Teaching Resources

Translating Your Exams Online

Resource Overview

Strategies, tips & resources to help translate your in-person exams to an online format

Why Give Exams Online?

Many faculty were forced by necessity to move their exams online during the start of the pandemic. Although in-person teaching has resumed, you might still choose to give some or all of your exams online to free up class time for other activities, because online exams can sometimes be easier to grade, or to streamline the logistics of make-up exams, among other reasons. The format of an exam matters less than whether or not the exam fits well within your course and helps your students achieve their learning goals. Whether you’re writing an remote exam from scratch or adapting an existing exam to the online environment, the tips below will help you get started optimizing your online assessment.

Start with the Basics

  • Examine your existing exams: It’s likely that there will have to be some changes to your in-person exams to make them optimal for an online environment. Now’s an opportunity to reflect on what you’ve done in the past, consider what’s worked well and brainstorm what could be improved.
  • Learning goals: Start by thinking about or clearly defining your students’ learning goals (aka learning outcomes, objectives, etc.). What learning goals is the exam supposed to measure? Does it actually do so? Are the goals it measures aligned with the instruction in the course?
  • Consider differences between your traditional exam format and what’s possible online.
    • In-person exam: monitored and controlled; often paper exams; usually taken by everyone at same time
    • Online: unmonitored and without control over student behaviors; many submission formats possible (Canvas quiz, file upload, third-party tools, etc.); might be taken at different times by different students
  • Is an “exam” the right assessment? A traditional exam may or may not be the best strategy to measure and meet the student learning goals in your course. Could the learning goals be achieved just as well or better through an alternative assessment such as a presentation, paper, detailed problem set, etc.? These forms may translate to an online format easier than an exam as the traditional exam setting is difficult to fully replicate remotely (Silverman et al., 2021).

General Tips for Online Exams

  • Open book: For practical reasons, closed-book, no-notes exams are difficult to recreate in an online environment. The most common solution is to adapt the exam to an open-note / open-book format (Schultz and Callahan, 2022). Visit our resource Designing Open-note Exams for additional information and resources.
  • It’s out in the open: By giving an exam online it is reasonable to assume that future students will have access to the questions. If you reuse exam questions year-to-year, consider either using different questions this year or writing new questions next year.
  • Randomize question order: Random question order makes collusion between students more difficult.
  • Budget time: Online exams can take a lot of time to prepare, both in writing questions and transferring them to a platform like Canvas, even if the eventual grading portion is sometimes quicker. It’s important to keep this in mind during the planning phase to avoid being rushed at the last minute.
  • Communicate with your students: Make the exact format, time allowed, resources allowed, and other expectations crystal clear to help your students prepare for the exam. If you are using a particular online platform to give an exam for the first time in your course (e.g. Canvas, Gradescope, etc.), consider first giving a low-stakes quiz to allow both you and the students to practice using the format (Darby & Lang, 2019).

Writing / Adapting Questions

Many of the strategies for writing questions that work well in an online environment are similar to those for writing well-crafted exam questions more generally. It can be helpful to refer to a general reference work on assessment in higher education for overall guidance (e.g. Suskie, 2018).

Multiple Choice and Fill-in the Blank

  • Avoid questions that can be directly Googled. Avoid questions that just ask students to identify the correct definitions of concepts or vocabulary because it is often easy to quickly search the internet for the correct answers. Also, steer clear of questions pulled directly from test banks that may readily available online, such as test banks written by textbook publishers, for the same reason that it can be easy to simply search for the correct answer.
  • Write complex questions that require students to apply knowledge. Ask questions that encourage your students to apply or analyze knowledge rather than simply remember it. Consider scenario-based questions that require students to apply knowledge to a novel scenario (Parker et al., 2021). Such questions allow students to use any materials they have on hand while still assessing their understanding of the content. One way to design these questions in a multiple-choice format is to write a question stem that relies on the application or understanding of multiple concepts covered in the course. It can also be done by providing answer choices that require a high level of understanding to discriminate between them. Keep in mind that grading fill-in the blank questions can be semi-automated through Canvas.

Short Answer & Essay Questions

  • Write questions that are clear and concise. Make it clear to students your expectations for length and detail of their response so that they know how to answer appropriately.
  • Write questions that probe higher order thinking. Short answer questions lend themselves well to an open-note situation because they often ask students to provide reasoning, articulate understanding or apply knowledge to a novel scenario. Lean on these kinds of questions to ensure that even students with access to notes will be required to demonstrate knowledge they have learned throughout your course (Parker et al., 2021).
  • Answer the questions yourself. It’s important for you to have a clear understanding of what you want students to provide as an answer and answering the question yourself is a good way to do so. In addition, having a colleague, Assistant in Instruction or Undergraduate TA provide trial answers will give you further insight into the complexity and clarity of the question.
  • Create a grading guideline. Think through how you will assign credit for short answer and essay questions. Create some sort of grading scheme that you will use and share with any other graders, if applicable. This could be a rubric or simply a list of expectations for correct answers. Such tools will help you streamline grading and ensure consistency across students. Sometimes, rubrics can actually be easier to use online than they are for paper exams as they are already incorporated into tools like Canvas or Gradescope (Darby & Lang, 2019).
  • Consider how you want students to provide their answers. Canvas, for example, can allow students to either type a response into their web browser or upload a file, depending on the options you select.  If you teach a course that relies heavily on math-based problem solving, asking students to write out answers by hand and upload a photo might be less cumbersome than their trying to use a equation writing tool. Similar strategies can be used if you want students to be able to draw diagrams illustrating mastery of complex relationships between ideas or concepts. Tools such as Gradescope are designed for these scenarios and for making and collecting handwritten exams submitted online. Gradescope is integrated into Canvas and WashU licensed.

Canvas Quizzes: Strategies and Settings

Using certain Canvas quiz options can reduce reliance on notes during the exam to encourage studying and preparation, reduce cheating such as sharing answers with classmates, and make the exam as fair as possible.

  • Randomize order of questions.  The way to achieve a random order of questions in Canvas involves the use of question groups.
  • Randomize order of answer options. Select the “Shuffle Answer” box in the quiz options for all of the options any in multiple-choice questions to be presented in a random order.
  • Set a time limit on the exam. Too long might discourage adequate preparation and studying, or may even encourage cheating between students; too short may not provide an accurate assessment of students’ learning and add unneeded stress. If you decide to use time limits, be sure to allow students with accommodations granted by Disability Resources any extra time they are entitled to have to complete the exam. These options can be set by using the “Moderate this Quiz” feature in Canvas.
  • Consider showing students only 1 question at a time. Only allowing students to be able to see one question at a time can make unauthorized collusion between students more difficult, especially if questions are presented in a random order. Be aware, however, that only seeing one question at a time can be frustrating for students who want to have an overview of the exam to better budget their time during it.
  • Limit students seeing their answers and the correct answers until after everyone has taken the exam. In “Grades” (your gradebook in Canvas, outside of the Quiz options), set the exam to the manual posting option so that scores are not released until you are ready for them.
  • Remember students who require accommodations: As mentioned above, be sure to give extra time to complete the assessment, if needed, and make sure that any tools you are asking students to use are accessible.
  • Use the rubric function in Canvas to grade short answer and essay questions. Rubrics in Canvas can save time and help ensure fair, valid, and reliable grading across students.

Academic Honesty

  • Gold standard: The best strategy to promote academic honesty is to design your exam to minimize the ease of cheating by using the tips above and other general strategies promoting academic honesty, regardless of the exam format. Overall, the literature on whether online exams increase academic dishonesty is mixed with some studies reporting higher levels of academic dishonesty during online exams (e.g. Vazquez et al., 2021), while others finding little to no difference in academic honesty issues between online and traditional in-person exams (e.g. Rivera-Mata, 2021).
  • What about remote proctoring? We generally do not recommend the use of proctoring services because of their limited effectiveness, student privacy concerns, and the need for students to install additional software (Harwell, 2020; Leafstedt, 2017; Silverman et al., 2021). WashU does, however, subscribe to Respondus LockDown Browser and Monitor which provides an automated proctoring system if you decide that a proctored exam is necessary to meet your students’ learning goals.
  • What about plagiarism detection software? If using the Assignments function in Canvas, you can enable the plagiarism detection software TurnItIn. There are, however, also arguments against the use of such software.

Darby, F., & Lang, J. M. (2019). Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes. Jossey-Bass.

Harwell, D. (2020, April 1). Mass school closures in the wake of the coronavirus are driving a new wave of student surveillance. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/04/01/online-proctoring-college-exams-coronavirus/

Leafstedt, J. (2017, April 19). ​Online courses shouldn’t use remote proctoring tools. Here’s why. EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2017-04-19-online-courses-shouldn-t-use-remote-proctoring-tools-here-s-why

Parker, A. M., Watson, E., Dyck, N., & Carey, J. P. (2021). Traditional versus open-book exams in remote course delivery: A narrative review of the literature. Proceedings of the Canadian Engineering Education Association (CEEA). https://doi.org/10.24908/pceea.vi0.14845

Rivera-Mata, J. (2021). How to teach online? Recommendations for the assessment of online exams with University students in the USA in times of pandemic. IJERI: International Journal of Educational Research and Innovation, 15, 188–202. https://doi.org/10.46661/ijeri.5003

Schultz, M., & Callahan, D. L. (2022). Perils and promise of online exams. Nature Reviews Chemistry, 6(5), 299–300. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41570-022-00385-7

Silverman, S., Caines, A., Casey, C., Garcia de Hurtado, B., Riviere, J., Sintjago, A., & Vecchiola, C. (2021). What happens when you close the door on remote proctoring? Moving toward authentic assessments with a people-centered approach. To Improve the Academy: A Journal of Educational Development, 39(3). https://doi.org/10.3998/tia.17063888.0039.308

Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide (2nd ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Vazquez, J. J., Chiang, E. P., & Sarmiento-Barbieri, I. (2021). Can we stay one step ahead of cheaters? A field experiment in proctoring online open book exams. Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, 90, 101653. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socec.2020.101653

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