Making the Transition to Take Home Exams

Most university courses have an end-of-term assessment of student learning: a final exam, term test, summative project, or other option. Students are commonly required to complete these end-of-term assessments by assembling in person at the same time and in the same place, such as a classroom or gymnasium.

However, during campus closures, when students are unable to assemble in person, alternative end-of-term assessments need to be developed. One option is online exams with strict time limits (like an online quiz), but these are different from take-home exams. Take-home exams are unsupervised, and students are free to access resources, such as their textbook or course notes, while completing them. Typically, students are allowed more time to complete a take-home exam than an in-person exam. Studies have shown that take-home exams can reduce students’ anxiety (Bengtsson, 2019; Myyry & Joutsenvirta, 2015).

Here are some strategies for pivoting from in-person exams to take-home exams:

  • Review your intended learning outcomes. Assessments provide evidence of students’ achievement of the intended learning outcomes (ILOs) for your course. Final assessments often encompass multiple ILOs since they are meant to be more cumulative and holistic. But not all elements of ILOs are necessarily essential to a course. Review the essential requirements Teaching Tip Sheet in relation to your ILOs and decide which elements are core and which may be optional; often it’s the way the outcomes are demonstrated that can be most flexible.
  • Review your existing end-of-term exam (if you have one). Take-home exams tend to be most effective if they ask students to demonstrate higher-order cognitive skills like analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (see Bloom’s Taxonomy Teaching Tip Sheet). If your current exam includes sections that assess lower-order cognitive skills (via questions such as fill-in-the blank, matching items, or writing definitions), you will need to adapt it. Such questions lend themselves to being answered by a simple Google search or a quick skim in a textbook. 
  • Be cautious about pivoting to a final project. If the need to forego an in-person exam arises late in the term, switching to a take-home exam is preferable to switching to a totally new final project. Final projects tend to require students to scaffold their learning over an extended time, often while receiving feedback from the instructor along the way. Final projects also often require students to find and incorporate new sources of data or ideas, whereas take-home exams typically draw on students’ access to existing course materials. As such, replacing a final exam with a final project should only be undertaken when redesigning a course well in advance of its start, rather than in the middle of a term.
  • Design a small number of assessment questions that require higher-order thinking. For essay-based exams, aim for one to three questions that focus on getting students to demonstrate that they know how to retrieve, apply, and integrate information covered during the course. Such questions might include making an extended argument or evaluation, providing a solution to a new problem or case study, or analyzing a new text or problem using frameworks from the course. Students might also be asked to analyze their own learning in a course: what changed in their thinking, what questions remain, what ideas can they propose for extending their learning. Students could also be asked to do more performance-based assignments to submit as videos, like a presentation, musical performance, or artistic creation. Worked-problem questions can be given as take-home exams as well. For more numerically focused courses, your take-home exam may look very much like an assignment, although possibly shorter. Consider including at least one more advanced problem that takes more time to think through and solve.
  • Determine the allowable timeframe. Take-home exams are often intended to be written over a day or more. Given students’ schedules and the additional challenges they will face during a campus closure, it’s best to err on the side of more time rather than less. Give students a minimum of one week after distributing the exam to submit it. Submissions can be to LEARN’s dropbox as original files or as scanned documents made with a phone app.
  • Provide clear expectations. Give your students a sense of how long they should work on their take-home final exam. Five hours? Fifteen hours? Should they aim to write one page for each question or four pages? Communicating such parameters to them will help quell their anxiety. Clarify how they should cite course materials. How do you want them to cite lecture notes? Their textbooks? A comment that a classmate made? Let them know, too, if you want them to rely solely on course materials or seek out additional sources. Students may also be invited to incorporate their own lived experiences as a form of authentic assessment (Myyry & Joutsenvirta, 2015). You should also provide clear expectations about collaboration.
  • Minimize the potential for academic misconduct. Final exams are typically meant to represent an individual student’s work. Take-home exams, however, increase the opportunity for students to collaborate with others, or to even get someone else to write the exam. To minimize this risk, consider the following: requiring students to directly reference course-specific materials such as lecture notes; using Turnitin for written submissions; and assigning different questions to different students. You might also consider including an “honour statement” in the exam instructions (see the Teaching Tip Sheet [Honour Statements] (Bengtsson, 2019).
  • Emphasize to students the need to study. Some students might assume that take-home final exams do not require much preparation because they will have access to all of their course materials. Accordingly, you should remind them that take-home final exams can be more challenging than in-person exams because students will have to stay on task over a much longer period of time, will have to draw on higher-order cognitive skills, and might have to draw on material from the entire course. You can help them prepare for the take-home final exam by giving them examples of questions ahead of time that might appear on the final exam. You might also collaborate with them to prepare an end-of-term review sheet, and show them organizing strategies for synthesizing their course notes.
  • Celebrate your support of universal design for learning. Take-home exams have been identified as one format that increases accessibility (Public Service Commission of Canada, 2015). Students typically have more choice over when and where they complete the assessment. Further, if they require adaptive technologies, they will likely have access to what they need at home. Still, students with accommodation requirements may need additional supports. Contact AccessAbility Services for questions or assistance.  


If you would like support applying these tips to your own teaching, CTE staff members are here to help.  View the CTE Support page to find the most relevant staff member to contact. 


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