of pages trying to find it. You might not know exactly the page it is on, but you can narrow the search down and save minutes that you'll need in writing the answers down.

Highlight titles

Go through the text and highlight titles that can help direct you. Pay attention to what I just said. Highlighting every title is counterproductive. They are already there in larger letters to get your attention. You want to highlight the titles that are directional signals for important material beneath them. Think about the questions that were asked during class, as forum posts, and on other exams. If the teacher pushes certain information, then highlight the titles that direct you there.

Remember that when you are completing an open book exam much of what helps you is visual. You want your eyes drawn to what is important and not what will distract you and bog you down in worthless information.


Highlight Captions

Think about the captions under pictures and other images. Many good exam questions can come from those. Highlight any with relevant information. If the caption just says “Stalin in Moscow”, don’t worry about it. I seriously doubt a question would come from that. That is why reading these sections are important.

Most multiple choice type exams can pull from the captions under images and charts and graphs. If your open book exam is in essay style, you’ll see a little less than that from here unless it is statistical data you can use. Graphs and charts like to use captions to summarize or point out relevant data. These can really help you in completing the exam.

Many informational gems can be discovered here. Read them and highlight only the ones with information that might be helpful on the exam.

Note Vocabulary

Most textbooks highlight special words that probably are not used many places beyond this one particular topic you are being tested on. Make note of these. They are mentioned for a purpose. They are vital for the subject, therefore they will be needed in the exam. Multiple choice is good at pulling them out. Essay exams expect you to use those words in your answer and in the context so the professor can see that you understand the word and how it is applied.

Highlight the new vocabulary. Get familiar with the terms. Understand the definition enough so you can explain it to me in written format. That way you’ll know you can also recognize it in multiple choice format.


Note Charts and Graphs

Too many people ignore graphs and charts. They see them as fillers on a page and tools to make the book less boring with visual aids. What readers don’t realize is that these ‘fillers’ are full of tons of information.

Take a close look at those items you gloss over. They contain facts that can easily be used for an open book exam. A graph can show you how often something happened, what time of year, and the average occurrence. More can be said and understood simply by looking at a visual image.

You can use these visual aids to help explain a statistics, a reason, or more in your exam. Use them to expand your essay portion of your exam. Trust me, you will impress the professor.

Myths About Open Book Exams

They Are Easy - They might sound easy, but the truth is that many open book exams can be the most difficult to take. Mainly it is because the student approaches them with a nonchalant air and underestimate how much material there is to study.

You Don't Need to Prepare - Too many students think that there is no studying needed for open book exams. Quite the opposite is true. You need to be familiar with the material. Just because you don't have to regurgitate it from memory doesn't mean you shouldn't expose your brain to it.

They Can Be Finished Quickly - Open book exams can take hours to complete. Why? Generally because the student is not prepared. They are searching high and low in the material for the information that would have been easy to find if they had prepared ahead of time for the exam.

Answers Are Easy to Find - Think of how much information you are being tested on. There could be hundreds of pages with thousands of facts you need. Answers might not be as easy to find if you have not highlighted and made notes to help guide you.

Create Tabs and Markers

In your book, create visual markers to help you find the information quicker. Use pieces of a post-it note or the little colored tabs you can get in the office supply store. Find the important information you have highlighted. Place a tab on the page that will stick out of the book.

Write on the tab what you have marked. That way you can find the information quickly without having to flip through a thousand page book with even more thousands of words to search through.

I can't express enough how much visual aids will help you especially if you aren't too much of a visual learner. What will help you find the information. If it is a symbol, use it on the marker. If it is a song title (many things can be memory aides), write it on the marker. Use it to stimulate your brain and drive you to the right place in your material.


You’ve got it all set into place. This should all be done at least a day or two before. Why not the day before? Because you really need to chill. You’ve studied. You’ve spent a lot of stressful time getting your study material together. Rest is needed.

The truth is that when you take a break you actually are helping your memory to cement everything you just read. You allow the stressful edge to fall away. Then when test day arrives you are ready mentally and physically to tackle the test.


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