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Online open book examinations are an assessment method designed to enable students to refer to class materials or notes as a memory aid whilst answering questions under timed and controlled conditions.

Online open book exams may better reflect an authentic assessment approach in that there is a similarity between what students are being asked to achieve in the assessed task and what they are likely to encounter in the real world. Well-written online open book exam questions give opportunities to assess not only what students know, but what they can do with that knowledge, enabling demonstration of creative, evaluative and analytical skills as well as critical thinking (Myyry & Joutsenvirta, 2015; QAA, 2021).

Although online open book exams are more authentic than other forms of assessment, they may also come with challenges such as: preventing plagiarism and collusion; achieving an appropriate level of complexity; maintaining quality; avoiding student stress overload; and ensuring accessibility. The following guidance suggests ways to design high quality online open book exams while addressing these challenges.

Best practice tips

Constructive alignment

When thinking about different assessments, it is important to maintain the connections between the established learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, and what is assessed to ensure the new assessment is constructively aligned (Biggs, 2003). As a starting point, think about the learning outcome you are assessing and how the questions you ask in the online open book exam reflect these.

It is also worth checking that the new assessment still fits with the assessment criteria in your module handbook and pro forma. If the former has changed but not the latter, you will need to update the module handbook to provide clarity around the assessment and how it links to the intended outcomes. If the latter has changed, formal approval processes will be necessary.

Venue and timing

Except in cases where students require specialist software/systems or particular support, it is generally preferable to allow students to choose where they will take their online open book exams (Myyry & Joutsenvirta, 2015). How long students have to complete the exam once the paper is released is dependent on the design of the exam, but factors such as students in different time zones and who experience unexpected technical issues should also be taken into account (QAA, 2021).

Prepare students

It is likely that this will be a new assessment type for some students. Take time to explain the purpose of using an online open book exam, how it will work, what they can expect, and what they will be required to do in advance of the assessment (as one example, see University of Oxford’s 2021 Open-Book Exam Guide for Candidates). 

Provide formative opportunities for students to try out some online open book exam style questions in small groups where they can discuss their answers with peers.

Question development

If possible, create a range of question types (such as multiple-choice, essay-based, and problem-based). This will work with the exam time constraints to test different aspects of students’ understanding. Crucial to the success of online open book exams is that these questions require students to actively do things with the information available to them (as opposed to, e.g., repeat, recall or summarise). Questions should be structured around students’ ability to apply, analyse, evaluate, create, synthesise and interpret (see, for example, Designing Open Book Exams).

For instance, multiple-choice questions might work well in a science subject where students need to analyse a problem, find pertinent information, and apply this as well as their knowledge and prior understanding to arrive at a single correct answer (e.g. in the form of a number). Online open book exams in a humanities discipline would most likely require students to complete a similar process (i.e. analysis, information gathering and application) to write a critique, interpretation or argument. Problem- or case-based questions, meanwhile, could potentially be suitable for any discipline; for example, a ‘real world’ scenario (with or without an empirically correct answer) can give students the opportunity to apply their knowledge and demonstrate their critical thinking skills.

Try to avoid questions that require students to write definitions, or answers that can easily be found or generated online. The key to a successful online open book exam is giving students opportunities to demonstrate how they apply the knowledge they have, rather than asking them to recall it.

Build in random, unique or creative elements

To reduce the likelihood of cheating, include factors that make it difficult to copy or collude. For example, randomly display multiple-choice or short-answer questions from a pool so that students don’t all see the same questions, or in the same order. An option for free-response questions is to require students to draw on unique examples or experiences that they choose at the time of writing the exam. An element of creativity (whether in style of presentation or substance of the answers) can also make it difficult for students to cheat. Finally, requiring students to submit via similarity-checking software can dissuade students from plagiarising, as can a short exam window.


Make sure that questions are clear and easy to understand to reduce the risk of students misinterpreting what is being asked of them. Particularly avoid wording that suggests that students must simply find or recall information.

Ensure students are provided with clear, detailed instructions that they will be able to access at any time during the exam. This might include: the duration of the exam; recommended time spent on each question; expected word counts; the submission process; confirmation of submission. This will help students to plan their time, including how much they can refer to different sources of information, and focus on the exam rather than peripheral issues.


It is important to consider the exam design in terms of accessibility. This could include: the availability of a key book/ebook/article; accessibility of the exam materials, lecture notes and/or presentations (e.g. are students expected to refer to an image or graph that is not adequately described in text?); bandwidth requirements (e.g. if students are required to watch a video or use specialist software); students outside the UK (e.g. time zone differences if a student is in a country that blocks some web content) (JISC, 2014). Keep in mind that some students may qualify for concessions in online open book exams as well as traditional.

Further resources

JISC (2014) Making Assessments Accessible

Quality Assurance Agency, 2021. How good practice in digital delivery and assessment has affected student engagement and success – an early exploration.

Further reading

Biggs, J. et al., 2022. Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Myyry, L. & Joutsenvirta, T., 2015. Open-book, open-web online examinations: Developing examination practices to support university students’ learning and self-efficacy. Active Learning in Higher Education, 16(2), pp. 119-132.