Open Book Exam

Open Book Exams

As we determine Remote Assessments, one important option to consider is using open book exams. This format reduces exam stresses on students and allows instructors to worry less about policing the exam process. This approach is common in many disciplines, utilizing more conceptual or applied questions that students cannot quickly lookup in a textbook.

For many faculty, the shift came when they realized that they have to look up information, formulas, and details all the time in their work. But they also remember the broader concepts, remember enough of the details to go look up the specifics, and can synthesize or apply them in my given situation. (Who didn’t do that by the time you got to your dissertation or thesis?)

That’s the reality many of our students will face in the future, so how can we structure our assessments to measure their ability to do that synthesis and application, rather than test on discrete pieces of information they will forget a month from now anyway? If your discipline does require significant amounts of factual recall, open-book exams may not be for you. Still, they are an excellent option for many of us with learning outcomes that focus on higher-order thinking.

Explore suggestions for creating open-book exams:

Closed-book exams can ask factual questions that demand students recall discrete pieces of information, but looking up those bits is simple in an open-book format. So, if you consider open-book exams, work to move toward higher-order thinking, as defined by Bloom’s Taxonomy.

In the most basic sense, you need to avoid factual questions (“Who invented X?” or “What is the third step in Y’s theory?”) and ask questions that require students to apply that information to unique new situations, such as in the examples below.

Focusing on conceptual problems is seemingly more straightforward in open-ended questions, as it asks students to apply and synthesize multiple pieces of knowledge to answer a question. These questions can be very applied or authentic. Examples:

  • Describe the next step in this process
  • Define X within context Y
  • Explain this situation through the lens of theory Z….
  • What would have happened if…? (could be historical situations, chemical reactions, public policy analyses, and more)
  • Identify the error in a proof or computation. Or better, explain and fix it.

You can write multiple-choice questions that require more conceptual knowledge, moving students from the recall of information to applications of it.

  • Provide a mini case study and ask students questions related to it. (“Based on the case study, which of the following is the most likely cause of the patient’s pain?” or “Based on the client’s needs above, which of the following is the preferred course of action?”)
  • Describe a physical/chemical interaction and ask students to predict the outcome. (“What would happen to the reaction if we added compound X?” or “Given the provided diagram of the collision, in which direction will the projectile head?”) Even better if you can include an open-ended opportunity for them to explain their reasoning.
  • Ask students to identify an example of a concept or principle. (“Which is an example of a norm-referenced interpretation?” or “Which of the following best exemplifies the principle of synchronicity?”)
  • Use charts that students have to explain or interpret, perhaps throwing in a “what if” question to push their analysis and prediction skills.

For a good overview of question writing that includes examples of questions testing higher-order thinking, see How to Write Better Tests from Indiana University-Bloomington Evaluation Services and Testing (BEST).

  • Instead of multiple-choice or fill-in questions, have students show their work and scan/upload their work.
  • Create a video submission assignment using Studio in Canvas. You can use this tool to provide a demonstration for students to address, or have them record their answers, which could be their demonstration.
  • If you use problems from a textbook publisher, be sure to change names, numbers, and the scenario, since popular textbooks may have many of their assessments are already solved online somewhere.
  • Instead of asking students to do a simple calculation, ask them a more complex problem that forces them to figure out what they need to calculate, maybe sorting through other information that isn’t necessary or relevant. Give them a question and force them to figure out how to calculate the solution. That way, you are forcing them to make decisions surrounding the calculation, not just doing the computation (or finding an online calculator to do it for them).
  • Use multilevel thinking, using questions that include phrases like “most appropriate” or “most important.” This approach forces students to make judgments and demonstrate a fuller understanding of concepts and the subtleties between different levels of the correctness of the answers.
  • Work to find the right amount of time to give students to complete the exam–enough time to complete it with minimal stress, but not so much that they will obsess over their answers. Since students’ schedules may be disrupted during this crisis, provide the flexibility of when they can take the exam.

STEM and other quantitative courses face a particular challenge in creating effective online exams, in part because it’s so easy to cheat and in part because so many questions are computational. Joe Guadagni, Rutgers University, has compiled this advice from the Mathematics department:

  • Ask more conceptual questions (e.g., “what is the next step in this problem?”, “state the definition of…”, “explain why this hypothesis in the theorem is necessary”).
  • Ask students to identify an error in a proof or computation (this is particularly effective since it can’t be googled).
  • Eliminate multiple-choice and fill-in questions in favor of show-all-work questions where students have to scan and upload their work.
  • If using problems from a textbook, change not only the numbers but also the names (e.g., John to Alice) and the scenario (e.g., pulling a boat in to letting a kite string out). The reason for this is that popular textbooks will probably have many of their problems already solved online somewhere, for example, on Chegg.
  • Use letters and variables in place of specific numbers.
  • When randomizing the exam, don’t just randomize numbers. Also randomize discrete parts of the problem. For instance, one version might have a problem like “maximize the volume of the box given its surface area” whereas another version might have “minimize the surface area of a box given its volume”. (The numbers can even be the same for the two versions.)
  • Avoid questions that consist of only simple computations. For example, instead of “calculate this integral”, present students with some application in which they also have to set up a proper integral.
    • “Write an integral expression that is equal to the probability that…” or “Write a triple integral which is equal to the mass of the region” are good alternatives.
    • There are online calculators that will not only solve many computational problems, but also give step by step solutions. Adding more words and applications to a problem makes it more difficult to cheat and also tests the real learning goal: do students know how to apply basic principles? (Ultimately, anyone can use a calculator, but only if you know what you want to calculate.)
  • Accommodations for quizzes: Canvas makes it easy to incorporate extended time accommodations on timed assignments, by adding students with such accommodations to a group within Canvas and specifying exceptions in the assessment settings (See the How-to Guide for Student Accommodations in Canvas web guide).
  • Canvas quizzes: A meaningful and purposeful assessment paired with constructive feedback can help learners understand and address their achievement gaps and organize future learning. Canvas quizzes provide a way for instructors to deliver helpful feedback, assess and accommodate learning. View the Low and High-Stakes Quizzes in Canvas web guide.
  • Replicate bubble sheet tests: Use the multiple-choice exam in Canvas. Create a Canvas quiz with multiple versions of the same question to increase exam integrity. For previously scheduled ISU Online Testing Center exams, consider:
  • Essay exams: Use Canvas Assignments for essay exams (recommend File Upload option). Do not ask multiple graders to enter grades at the same time in SpeedGrader, or they will overwrite each other’s work; download all files and have one person submit the scores in Gradebook.

Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), Iowa State University’s Open Book Exam, used under BY-NC-SA, retrieved on April 17, 2020, is derivative of the following resources: Indiana University-Bloomington’s Tips for Creating Open Book Exams post (  along with Rutger University’s Remote Exams and Assessments website (  This work, Remote Assessment, is by Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT), Iowa State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.