Take-Home Exams

If you are preparing for a take-home test or an online exam, you may have questions. How do I study? Can I use my notes? Can I use others’ notes? When will I take the exam, and how long will I have to complete it?

The following tips can help you answer some of these questions and give you strategies for approaching take-home exams.

What types of exams can I expect to see?

Your best source of information about your exam will be your instructor and the materials your instructor has provided. But consider these common types of take-home exam. Ask yourself if your exam follows one of these models partly, wholly, or mixes features from more than one. You may see:

A take-home exam modeled closely on a traditional in-class exam. This exam might include questions in the forms of long essays, short answers, multiple choice, or fill-in-the blank. This exam might be distributed in class, via email, or posted to Blackboard. Once you have the exam, you will often have the ability to work at your own pace, as long as you return your work by the due date set by your instructor. General strategies for writing essay exams or taking multiple choice exams will remain relevant.

An exam administered and monitored by proctoring software. Exam taking programs often require a login, track your time, and prevent changes after the testing window is closed. Sometimes these programs prevent you from clicking out of the testing window or prevent copy-pasting to discourage plagiarism. You may or may not be able to move backward in the exam to change prior answers. You may have taken versions of these kinds of tests in the form of Blackboard quizzes or exams. For more help with taking exams that prevent viewing or changing prior answers, see our handout on linear exams.

A final project. You may be working on a larger project that can be completed remotely over a longer period of time and submitted during the exam window set by a professor. A project of this kind may require a presentation component such as a video or audio explanation of the material.

What should I keep in mind as I prepare for a take-home exam?

First, think about how you have successfully studied for exams in the past so that you can build on what works for you. Once you have that foundation in mind, here are some things to consider:

Start early. Apply study strategies for semester-long learning: keep up with lectures, discussion, reading, homework, and consistent self-testing throughout the semester, so that you don’t face a “crunch” at exam time.

Be aware of the details. What is the format of your take-home exam? Are there specifics unique to a particular class? Did your instructor give out a study guide or schedule a review session? Keep in touch with your instructor and TAs about these specifics, and make use of all the resources available to you. Will you be writing in response to prompts shared ahead of time, or will you be seeing the prompts for the first time when you sit down to take the exam? A timed, multiple choice take-home exam will be very different from an untimed, open-book exam that asks you to assess case studies. Be aware of the particulars; pay attention to the syllabus, Blackboard or class site, emails from the instructor or TAs, and announcements in class. Check in during office hours.

Know to what degree you will be allowed to use outside resources or group help. In some classes, group Google Docs are encouraged; in other classes, there may be limits on collaborative note taking. You may be allowed open notes, open books, a written outline, or one to two notecards to help you get your bearings on test day. Check in early with your instructors and TAs if you have questions about what is permitted. Even when exams are remote, NIU's academic integrity policy still applies, so take care to avoid accidental (or purposeful) cheating. Check with your instructor if you have questions about what you can and can’t do during an exam.

Be aware of the “open-book, easy exam” fallacy. A common pitfall is to assume you do not need to study for these exams because you get to use your notes. It may feel like you have the answers at your fingertips, so there’s little or no need to study. This line of thinking will derail your progress, slow you down during the test, and limit the complexity of your answers. Use your notes as cues for your memory rather than a repository of all your knowledge. Professors often use these exams to ask more complex questions that require higher-order thinking, which allows them to better evaluate your comprehension of concepts from the course. If you rely on your notes or the book and spend too much of your energy searching for the “right” answer, you won’t have the time to synthesize the information into a complete and correct response.

How should I set-up and prepare my exam space?

Think about how to create a good exam environment. You may need a space where you can comfortably work for a long time and stay focused. When you look around for a suitable space, ask yourself:

Environment. What is the distraction potential here? Do you have control over the ambient noise? Who do you need to coordinate with to ensure you have several hours of quiet time to work? Can you reserve a library study room, or is there another safe spot away from home where you might relocate just to take the exam? If playing your own music or white noise would help, consider preparing a focused, worktime playlist.

Technology. Do you have adequate technological resources for the exam, like a reliable laptop and internet? Have you double checked that you have installed or logged into any necessary software to make sure it is working well before the testing window starts?

Resources. If the exam is open book, how will you organize any resources you hope to use for reference, like a study guide, so that they are convenient during the exam period? Would it help to print them out? Or, if they’re online, would it help to have the tabs pulled up ahead of time? If the exam is closed book, do you have the instructions at hand?

Time. If the exam is not at a mandated time, at what time of day would it be best to take the exam? Be honest with yourself about your energy and focus. Maybe you love being up late and that helps you pay attention. Maybe being up late only works for fun activities and you are more alert in the mornings. Pay attention to your own needs and plan your schedule around your energy and other commitments.

Works Consulted

Bengtsson, L. (2019). “Take-home exams in higher education: A systematic review.” Education Sciences, 9(4), 267-285. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci9040267


Developed and shared by The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

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