Open Book Exams

How to prepare for open book exams

If you go to one of the better Universities or colleges, chances are high that you would have to give an open book exam some day. The Bar Exam in India is an open book exam. While it was not very common in India earlier – it is becoming more popular with some teachers these days. Even CBSE has introduced open book exams.

However, open book exams are very misunderstood by the general public, students and sometimes even teachers. They think that open book exam is a sorry excuse for a real exam, and very easy because the examinees are simply look up answers from the book. This is a gross misunderstanding.

Open Book Exam

Lets first tackle the myths surrounding open book exams.

Myth 1#

Open book exams are super-easy

In India, it is common to ask questions that test ability to memorize information. It is true that open book exams are useless if the only purpose of an exam is to test a person’s ability to memorize and retain information. However, memorizing is not considered to be a greatly important skill in higher academia, at least by the teachers who had been exposed to globally competitive education systems.

What is much more important to test is the ability of the student to apply what has been learnt, to new concepts, generate new ideas or arguments, create, innovate, push the barriers of knowledge and understanding. It is no use to mug a few pages of information – question is that on basis of what you learnt in the course, what can you achieve? Can you apply the knowledge?

Open book exams are effective in testing this. And for this reason, they can be very difficult as well. Usually, an open book exam will have questions that can not be answered by reading some specific pages in the book. Sometimes information has to be collated from different sources. At other times, one has to apply their mind to come up with the right answer. Often there will not be one specific right answer – and there can be many ways of answering a question. Open book tests will test you beyond what is just written in the books.

Thus, such exams afford a person significant academic freedom and tests academic mettle of a person much better than a traditional exam where people rely on their memory.

Sometimes, paper setters do not understand this, or wants to make the exam deliberately easy – so they actually ask you questions that have specific answers written somewhere in the book. Even these exams may not be as easy as just looking up the correct page in the book – sometimes finding a specific information can be like looking for a needle in the haystack, especially if you have never seen that stack before.

Some of the things you may be asked to do in an open book exam are as follows:

1. make inferences, draw conclusions based information given in question or to be found from the book that you are allowed to carry

2. find specific information from volumes of general information

3. compare information

4. apply a stated rule to facts given in the question

5. determine correctness of a set of information


Myth 2#

You don’t need to study for open book exams

Most open book exams require extensive preparation. Take the All India Bar Exam as an example. It is quite easy – but almost one in three law graduates fail this exam every year.

Also, open book exams require a very different sort of preparation as opposed to other type of exams. Having books and notes to refer to might mean you don’t have to memorise as much information as one in which books are not allowed, but you still need to be able to find the information, and also apply it effectively. If you leave reading for the exam hall, three things could happen:

1. You may not understand the questions being asked in the exam

2. provided you understand the question, still you would have to read the material and understand it. You may not be able to understand the material the first time you read it. In any case, you may have to spend too much time trying to comprehend the material and run out of time.

3. You may not know where to look in the books for the answer. You can not search from beginning to end for answer of each question in limited time. That is absolutely futile.


Myth 3#

You can just copy from the books during the exam

Only a moron of a teacher, or someone with an agenda will set a paper in an open book exam where you can just copy the answers directly from a book. That makes no sense whatsoever for the purpose of assessment. In all probability, the answers you need to write will not be written in the books, but only some ingredients can be found there. You really need to apply your mind to crack most open book exams.

Also, for most open book exams, it is difficult to decide even what books and materials have to be carried. Carry too much and your haystack is too big to find the needle and you will end up wasting too much time looking at the wrong material. Carry too less and you didn’t bring the needle you had to find, only some straws. It requires a good understanding and analysis of the syllabus to know what should be carried to the exam.

In fact, you should decide what you are going to carry well ahead of time, and familiarize yourself with the material. You can create your own notes and summaries as well. It is a good idea to flg and highlight important information so that you can find them quickly when needed during the exam. Preparing an index of what is where is an excellent idea too, especially if books and study material come without an index.

Myth 4#

Open book exams are very scary

While uninitiated people think these exams are very easy, there are others who have burnt their fingers and are mortally afraid of open book exams. However, the problem is that people prepare for open books exams in the same way as they prepare for other exams – which is very ineffective. A different kind of strategy and preparation is needed for these exams, and practicing giving an open book test or two certainly helps.

I am personally a fan of open book exams because the emphasis here is not on rote memorization, which is the poison of Indian education system. An open book exam should not merely test your factual knowledge, but your understanding and grasp of a subject. I wish more teachers in the University level, and even schools and colleges will consider open book exams more seriously.


About Ramanuj Mukherjee

Ramanuj Mukherjee is former corporate lawyer and an alumnus of National University of Juridical Sciences. He co-founded iPleaders, a startup that is making legal knowledge and education easily accessible to everyone. You can follow him here: or connect with him here:

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