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Tips for writing open-book essays for exams am 24. April 2021
ungefähr 4 Minuten
Themen: digital exams , self-management and time management , writing

Tips for writing open-book essays for exams

Some (digital) exams include open questions for which you need to write a longer answer in the form of a text. In this article, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) has compiled tips and suggestions on how to deal with this type of exam.

The psychologist Ruth C. Cohn once said: “We have little time, so let us proceed slowly.” This also applies to writing under pressure: Prepare – Write – Revise.

1. Prepare

Read the exam question carefully:

  • What is the question about?
  • What is asked of you?
  • How long should the text be?
  • What are the steps needed to answer the question?

Do you have to maybe read a text or research something, or can you go right ahead and start writing because you already have all of the information required? Organise your time accordingly and make a rough schedule.  Also account for breaks and buffer times. Tackle the parts of the question first that you can complete quickly. In doing so, you can focus better on the more complex parts.

2. Structure your thoughts

As a first step, try assembling the main elements that need to be a part of the answer and structure them in a second step. There is more than one way to do this:

  • Brainstorming/taking notes: Haphazardly write down anything you can think of.
  • Cluster: Select a core concept that you can use as the starting point for associations.
  • Freewriting: Set a period of time (e.g. 10 minutes) during which you write down anything you can think of. Afterwards, highlight the core concepts in colour. (You can already practise this exercise before the actual exam to prepare.)
  • Excerpts/summaries: Have you prepared excerpts or summaries when preparing for the exam? This will save you a lot of time during the exam.
    Reread the excerpts and contemplate what the text can contribute to your answer to the question. What parts are especially interesting or relevant and what are you more critical of and why? With these considerations in mind, you might want to take another look at specific passages from the original text.

3. Structure your text

Before starting to write, decide on the structure of your text. Every text consists of three parts: Introduction – Body – Conclusion.

  • Specify the topic of your text with one sentence in the introduction.
  • Answer the main exam question in the body.
  • Summarise the core ideas of your text in two sentences in the conclusion.

Use key questions: Does the exam question specify certain topics? Write down individual questions relating to these topics that you will address in your text.

4. Write the text

Use your plans when writing the text: You have already decided on the structure of your text. Step by step, you can now formulate the text. Do not worry about grammar, formal aspects and orthography when you write your first draft. These things can wait. Instead, you should first focus on transforming your thoughts into a continuous text. Highlight passages on which you want to reflect again or to which you want to add something later (in colour or using special characters).

Keep an eye on your schedule and the time: If you have problems with time management, divide the available time into smaller time slots and assign an objective to every time slot. You can time these slots using, for example, the timer on your smartphone. Do not forget to take breaks regularly.

5. Revise the text

Revising your text is just as important as drafting it. Before revising your text, go over and complete all passages that you highlighted. Revise your text step by step and focus on different aspects: First, check the accuracy of the content. Then, check the structure of the text and finally the language and formal aspects.

In any case, you should never forget to read through your text once again before submitting it.

  • If your schedule permits, leave your text “untouched” for some time and take a break. This way, you might notice mistakes during the revision process that you did not see before due to “blind spots”.
  • Read your text out loud to detect problems with phrasing.
  • Write a checklist for revising your draft version – this can save time. You can also use the following handout for revisions (in German).
  • Use the automatic spell checker.

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