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Open Book Exam

A high-stakes exam where students have access to learning materials/resources during the exam, as specified by the lecturer. It can take place either in-person or online and is a timed exam.

What can it assess ?

A key reason for using open book exams is to develop students' critical thinking skills, such as, information literacy, research, analysis, evaluation and synthesis. Assessment drives learning and well-designed open book exams can help to develop students who can think critically and use this as a basis to act professionally and proactively (Parker et al, 2021). Open book exams are best suited to assessing these higher order thinking skills. 

For example, students could be presented with a specific dataset, scenario or problem and asked to analyse/interpret or critically evaluate. Students could be asked to make an argument from a particular perspective or to come up with a plan or proposal to meet the needs of a specific client/user.  A compare/contrast style question might be used to probe student knowledge more deeply.

Advantages and Disadvantages


  • They have the potential to encourage students to engage in deep learning rather than surface learning
  • An important impact of this type of exam is reduced student anxiety and greater student confidence (Michael et al, 2019)
  • Open book exams can be more inclusive as they may require fewer “reasonable accommodations” than traditional closed book exams
  • Open book exams can be a form of authentic assessment if they are designed to mirror tasks that students will be presented with in professional life


  • Open book exams need to be designed so that they do not depend on factual recall memory or googling but instead demand that the student engages in interpretation, analysis, synthesis and application of theory and practice to real world situations. Those new to setting these types of exam questions may need some guidance and support. 
  • Open book exams can promote a range of varied study habits. Some students may study for conceptual understanding and deep learning as they know this will prepare them well. Other students may in error think that they do not have to prepare and that they will simply find the answers in books or other resources during the exam.

Design and Online Assessment Considerations


An open book exam should not be used for lower-level taxonomy questions where the answers rely on facts that can be found in books and resources and do not demand higher order thinking skills from the students. Use this type of assessment to test specific higher order thinking skills. Consider using a problem-based exam where the students have to work on real world problems/challenges/scenarios. Designing Open Book Exams is a very practical toolkit that explores question types and sample questions and is excellent as an aid to designing questions. In designing the exam questions, consider sharing early drafts with colleagues to ensure that the questions are clear and unambiguous.    

Educate students on academic integrity, including what is meant by plagiarism. Make them aware of the UCD resources on these, such as UCD Plagiarism Policy-Student Guide, FAQ for Students on PlagiarismUCD Library guide on Academic Integrity.

Online Assessment

There are minimum digital considerations where the open book exam takes place in the traditional examination hall setting. However, where the exam is mediated through digital technologies, the following tools may be appropriate to consider: 

Preparing Students

Open book exams require guidance from the lecturer on how to study for the exam and how to make best use of the books/learning resources to complete the exam. Encourage students to prepare and bring condensed/targeted/strategic study notes. Clarify for students what books/notes/learning resources are permitted in the ‘live’ exam. The standard of referencing required also needs to be clearly communicated to the students.

Learn More 

The following are some key resources that are currently available if you would like to learn more about this key assessment type.


  • Michael, K. Lyden, E.  and Custer, T (2019) Open-book examinations (OBEs) in an ultrasound physics course: A good idea or a bad experiment? Journal of Diagnostic Medical Sonography, vol. 35, no. 3, pp. 174-180. 
  • Parker, A.M., Watson, E. Dyck N., and Carey J.P. (2021) Traditional versus Open-book exams in remote course delivery: A Narrative Review of the Literature. Proceedings Canadian Engineering Association Conference Paper 029, pp.1-7