Skills for Open Book Exams

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Hello there

For the academic year 2020-2021, there are eight key assessment types for students on taught degree courses. You can find details about each assessment type on page 5 of Assessment Guidance for Students as well as from the advice provided by your own department.

This CeDAS guide focuses on one commonly used assessment type only - the Open Book Exam. Please note that this exam is not to be confused with the 'Online Exam' which is a very different assessment.

The basic features of the Open Book Exam are as follows:

  • It is distributed and returned electronically
  • A 23 hour period is given for completion – usually launched at 11am with a deadline of 10am the following day (UK Timezone)
  • It is designed to be completed within 4 hours or less
  • It is held during term time or very exceptionally within one week of the start/end of term
  • Extensions are not permitted
  • Late Submission is not permitted

As a starting point, it is useful to think about how the Open Book Exam compares to coursework on the one hand and to 'in person' invigilated exams on the other.

Open Book Exams are like coursework in these key respects.

You will be writing on a PC or laptop at home – not in the controlled environment of an exam hall. This means you can have notes and other sources of information beside you as you write.

You need to aim for clear, well-structured writing that shows critical engagement. Overly descriptive writing will lose you marks.

Like all academic writing, copying and pasting text from the web or previous assignments will be viewed as plagiarism.

Also, your Open Book Exam is an independent piece of work. You should not work with anyone else on the writing of your assessment as this will be viewed as collusion i.e. academic misconduct. For information on the regulations on academic misconduct, check here and for RHUL guidance on avoiding plagiarism check this course.

Open Book Exams are more like in person exams in these key respects.

You are not expected to use all of the ‘assessment window’ (normally 23 hours) but a portion of it. Like in person exams, this means you will need to be strict with your time management. It also means that there is simply not enough time to begin the research process once the assessment is in progress. It’s therefore important to have revised first so that knowledge about a topic is at your fingertips.

Like exams, your answer to a question will be much shorter than a standard length coursework essay or report. Do check the word count carefully - the marker may not read beyond the word limit.

Finally, you do not need to write a bibliography or provide detailed in-line references although you will be expected to cite an author’s name when quoting. Check your department's guidance on this point.

We can see then that Open Book Exams share characteristics of both coursework and formal exam writing. Like coursework, you need to produce clear, well-structured writing from your desktop at home, but, like formal in person exams, you need to revise in advance and write much shorter pieces within a limited time frame.

This suggests a range of both coursework and exam skills as well as approaches for tackling some novel challenges, in particular how to simulate some aspects of an exam writing environment in your own home.

Preparing for your Open Book Exam

Get clued up

It’s crucial to have a very clear grasp of assessment requirements so that there are no sudden surprises when you are in the midst of writing your short piece.

You should be able to answer all of these questions:

  • What are the dates for my Open Book Exams?
  • How long is each of my assessment windows – and when are the submission deadlines? If you are an international student studying from home, note that these times are given as BST (British Summer Time i.e. one hour ahead of GMT).
  • What is my work being marked on i.e. what are the marking criteria?
  • How many questions will I need to answer in each assessment – and how much question choice will I have?
  • What is the word count for each piece of work?
  • Are there any specific requirements about document layout (e.g. where to write my candidate number), how to insert diagrams or images, and how the completed work should be submitted electronically to my department?

Make a schedule

Plot all of your assessments on a calendar so you can see at glance what’s coming up. Then, as you would do with in person exams, create a revision schedule, giving yourself ample time to go back over the year and digest your learning.

There are lots of apps available to help you create a schedule such as Exam Countdown and Adapt-Revision Timetable.

Be smart with your revision

What is a smart way to revise? Here are some ideas.

First, identify those topics you need to revise so that you have a manageable load. You may get direct or indirect tips on what these topics are from your lecturers.

Then start making smart notes. This involves an active process of sifting through material you have collected on a topic (e.g. lecture notes, essays, readings) and identifying key evidence, theories and debates.

Now spend time digesting what you have.

Look more closely at these strands of information. If you are studying sciences, are you able to explain important principles, theories and processes? For students of arts, humanities and social science subjects, what arguments emerge and what is your own position?

Articulate your thoughts into condensed notes in a way that suits your learning style. You could produce compact linear notes on flash cards or try mind-mapping to show relationships between schools of thought. Process this further by writing short summaries and essay plans.

For more revision ideas, we recommend you check this CeDAS resource:


Remember that you can refer to notes during the writing of your assessment so make sure your smart notes are clear and accessible. You should be able to navigate to important ideas and evidence really quickly. Post-it notes and colour-coding can be helpful for this.

Practise, practise, practise

With Open Book Exams, you can have notes with you, but that still presents a challenge: how to write a short essay that brings together evidence that is both in your head and sitting on the table – and in a relatively short amount of time. This requires practice.

  • Set aside a couple of hours and pick some past exam papers. They can be found on the library website .
  • Sit down at a table in a quiet place as far away from distraction as possible.
  • Assemble all your smart notes and any key texts.
  • Set a timer to go off in two hours and settle down to writing.
  • In your mind, it is ‘for real’. This will help you find the intensity of the exam-taking experience.

Do this a few times and you will not only have tested the bounds of your knowledge and fashioned responses to a range of questions but you will also become mentally fit - ready for the real thing.

Get your assessment space ready

Decide where you will do your assessment

If you have your own room, that’s a big advantage. The space is yours. But if you are sharing accommodation with family or friends, you may need to negotiate with members of the household. Agree a time and a place for the assessment and try to establish some rules: you will not be interrupted and noise levels will be kept to a minimum

If noise is going to be an issue, you may want to think about investing in noise-cancelling headphones or downloading an app that screens out intrusive sounds.

Get the tech sorted

Make sure you have a strong Wi-Fi signal for both downloading your assessment paper and uploading the final submission. This may mean checking that other people living with you are not streaming or gaming online at key times.

If you are likely to experience technological difficulties, seek advice from Royal Holloway. Some useful links are given at the end of this resource.

Prepare your workspace

Make sure the workspace is free of clutter and that smart notes and any other important sources of information are at hand in case you need them. Put away all devices that could distract you. The only piece of equipment you will need is your PC or laptop.

That’s it. You are ready to go.

Doing your Open Book Exam

Sleep well, relax

Almost every piece of advice on taking assessments mentions how important it is to be well rested. This advice comes up so frequently because it is important. Your mind will function better if you have 7 or 8 hours' sleep leaving you feeling refreshed and ready for the challenge ahead.

Should you suffer from insomnia, check this useful advice from our Wellbeing team:

If you are feeling a bit jittery as you approach the assessment, you might want to take some deep, controlled breaths or spend a few minutes on some calming meditation. This video could be helpful:

Think about timing

For Open Book Exams, there is a 23 hour window for completion – from release of the assessment ‘paper’ to the submission deadline. Here are some things to think about when choosing when to do your writing within that window:

When is it good for you?

When are you at your physical and mental best? If you are a 'morning person’, then chose the early part of the day. Conversely, if you are slow to wake up, you might want to start the assessment later in the day.

When is it good for the household?

If you are in shared accommodation, are there times of day when it is going to be quiet or when private space is more readily available?

Do you want to complete the assessment in one go or stagger the questions?

Many students will pick a 2-3 hour spot to complete the whole assessment. However, you could split your work so you do one question, then take a break, and then do the next question. This may suit students with a disability or those who simply want to space out writing tasks.

Whatever you do, don’t start the assessment close to the submission deadline.

Give yourself plenty of leeway in case things go wrong. For example, the paper may take you longer to write than you had planned or a technological problem might mean you need more time to upload your completed work. So aim to finish the assessment at least 4 hours before submission.

Apply exam writing strategies

Apply most of the strategies you know from taking in person exams.

Keep your eye on the clock.

You want to avoid a last minute panic.

Don’t rush in and start writing straight away

Spend a little time figuring out the questions and planning your answers in rough. You can consult your notes briefly at this stage, but – and this is important - avoid getting side-tracked into a lengthy research process by spending valuable time hunting through books and lecture notes.

Keep a tight focus on answering the question

You are not writing a 2000 word discursive essay with an extensive bibliography but something much briefer in which concisely expressed explanation (sciences) or argument (arts, humanities, social sciences) is paramount. You need to cut to the chase. Let this inform how you tackle the question.

Review your writing

Towards the end of your task time, do review what you have written to ensure your discussion flows and that you have checked for grammatical slips. In an exam, you would correct with a pen but, with Word, you can use spellchecker and, if time allows, go through the document and quickly edit anything that is not clear.

Note: If you have a disability

If you have a DDS 'green sticker', make sure you make this known to the marker at the top of the first page of your submission. There is more advice for students who have a disability in the section below.

Further resources and support at Royal Holloway


For more on revision strategies , check these CeDAS guides:

Our Disability and Dyslexia Services have also produced a very thorough guide to assessments:

If you are after more advice on tackling the challenges of online learning, check this pick of resources from RHUL and the web:

Academic support services

CeDAS (Centre for the Development of Academic Skills)

CeDAS will be running some exams skills drop-ins in April/May. For details, find the CeDAS Moodle page for your school:

Please note that for Open Book Exams, we cannot help you with drafts or advise you on how to answer specific assessment questions or tasks.

Other RHUL professional services

For a range of support available to you from the Library, IT Services and our Student Advisory & Wellbeing teams, go to:

Some students may not have adequate access to either IT equipment or internet connections. If you are in this position, the following support is available to help you:

Financial support

If you are unable to access IT equipment due to financial difficulties students can contact the Financial Wellbeing team to discuss options and an assessment for support from the Study Support Grant. A standard assessment process is used which calculates the level of support based on the difference between annual income and essential expenditure.

IT support

If you are having other difficulties, for example technical difficulties, please refer to the access off-campus support pages.

RHUL assessment information

For the latest information on assessments 2020-21 including the Fairness and Assurance Policy and Extenuating Circumstances, go to this page

Good luck with your assessments!


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