How to prepare for an open-book exam

Tony Davies is an independent procurement consultant
posted by Tony Davies
9 March 2016

Many articles have been written about exam techniques in relation to the standard unseen, closed-book CIPS exams, but little has been said about the open-book format.

This is the format adopted for both the AD3 unit (Improving the Competitiveness of Supply Chains) and the PD3 unit (Strategic Supply Chain Management), which consist of pre-released case studies and unseen questions.

All the previous advice in relation to preparation, time management, command words and focus applies to both closed- and open-book exams.

This article aims to outline additional factors that need to be considered in relation to the latter format. The format that the case is issued in advance and candidates can take notes and books into the exam room may lead people to see open-book exams as easier, but this is not so. They require different techniques and there is a different level of expectation in terms of assessment.


Candidates have four weeks before the exam to analyse the case, which is between 12 and 15 pages in length. They should use this time to undertake an analysis of the focal organisation’s macro environment (STEEPLE), the competitive environment (Porter’s five forces), a resource audit (not just people), and a SWOT analysis.

Candidates are encouraged to research beyond the case study and a number of articles are referred to in the bibliography to facilitate this. Most cases relate to well-known organisations and there is a plethora of information in the public domain.

Once the analysis has been completed, candidates should prepare a set of notes that relate to the learning objectives (LOs) of the unit. For instance, LO 1.2 of the PD3 unit relates to how strategic supply chain management contributes to corporate and business strategy, and LO 2.4 refers to the main ways of achieving lean and agile supply chains. Examples of these should be identified in the case scenario. In this way, candidates can prepare a set of notes that comprise a framework answer (theory) and relevant examples (application) for each LO. Model answers are not recommended. It is not possible to anticipate the likely questions, so model answers will not be sufficiently focused on them. Another problem is the danger of plagiarism. There have been instances of candidates from the same study centre being disqualified due to their submission of a common model answer during an open-book exam.

On the day

It is not advisable to take a pile of books into the exam room. There is a danger that valuable time will be spent searching through books rather than answering questions. This is where the prepared set of notes and an annotated copy of the case study will be useful. Open-book exams are not memory tests.

The examiner knows you have access to the study guide and will not be impressed by a regurgitation of its content. Examples from the case should be referred to rather than described in great detail. There will be a great deal of emphasis on critical thinking, application and problem solving. This is demonstrated in the November 2014 PD3 exam, where candidates were asked in two separate questions to devise specific objective performance measures and to suggest how specific customer segments could be serviced in relation to the focal organisation. The answers to these questions are not contained in a book.

Open-book exams are not an easy option. It is the candidates who undertake a robust analysis of the case, prepare notes thoroughly and focus clearly on the question outcomes who will succeed.

Three key points 

  • Undertake a robust analysis of the case organisation and its environment.
  • Prepare a set of notes linked to the learning objectives.
  • Demonstrate critical thinking, application and problem solving during the exam.

Tony Davies is an independent procurement consultant

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