Preparing for open book assessments

What to expect from an open book exam and how you can prepare for one.

About open book assessments

When prepping for university exams, you might have expected to be getting ready for endless rows of students gathered in a large hall, heads down for three hours, with no noise or notes allowed. Well, open book assessments are quite the opposite! 

Open book assessments, such as Controlled Condition Exams or Take-Home Papers allow you to consult reference materials while you’re taking the assessment. You will be completing this using your computer or tablet, most likely away from UCL – in your own space at home or your university accommodation. 

It’s important to note that you are expected to spend roughly the same amount of time on the open book assessment as you would have spent on the examination if you were present in an exam hall. For your own wellbeing, we do not encourage you to use the whole 24 hour or 7 day window of a Take-Home Paper to prepare your answers – longer time spent is also unlikely to lead to significantly improved marks. 

The additional time in some open book assessments (e.g. a 24 hour window) is there to allow for any technical issues that might arise in downloading the paper or uploading your answers.

What open book assessments test 

If you are used to exams that test memorisation, you might think that open book assessments are easy or encourage cheating, but don’t be deceived. They are designed to assess you even when you have access to reference materials and the internet. 

Open book assessments: 

  • focus on higher level learning skills and test your understanding of a subject matter or its application to a real-world problem, rather than recalling knowledge; 
  • draw upon a range of intellectual skills to test your understanding of the “big picture” of your module(s) and how the concepts you have learnt work together; and 
  • typically require students to formulate, compare or contrast, analyse, synthesise, apply or evaluate information, rather than simply remember it. 

For example, you might be given a problem or scenario and asked to apply concepts from different parts of the module to develop your answer.  

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Revising for open book assessments

Many of the usual tips for preparing for exams will apply but in an open book assessment, you can make a big mistake by assuming that you can just prepare by having all your reference materials to hand. Your notes, internet sources, textbooks and other reference materials, access to peers by phone, email and on social media can easily become a crutch rather than an asset. Although in some cases, you may have 24 hours or even a week to submit your assessment, please don’t assume that you’ll have time to review your notes and watch lecture casts, re-read your textbook, or discover new information. You won't. 

Indeed, having access to books and other reference materials may actually hinder your performance. By preparing well beforehand, you will be able to manage the stress that is natural, and you will feel a sense of achievement of drawing all the knowledge and skills you have learnt together. You should approach the assessment already having studied all key concepts and topics. 

There are some revision steps you can take to make sure that you to organise yourself well for open book assessments: 

  • Your notes will make or break your assessment. If you sit down with a disorderly mass of papers, you’re going to waste time sorting them and may feel overwhelmed and stressed. 
  • Ensure all reference materials are organized beforehand so you where to find the information you need without wasting time and getting frustrated looking for them. 
  • Identify key concepts, formulas and terms which are likely to appear in the assessment. Use your lecture notes or recordings to help you. You may find it helpful to place post-it notes or online comments with important information in key sections of your printed textbook or pdfs so you can access them quickly.  For maths and science assessments, produce an outline or list of key data and formulas.  Create or reuse any mind-maps. 
  • Work out what material the assessment is likely to cover. Are there any specific chapters or key concepts in your textbook? Which lectures might help most? Is the assessment covering more than one module (this is often known as a synoptic or keystone assessment)? 
  • Identify the most effective sources to cite.  Compile a list of sources and quotes that support key concepts or arguments. You can format these as part of your preparation in a reference list before the test so that you don’t waste precious time organising this and formatting in the correct bibliographic style. 

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Check your understanding of academic integrity 

By submitting an assessment on AssessmentUCL, you are agreeing to a Declaration of Integrity stating that the document you’ve submitted is all your own work.   

Under open book assessment conditions, there may be a greater temptation to copy and paste from the resources you have to hand. You should take an academic approach to drawing upon quotes and data to support your answers or argument, but do not rely too heavily on them and always make sure you reference appropriately. 

Click for more information and guidance on UCL’s academic integrity regulations and check out these student advice on avoiding contract cheating and and academic misconduct.   

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Practice in advance 

For centrally managed assessments, you will use an internet-connected computer or tablet to log in to the AssessmentUCL system to download the exam paper. You will type your assessment response and have access to your own textbooks, notes, and other resources. 

You can log in to the AssessmentUCL platform before the Central Assessment Period begins to practice submitting an assessment. This is your chance to familiarise yourself with the whole process well in advance. See Practice assessment for guidance

If you’ve been advised to handwrite some of your assessment response (e.g. where your answers include equations, graphs or diagrams), don’t forget to practise the process for scanning/photographing handwritten content in advance. Check the quality of these ‘mock’ documents is acceptable and seek advice if needed.  

Don't forget you can also access electronic copies of past exam papers from the Library. Note, however, that these papers will have been set for traditional exam conditions, not the open book format.  

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Always ask for help if you need it 

The Exams and Assessments page is your one-stop-shop for all the relevant instructions and guidance. 

For help with your academic writing and referencing, check out this list of academic communication support resources at UCL.   

If you need to discuss any issues that may be affecting your ability to prepare for your exams, you can contact your personal tutor or UCL’s Student Support and Wellbeing Team of expert staff for confidential advice. 

The Students' Union UCL also offer an Advice Service via email, telephone and video/voice chat on Microsoft teams. 

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