We have created this guidance on online, open-book timed exams if this is an alternative option you are considering to timed closed-book exams.

What is an online open-book exam?

What are the benefits of an online open-book exam?

What about plagiarism?

Top tips for designing an open-book timed exam

What is an online open-book timed exam?

An ‘open-book timed examination’ is an assessment method designed to allow students to refer to either class notes and summaries or a ‘memory aid’, textbooks, or other approved material while answering questions under controlled conditions.

An online open-book timed exam, similarly, will allow students access to notes and online resources while they take the exam. The timed nature of the exam means that students still need to know the essentials in order to complete the exam within the time available.

An online open-book exam may be the easiest alternative to an existing paper exam. There are two main ways of creating an online open-book timed exam in Blackboard:

i)  By setting up the exam on Blackboard as a piece of coursework (or open-book assignment). Blackboard can release the exam questions at a specified time and students can upload their answers by a set deadline. A variation on this approach is to publish either the questions, or the subject areas for the exam, in advance of the timed period, as a ‘seen exam’. The advance notice period might normally be about a week (i.e. to avoid students cramming in unhealthy ways over a 24-hour period prior to an exam).  How to set up an open-book assignment in Blackboard (.docx) – guidance from the Digital Education Office.

This option is the most straightforward.

ii) By setting up the exam on Blackboard as an open-book test which asks students a series of questions (e.g. multiple-choice, free-text questions). Again, this can be released at a specified time, allowing students to complete within a set time period. How to set up an open-book test in Blackboard (.docx) – guidance from the Digital Education Office.

What are the benefits of online open-book timed exam?

An online open-book timed exam may better reflect many natural situations, where professionals may have access to reference sources. While there is no firm consensus, many studies have shown that students’ long-term knowledge retention is improved from open-book exams, which also reduce anxiety. However, much depends on the approach to teaching, learning and preparation by students and staff. The focus of an open-book exam may shift to more application and analysis than testing of knowledge.

In addition to the practical reasons for setting an online open-book timed exam, which include being unable to sit a regular face-to-face exam due to university closures, online open-book timed exams offer a range of pedagogical opportunities. The main premise for timed open-book exams is that lecturers can devise questions that require students to answer in more critical and analytical ways thus encourage high order thinking skills in their students; as compared to closed book or traditional exams that tend to encourage rote learning and more superficial application of knowledge.

What about plagiarism?

As students will be taking the exam in their own homes, and not in a moderated space, plagiarism could be a risk. However, the timed conditions of the exam goes some way to mitigate these risks. Careful exam question design can also reduce the risk of plagiarism. For example, tasks or questions should not have only one correct answer, and instead questions that require students to catalogue, critique, plan, defend, reflect on their own learning, justify or rank rather than to explain or describe should be used. Assignments can be submitted to the Turnitin text-comparison system to help identify plagiarism. See Turnitin for more information.

Top Tips for designing a timed online open-book timed exam

Many of the top tips below are good exam practice already but may be helpful when moving your paper exam online.

Ensure Constructive Alignment. When thinking about alternative assessments it is necessary to maintain the connections between the established learning outcomes, the teaching and learning methods/activities, and the proposed new assessment. In other words, it is important to make sure that the new assessment is constructively aligned (see Biggs, 2003).

A starting point is to review the intended learning outcomes for the unit concerned, alongside the original assessment brief, with the following questions in mind:

  • Which aspects of learning does this alternative assessment seek to measure?
  • Will the proposed alternative assessment effectively measure these learning outcomes?
  • Do the teaching/learning activities that have taken place align with the proposed alternative method of assessment?

Remember, this new assessment might not be seeking to measure all the learning outcomes for the unit - some outcomes might not be summatively assessed, and some outcomes might be assessed through a series of assignments. It is important to be clear about which learning outcomes this new assessment method seeks to measure. For more, please see Information on Intended Learning Outcomes.

Check your assessment criteria. If you’ve changed your assessment/assessment criteria check that these criteria relate clearly to the intended learning outcomes (and update if not). Again, think about constructive alignment. Make sure students themselves are clear about these intended outcomes and emphasise the links between these and assessment.

Set questions which require students to do things with the information available to them, rather than merely summarising it and giving it back. Case-based questions, for example, require students to apply critical reasoning skills in response to a trigger scenario.

Make the questions clear and straightforward to understand, to reduce the risk of students misinterpreting the questions.

Explain to students the purpose of using an open-book exam and explain what they will be required to do in advance and during the assessment.

Formative attempts are very important. Give students an opportunity to attempt an online open-book time exam question under the conditions they will experience at summative stage. You might then ask students to exchange answers and lead them through marking their work using a typical marking scheme. This helps students learn quickly how examiners’ minds work and what their examiners will be looking for.

Have students prepare for the exam by creating notes. The formative aspect of this assessment is the assembly of the notes, which are looked over by lecturers and feedback is provided to improve them. This enables the incorporation of study skills into the assessment, such as how to summarise information. This would not just be the assembling of information but making it accessible to themselves in an exam setting (key points rather than just writing out the textbook).

Consider compiling a source-collection for the exam and make use of case-based exam questions. Check on copyright issues, and put together a set of papers, extracts, data, and other information from which students can find what they need to address the questions in the exam.

Expect shorter answers. Students doing open-book exams will be spending quite a lot of their time searching for, and making sense of, information and data. They will therefore write less per hour than students who are answering traditional exam questions ‘out of their heads.’

References / Adapted from:

  • Centre for Learning and Teaching (Online) “Open-book Exams: A Guide for Academics,” University of Newcastle, Australia.
  • Learning and Teaching Office (Online) “Open-book Exams,” Ryerson University, Canada
  • Phil Race (2006) The Lecturer's Toolkit: A Practical Guide to Assessment, Learning and Teaching, Oxon: Routledge, pp.35-43.
  • John B. Biggs (2003) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Buckingham: Open University Press.


Download the Guidance

Use this link to download the Open Book Exams Guidance (Office document, 56kB).

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