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Open Book Exams
– how to prepare

Examinations are a core part of UK degree programmes, at all levels of study. There is no need to spend hours pacing the room and biting your nails – just prepare properly and understand exam types, and you will have no need to worry!

When are Exams Taken

Exams in the UK are usually taken in January and April. For some degree programmes you might not be required to sit formal exams in both or either of these exam periods – instead you might be asked to complete coursework during this period. If you are required to sit exams, you should be aware that the exam weeks usually come at the end of holiday breaks, which gives you ample time to prepare.

Types of Exams

Essay exams: The most common type of examination in UK undergraduate degrees is the essay exam. Exams of this nature typically require students to complete 3-4 short essays on topics that test a student’s knowledge of the course material. Students are given 2-3 hours to complete these exams. Essay answers should contain as much relevant detail from your module as possible, to demonstrate the level of your understanding.

Multiple choice exams: These exams are comprised of a number of questions with a range of answers, or ‘choices’ provided. Students must select the answer that best fits the question. Many students consider these exams easier, because they only need to identify the correct answer among a group of 3-5 possibilities. However, most lecturers will include possible answers that seem correct, as a way of testing the accuracy of students’ knowledge.

Oral exams: Oral exams are most common to language programmes, but can also be found in many Humanities and even some Social Science subjects. Students are expected to answer questions posed to them by the examiner. This type of exam tests a student’s ability to apply the skills and knowledge from modules in an immediate, unplanned fashion. In addition, oral exams form a part of postgraduate assessments when students are asked to defend their dissertation through a presentation and question-and-answer session.

Case Study Exams: These are different from most traditional types of exam; They present students with a practical problem that must be solved by applying knowledge from the course material.

Open Book Exams

We will now look at one type of exam in more detail: the Open Book exam. These exams are different from most traditional types of exams, because they allow students to bring a course book and/or their course notes with them to the exam.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Open Book exams

At first glance this may seem like an easier type of examination for students, but it is designed to carefully test a student’s ability to apply their knowledge in a practical way. This is advantageous for most students, because it takes away the worry about memorisation and instead allows them to focus on demonstrating their engagement with the course. However, much of a student’s success can depend on the accuracy of their module notes, or their ability to read the course text quickly, which can be a disadvantage for some.

When are Open Book Exams Used?

In the past, Open Book Exams in the UK were used mostly in practical subjects like science, technology, and medicine. However, universities are now keen to test their students’ ability to apply their academic knowledge in a practical fashion, and for this reason Open Book Exams are becoming more common. By allowing students to bring their notes and course texts with them to an exam, the faculty tests student understanding more than an ability to memorise information.

How Can Students Prepare for Open Book Exams?

Just because students can bring course materials to Open Book Exams doesn’t mean they should neglect to study beforehand! In some ways it is even more important to study the course material to prepare, because you will be asked to apply your knowledge in a more critical and discerning fashion than in most traditional exam types. You can prepare by re-reading your lecture materials, course notes and text books, and by practising mock questions which will often be provided by your course lecturers.

What to Bring with You to Open Book Exam

Open Book Exams will vary regarding what is allowed to be brought to the exam room. Pay careful attention to the module handbooks and exam handouts to ensure that you bring the appropriate materials. If you are allowed to bring course notes, be sure these are well organised.

Preparing Your Notes

When students take notes in class the result is often a jumbled page of scribbles that can be difficult to make sense of after the fact! It is very little use to bring unedited notes to the exam room. Part of your revision process should include writing your exam preparation notes, and organising them in a way that will allow you to find relevant information quickly. This may involve adding sticky notes to pages to identify their thematic content, or creating your own ‘index’ list. Regardless, you should ensure that your notes are written very clearly and concisely, but without leaving out key information.

General Assessment Criteria

The assessment criteria for Open Book exams will vary according to the exam subject, so check your module handbook for more details. In general, examiners will be looking for evidence of clear understanding of the topic, so be sure to provide very detailed but concise answers. It is usually better to provide a shorter but dense answer than a long and vague one.

Results and Grading

Oral Exams are marked according to the standard UK grading scale, as follows:

70 and above = First class (A)
60-69 = Second class, first division (B)
49-59 = Second class, second division (C)
40-48 = Third class (D)
39 or below = Fail

In many degree programmes, students will be given a chance to re-sit exams if they fail or receive a very low mark. Check your programme handbooks for specific re-assessment criteria.

Understanding the format of exams is essential in helping you prepare properly. Once you know what will be expected, you will be able to spend your time studying in an appropriate way, and this will help you feel confident and relaxed when walking into the exam room!


Canterbury Christ Church University, 2013. Open Book Examinations. Available: Last Accessed 10 Apr 2013.
ExamTime, 2012. Different Exams – Different Approaches. Available: Last Accessed 10 Apr 2013.

Manchester University, 2013. Different Types of Exam. Available: Last Accessed 10 Apr 2013.