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Tips for Doing Well on Take-Home Exams

You may find yourself taking exams "at home" this semester, or least away from the classroom. But the name “take-home exam” has a specific meaning. Unlike in-class exams that are given at a designated time, take-home exams are generally more flexible. You’re given a set of questions or problems several days in advance of the due date; you work on them gradually, taking as much time as you think is appropriate to prepare, write, and revise your answers. Take-home exams are a pretty standard feature in Humanities and Social Science classes. In the document below, however, we attempt to give advice that will be helpful in the Sciences as well.

Prepare, Think, Write, Revise:  This is your mantra.  As soon as you open your take-home exam instructions, read them carefully; read them multiple times.  Then close the screen and jot down the instructions in your paper notebook in your own words. Make double and triple sure you understand the following:

  1. About how long you should take to work on the exam;

  1. Whether you’re allowed to consult sources other than your primary reading for the class;

  1. How you should cite your sources;

  1. Whether or not you’re allowed to consult a peer tutor as you work on the exam (W, Q, S consultant, Peer Advisor, STEM guide, TA);

  1. How long (how many words) are expected for each answer; and

  1. Exactly when the exam is due, and how it is to be submitted.

Read the questions.  Take a walk. No cell phones on this walk.  As you walk, think about the questions (or do one question at a time, one question per walk).  Pull out your handy pocket paper notebook and jot down ideas from time to time.  Remember: if you want to do well, leave your cell phone at home. Trust me on this. 

I find it helps to decide on a number of ideas to aim for.  Walk until you have come up with, say, three points you know you want to make as you answer the question, and three examples you could use to support your ideas.  (If you think of more than three ideas along the way, rejoice.) The numbers help you organize your ideas into categories, and give you a rough outline to work from. Of course, good essays are not a mechanical list of three points!  This is simply a way to get started -- a way to sort out the many ideas that may be darting through your mind.

After you’ve drafted your essays (or solved your problems), get a good night’s sleep.  Revisit your work the next morning; edit for clarity; and add details that support your argument.  

-- Professor Marnie McInnes, English and Peer Advising 

General Strategies for Take-Home Exams in Q Courses

  • Once you’ve completed the exam, double check that every question has been answered

  • Double check that each question has the answer you want associated with it.

  • Where you can, check your solutions by re-substituting them into the original givens.

  • Ask if the problem admits of a trivial solution.

  • Ask if the problem admits of a non-trivial solution.

  • Answer the question asked and not some closely related question.

  • Does your answer make sense?  Does it fall within a natural upper and lower bound?

  • If you can, execute the code. Check its values for special cases.

  • Did you cover a similar problem in class, lab, or as homework? How is this exam problem similar or different?

-- Professor Ash Puzzo, Philosophy and Q Program

From a Math Major’s Perspective

I usually start my take-home as soon as possible. I know that the take-home exams, especially in Math and Science, are generally designed to be more challenging than in-class exams. Thus, starting work on the exam early gives me more time to think through the exam questions. I take advantage of the extra time by double-checking my answers. 

Choosing a good workplace is very important. Find a location that is quiet and free of distractions, including other students. I had one interesting take-home exam experience which I will never forget. I was doing my Statistical Model Analysis exam in a busy airport, between two of my flights. I was definitely tired, rushed, and distracted by the noisy passengers and boarding calls every few minutes. It was much harder to focus on the exam questions in the airport than in my quiet dorm room. Thus, finding a good location (and stable Wi-Fi) is the key to doing well. Of course, the tips for general test-taking still apply: have a good rest and get fully prepared before you start to take the exam.

-- Angela Xinye Yang ‘21 

Purdue Owl

I like the advice the Purdue Owl provides for writing essays during in-class exams.  Their detailed examples and strategies work equally well for take-home exams.  Purdue University Online Writing Lab

-- Professor Susan Wilson, Communication & Theatre, S & W Programs

For Classes with a Great Deal of Reading:

  1. Prepare a study guide with all the terms discussed in class with detailed notes on each term.

  1. Set aside enough time to prepare for, as well as take, the exam.

  1. Take the exam a few days before the deadline so that you’ll avoid feeling rushed.

  1. Make sure to understand the exam rules, as you won’t be able to visit your professor during office hours to ask questions. Before the exam begins, be sure to clarify any uncertainties with your professor via email.

  1. A lot of take-home exams ask you to write essays; thus try practicing your writing before you take the exam itself. Sift through your notes, craft a good question based on a few key points from the class, time yourself, and write an essay answer to your question. This is a great way to both study the material and practice timed writing.

  1. Make sure you give yourself a nice, quiet space with a good Wi-Fi connection. It’s easy to get swept up in conversation with your roommates and friends and lose track of time, so make sure you can get to a place that will be conducive to work. 

-- Tarinni Kakar ‘21 

The Psychology Behind It All

The most important part of the take-home exam is the preparation that comes beforehand.  Make sure to keep up with class reading, take organized notes, and ask any questions you may have. Having a good base of information to use during the exam sets you up to really focus on each question one by one instead of combing through the textbooks on your desk.

I used to make the mistake of relying too heavily on the “open-book” policy that often comes with take-home exams, until I realized that the answers are not always in the reading. You have to understand the material and fully ingest what it's saying.  Use books and notes only as an aide to check details, facts, and figures. 

Also remember that your brain can get tired. Many professors are adding additional and more complex questions because they know that you have more books and notes than you would have in the classroom. Use being at home to your advantage: take a break every now and then. Taking a break allows you to come back to questions with a fresh set of eyes, correct mistakes, and, if need be, add new points. 

-- Helina Samson ‘22

Preparing to Take Your Online Exam

  1. Before taking this exam, make sure that you have studied and spoken to your professor if you have questions. 

  1. Find a quiet place where you can focus without distractions. 

  1. Make sure you are prepared with all the materials you will need to do well on this exam: a charged laptop, textbook, notes, a pencil, and blank pieces of paper. 

  1. Typically take-home exams are more flexible and give you extended time to finish. Take advantage of this and figure out roughly how long it should take you to complete each section. After spending a set amount of time on one section, move on to the next section even if you haven’t quite finished. 

By sectioning your time, you allow yourself to move forward without spending too much time on a single problem. When you have successfully made your way through the entire exam, you can go back to your unfinished sections and try again with a new set of eyes. The extra time benefits you:  if you are really struggling to complete a problem, you can walk away from the exam and return later with a clear mind. I find a great way to clear my head is by taking walks without my cellphone or sitting outside and getting some fresh air. 

-- Olivia Neal ‘22