A common belief is that open book exams reduces cheating since all the information that a student would wish to look up is already with them. Open book exam therefore tests a person's knowledge and organization rather than memorization.

However, a textbook is not merely a set of references written by distinguished authors in size 12 fonts and high quality paper, it could also be used as a set of notes for students to scribe onto, whatever in his fancy.

This becomes highly problematic in courses where the material is often repeated year after year, such as computer science or computer hardware courses where students are not expected to remember say commands, or highly specialized mathematical formulas. In these cases, students will just jot down the solution to past term paper i.e. all the questions from 1997 - 2014, and do a compare and match when they receive their actual exam paper. After which, answers that belong to similar question will simply be jotted down. 100% accuracy with zero understanding.

This happens so frequently, I am completely confused by the very definition of an open book exam. Are students allowed to jot down notes (such as the solutions to past paper) in their textbooks in an open exam? What is considered cheating in an open text book exam??

  • 2
    More specifically, I think open book exams test higher order thinking. So you've got a copy of Schrödinger's Equation in your textbook. Do you know what it means? Do you know what it does? Can you apply it to a practical problem? Can you match the problem's quantities with the variables in the equation? Can you recognize when the equation is not applicable to a particular problem? Jul 31, 2018 at 13:58
  • academia.stackexchange.com/questions/30759/…
    – user128847
    Aug 28, 2020 at 11:07

5 Answers 5


In my experience, I've seen three versions of open book exam:

  1. You can bring in a set of notes.
  2. You can use any textbooks and notes you want, but no electronic assistance.
  3. You can use any reference you want local or remote, except for asking other people to solve your problem for you.

As personal electronics become smaller and more pervasive, these are all effectively converging together: if you allow students any open book, then you have to allow the whole internet, and impose an honor code that requires students to not outsource their problems.

In this environment, my feeling is that the only way to run an open book exam is to be testing for mastery of material, rather than problem solving. In other words: open book works only when the answers cannot be readily extracted from the book (or other resources), but only from the synthesis of all of the knowledge within. There must be no single "right answer", but a range of possibilities requiring creativity. Thus, cheating can be detected in the same way that plagiarism can, because every student should be producing their own unique answer.

The best and fiercest open book exam I have ever taken was in an algorithms class as an undergraduate. The exam was six questions, each asking us to develop the best possible algorithm that we could to solve some curious problem based on the principles we had learned in the class. We were handed the exam to take home and given 48 hours, in which we were allowed and encouraged to use any resource we wanted, except not to talk to anybody else about the problem. It was brutal, it was terrifyingly hard, and it was the most fun I've ever had on an exam. That, I think, is a standard to aspire to.

  • 2
    This is similar to many of my favorite math tests, as well. The problems typically amount to the start of a research problem, and are extremely hard. It takes work on part of the professor to make such a test, though.
    – Danny W.
    Oct 29, 2014 at 1:11
  • 6
    I had a similar "Final" - The class was given one week to code a library that could be utilized by the professors testing program. Points were given based on memory usage, computation time, and of course, correctness. Because we could reference anything we wanted expectations were higher, but the extra requirements that wouldn't normally be there (ex: optimization of code was a requirement not a bonus) were also very beneficial to the class's understanding of coding practices. Being told bubble sort is inefficient compared to radix sort is one thing, being graded on implementation is another.
    – Sidney
    Oct 30, 2014 at 17:47

Read your course syllabus. If you still have questions, ask your instructor.

There is no single standard set of rules for "open book exam", nor even any universal definition. Your instructor could have decided that some resources are allowed and others are not. You need to obey the rules determined for your particular course by your particular instructor. "What is considered cheating" is "any violation of the rules announced by your instructor".

It's irrelevant what anybody else says "open book exam" means or what they might say you can or cannot use. If someone on Stack Exchange says "it's fine to use resource X", and your instructor says it's not, I assure you that using resource X can lead to you being charged with cheating, and saying "some random person on Stack Exchange said it was fine" will not be a good defense.


I routinely run open book exams. I allow students to bring: books about any topic they need or wish; notes of any kind, especially course notes; solutions of all the exercises solved during the lessons, those of past exams and those given as homework; programmable calculators (but no computers with connectivity).

(Of course, I warn them that all of the above are useless if they haven't studied)

So, for me, cheating means:

  1. Trying to find a solution from external resources by means of cell phones, computers, radios or whatever.
  2. Copying a solution from a course mate.
  3. Asking for advice to a course mate.

In my experiences in an open book exam you can use:

Your text book Written notes (not typed, copied, etc). Class assignments/homework (not quizzes or other exams)

The notes and assignments/homework allowance varies on the instructor.

Cheating would be using any resources that the instructor does not allow which can include but may not be limited to:

Taking from another students exam

Using another students notes/handouts

Using your notes if not permitted

Using a form of notes not allowed (photocopies or printed)

Using a device such as a tablet or phone

Using other exams or quizzes if not allowed (this happens a lot in large classes where other forms of notes are allowed)

If you are unsure about what you can or cannot use it's best to talk with your instructor about it as the actual do's and don'ts all depend on your instructor and what the school will permit (My university did not allow instructors to allow students to use quizzes on open book exams).


As other answers have pointed out, the exam should list the specific materials allowed. Individual universities often have a policy of what set of allowable materials constitutes an "open book" exam, and if the professor allows a wide scope of materials, it may fall into this category. However, if in the widest sense of the term, an "open book" exam usually means you can bring in any printed materials you like (but not electronic devices that can search for new material after seeing the questions, or electronic repositories of material). In such cases, any well-prepared students will bring in all available past-exam papers and their solutions. Unless there is a restriction to prevent this, it is not cheating.

This really gets to the heart of the matter - if a professor sets an open-book exam, it is incumbent on the professor to set appropriate questions that cannot be answered without understanding the material. If the professor sets an open-book exam, but sets questions to be similar to an available past exam (such that you can just adapt a past answer), that is really a screw-up by the professor, not a problem with the student. Instead of worrying about whether they student has cheated, the proper question is why the professor is not meeting his responsibility to test the material in a manner that requires genuine understanding.

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