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How to Study for (and Take!) Open Book Exams

Open book tests are kind of like Lord of the Rings marathons.

They sound awesome in theory, but in the end…only the strong survive. The truly weak get weeded out somewhere around the second movie when trees start talking. Everyone else tends to leave about halfway through the battle of Minas Tirith.

Just like that marathon, these exams sound like a blast, but they’re actually some of the most difficult exams you’ll ever take.

The professor knows you have access to all your source material. So, the questions are going to focus less on recall and retention, and way more on your understanding of the concepts. Hello, essay questions!

Yes. You have to study.

Sometimes, though, it isn’t always obvious how to study for a test where you have access to all your materials. In this guide, we’re going to cover how to study for open book exams effectively, and how to actually sit the test. So, take a deep breath, grab your class notes and your textbook, and let’s dig in.

How to Prepare Before the Test

Before you even think about sitting down to study for a couple of hours, you have to make a plan. Your plan is going to be based largely on a couple of important questions:

  • What material is the test going to cover? Any specific chapters or key concepts in your textbook? Or, is it an end-of-the-year final exam where your professor will expect you to know everything? If you have an especially nice professor, they’ve probably given you this information already.
  • What are you allowed to bring to the test? This can vary widely depending on the class. For some of my math and science classes, I was only allowed one sheet of notebook paper, double-sided. For some other classes, I was allowed a full file of class notes, practice tests, and the use of my entire textbook. Make sure you understand what you can bring so you can prepare accordingly.
  • Will you need to cite sources? If you do, compile a list of sources and quotes that support key concepts or arguments presented in your class material. If you need to format them in a bibliography or arrange them in any particular way, try to do this before the test so that you don’t have to waste precious time on it during the exam.

Once you know what material you need to be studying and what you can bring with you to the exam table, now it’s time to actually start studying.

Getting Started

Here’s a couple of basic tips as you begin to review your material and compile your notes:

  • Don’t count on having time to look everything up – study hard! You should be able to verbally summarize important lectures or chapters in your textbook without your notes. Know your basic facts, concepts, and definitions by heart. That way, when you’re asked to write an essay explaining the circumstances that led to the Bolshevik Revolution, you don’t have to waste time reminding yourself what the Bolshevik Revolution was in the first place. You’re there, you’re ready to go, and you just have to create your argument and write your essay.
  • Practice with your friends (and compare notes!) I can’t stress this enough. Your friends and classmates are your best allies. They may have remembered to write down something you forgot, and vice-versa. They also might have a better understanding of a certain part of the course material. Plus, it’s just more fun and generally easier to study when you have someone to quiz you.
  • Link concepts. Focus on the memorization, sure, but also make sure you have a solid understanding of how different concepts and facts interact. Maybe you had a chapter on Freudian psychology in your textbook. How does Freudian psychology compare to modern psychology, and where did Freud go wrong? Try using a mind-map to link different concepts together.

Now that you’ve spent some time reviewing the information, it’s time to start organizing your second brain.

Organizing Your Material

This is where it gets a little different from a regular test. Since you have materials you’ve got to bring with you and only a limited amount of time to use them, you’re going to want to organize them efficiently.

Most exams allow you to bring your textbook and a pile of notes. These are going to be your two main tools, and they both deserve equal attention.

Your Textbook

studying with textbook

If you’re allowed to bring your whole textbook to the exam, don’t just bring the brick, plop it down on your desk, and expect it to be useful!

Again, time is money. You need to put a little work in beforehand so that you don’t waste time flipping through pages. It’s good to organize your textbook with tabs and add page numbers for things you’ll think you’ll want to find.

If you can, highlight relevant quotes and definitions so that they’re easy to find. Place sticky notes at the front of each chapter so you can find them easily. On the sticky notes, write a very brief summary of the main ideas presented (preferably with page numbers attached to them) so you can find exactly what you’re looking for during the test.

If you want a detailed explanation on how to learn and study efficiently from your textbook, check out this entire video on how to do just that.

Your Notes File

Your notes will make or break your test. If you come with a jumbled mass of papers, you’re gonna have a bad time. Don’t try to include everything you ever learned in class. You’re just going to get overwhelmed and stressed out.

Here’s a list of what you should have:

  1. A page of formulae or important definitions. You don’t want to have to hunt around for these during the test!
  2. Any practice exams or past quizzes and tests you’ve taken, if you’re allowed to bring them. You never know if a similar question might appear on the open book exam.
  3. A page of relevant quotes/arguments. If you don’t have them listed directly on the page, at least have summaries with attached page numbers of where to find them in the textbook or source material.
  4. In-class notes from important lectures in chronological order, if you’re allowed to have them.
  5. Mind-maps or summaries you made while studying for this test.

I found it very helpful to write myself a table of contents and add page numbers. You don’t want to be fumbling through your notes for the date Virginia Woolf died when you have twelve minutes left on the clock.

Your professor doesn’t expect you to know everything, but they do expect you to be able to write intelligently about what you’ve learned. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be fine.

How to Take Open Book Exams

Just like any normal test, the first thing you need to do is make sure you’re well prepared.

  • Do you have a spare pen or pencil?
  • Did you eat something?
  • Did you get a good night’s sleep?
  • Did you bring water to drink?

If that’s all covered, then you’re all set.

Now, the main thing you have to remember with open book exams is that time is going to be really scarce. It’s going to go by faster than you think it will, so just like you had a strategy for studying, you’re going to want to have a strategy for taking the test, too.

The first thing you should do as soon as you get the test is to go through the entire thing and answer all the questions you know off the top of your head. Look for things like important dates, facts, easy problems, and short summaries of information. If you can answer it right away without thinking too hard, do it now.

Once you’re done, move on to the trickier stuff. Keep aware of your time, but don’t stress. Try not to over-answer or spend too much time on any one question. Answer methodically. Outline your arguments, and use your notes to help you.

Don’t waste time copying long quotes or passages. Instead, paraphrase and condense as much as you can. Make sure you cite your sources if the exam asks you to!

If You’re Stuck…

If there’s a question that you definitely don’t know the answer to, don’t waste time trying to hunt for the answer unless you absolutely know where it is. Leave it blank. If you have time at the end of the test, come back to the difficult question and try to answer it the best that you can.

I often found that the answers to questions I didn’t know would reveal themselves while I was working on another problem. Don’t let yourself get hung up on any one question. Just manage your time, prioritize your work, and answer everything you can.

How to Finish Open Book Exams with Confidence

If you have time at the end, fact-check yourself against your sources and make sure you’ve cited everything you need to cite.

If you feel confident that you’re finished, double-check it one more time to make sure you haven’t forgotten a question on the back of the test. There’s nothing worse than missing a 10-point problem just because you forgot to flip the page over!

Then, give yourself a huge pat on the back and maybe go get yourself a candy bar. You did good, dude!

Additional Resources for Open Book Exams

One last thing I want to say, which I can’t say enough: all of your efforts will be wasted unless you get a good night of sleep. Your brain needs that time to process all the information you’re trying to cram into it.

Make sure you plan ahead, stay calm, and eat before you go so you don’t get distracted by the tummy rumbles.

Good luck!

If you’ve got a test coming up, and you’re looking for more resources on the CIG blog for how to handle it, check these resources out: