Advice for Students Preparing for Open-Book Exams in a Remote Setting

As social isolation became a pivotal measure for preventing the spread of COVID19, schools around the world had to quickly adapt and move to a virtual curriculum. In the past few weeks, schools dedicated their efforts to continue to ease the students’ migration to a new system, while facilitating learning and maintaining academic excellence. With schools closed and students back at their homes, a natural consequence of the online transition was to establish that exams be taken remotely. Although there is a consensus of substituting classes with videoconferencing platforms, when adopting an online exam format, courses have been primarily divided between two different formats.

The first method was to adopt exams with online proctoring, trying to maintain the usual closed-book and timed exam structure. In this case, introducing new software packages for testing that would either offer human proctors or advanced artificial intelligence technology, which includes features like computer lock-down with desktop monitoring, face-recognition, and eye-tracking capability.

On the other hand, many instructors recognized the technical challenge of suddenly asking the entire student body to install exam proctoring software on their computers and the resulting level of technological intrusion into the test-taking process. Moreover, making the exam closed-book in a remote setting, without in-person opportunities for monitoring and enforcement, was perceived as also heightening inequities among students. Thus, many preferred a second method, shifting to an open-book approach, allowing students to consult textbooks, notes, and in some cases, electronic resources during the exam. Many instructors choosing this path found it fundamental to exercise confidence in students’ ability to conduct themselves with academic integrity.

Having the chance to simultaneously serve as a medical professor, while serving as a graduate student, I recognize that a shift in exam modality may not feel as natural to everyone. Therefore, I put together 10 tips to help students who are shifting into open-book exams from a remote setting.

  1. Know the rules
  • Different courses have different definitions of what is open-book, open-notes, and open resources. Make sure you are familiar with the established rules from the course and what can or cannot be used as a resource during the exam.
  • Be sure to respect the ethical principles established by the course and the student handbook of your school.

2. Plan ahead

  • Double-check the time and date of the exam. Know how much time you have to complete it, and how to submit it.
  • Be familiar with all the topic areas that the exam will cover.
  • Prepare your virtual and physical environments ahead of time.

3. Don’t forget to study!

  • It may seem obvious, but a common misconception that students have is that since the exam is open book, you don’t have to study as hard. This is not true, especially in a timed exam.
  • A brain search is still faster than a search through your notes, a book, or even an internet search. Even more important, finding the content is not the same as understanding it, so you don’t want to leave the learning part for exam time.
  • Make sure to create your knowledge base ahead of time, the open book will not help with critical thinking.

4. Prepare your resources as you study

  • Have a good overview of the material to secure a global understanding of the main themes and subtopics.
  • Create a reliable filing system, easy to understand, and easy to access. Organizing things by topic tends to be the norm, but you may choose color-coding or another unique method.
  • Create brief summaries and tables for the key points.
  • Don’t recreate materials that are already available, instead make brief and legible notes, using clear headings that will be easy to find during your search.
  • Print out what you find essential.

5. Less is more

  • Many materials by your side might make you feel secure at first. But it can also make you overwhelmed during a test.
  • Determine what materials are essential. It works best to rely on just a few resources, keynotes, and summarizing tables.

6. Prioritize course materials!

  • A Google search may sound great but may prove itself time-consuming as you navigate through an ocean of unreliable sources. At times, even when finding a scientific publication, the article’s conclusion may portray isolated findings and not the scientific consensus.
  • Your instructors provide you with required and recommended materials that were tailored to your specific course for a reason and are the primary source for exam questions. Rather than internet searches, prioritize a PowerPoint search, e-book searches, or other material provided by your faculty.

7. Balance time and opportunity

  • Approaching an open-book exam as a search expedition will most likely lead you to time-out before you had the chance to answer the entire exam. Just because you can look up answers for every single question does not mean you should. 
  • Searches are time-consuming and frequently add to the stress. Try to approach your preparation and execution of an open-book exam as you would a closed-book exam, but one in which, when needed, you could double-check your answer.
  • Keep a clock nearby to help you time the exam and set the alarm for 15 minutes before ending time. The clock will help you pace yourself, and the alarm will alert you that you’re running out of time soon..

8. Prepare your environment ahead of time

  • You are used to taking assessments in a proctored environment, where the room has been tailored to the exam-taking experience. Regulated temperature, easily accessible outlets, and a person who will shush anyone who tries to disturb your peace. This is not the case in your remote environment.
  • Your home has distractions, clutter, and interruptions. Although you could take the exam in your pajamas, everything else should try to replicate the exam environment the best you can. Ahead of time, silence all phones and computer alerts. Shut down all other software. Notify your family not to disturb you. Be alone in the room. Clear your table, leaving only the essential. And don’t forget to eat before the beginning, the exam time is not the time for snacks.

9. Don’t forget to sleep

  • The isolation during the pandemic may have disrupted your routine. Try to maintain healthy habits, including a proper sleeping schedule.
  • Don’t stay up overnight with last-minute studying and get a good night’s sleep.

10. Trust yourself and go be awesome

  • You are proficient in this. No explanation required.

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