Guidelines when pivoting from an in-person exam to an online exam

  • Determine if a final exam is still necessary in your course. Take-home exams or alternative assignments may be feasible options if additional assessments are needed.

  • Try to test only key course learning outcomes.  Review the essential requirements tip sheet to review your Intended Learning Outcomes and decide which elements are core.
  • Encourage academic integrity (e.g., distribute multiple versions of the exam, use an honour agreement), but consider online exams to be open book. Let students know what resources they are allowed to use.
  • Develop a shorter exam (with fewer questions) than you ordinarily would for an in-person exam. There is increased cognitive load involved in doing an online exam and technology may pose some impediments.
  • All students may not be familiar with taking exams on an online platform. Be very clear and specific with your instructions, in particular around such things as time limits.
  • Provide a wide time window to start the exam as not all students may be our time zone.
  • Allow a submission grace period (e.g., 15 minutes extra time) to allow for potential Internet disruption, or technical glitches.
  • Be aware that some students might not have adequate Internet access and may require accommodation.
  • Be available to your students during your exam (e.g., by email).
  • Remember that students will be stressed so try to be as open-minded and flexible as possible.
  • Design the exam with the assumption that all online tests are open book.


  • Setting up and offering a practice/trial run of the online exam process.

    • This trial should be done a week or two before the actual exam.

    • You can create a very small (3 question) example exam that students have the option of working through.
    • Consider using one or two questions from the actual exam pool. If the students know this, it might motivate them to do the practice example.  
  • Setting a Due Date AND a later End Date in your exam (“restrictions” tab)
    • This dual strategy will allow late submissions after the due date, but prevent submissions after the end date.
  • Informing your students about how to contact you during the exam
    • Let students know how to reach you during the exam: by email, Virtual Classroom through LEARN, or other mechanism of your choice.
    • Indicate the date and times the channels will be monitored during the exam period (remember students may be in different time zones):
      • answering exam questions, if time allows.
      • dealing with online issues – e.g. WIFI issues.

Recommended for Exam Set-up in LEARN Quizzing Tool

In the properties tab of the exam (“Quiz” in LEARN):

  • Questions per page

    • If you limit the questions to 1 or 2, it will be more difficult for students sitting beside each other to scan the whole exam for the similar questions, even if you have the “shuffle questions” feature activated.
  • Paging: Moving backwards through pages
    • DO NOT check the “prevent moving backward” option unless you are absolutely sure you do not want students to have access to preceding questions. Preventing backward movement could induce additional exam stress: whenever possible, students should be allowed to go back and double-check their work as well as skip a question they are unsure of to return to later in the test. If not possible, you should provide various supports for a linear assessment: 1) more time to complete the test; 2) very clear instructions both before the test and on the first page that clarify students will not be able to return to a question or page of questions; 3) an estimated amount of time to spend on each question; and 4) an overview of the number and type of question formats included in the test. Good practice is to move from less to more difficult questions and let students practice with the format in a low- to no-stakes quiz. Alternatives to a linear assessment for calculation-based questions are to use algorithmically generated questions or develop a question pool and randomize the questions so students receive different questions. You can also put more than one question on a page so students can see a limited number of questions at once.
  • Shuffle questions at the quiz level
    • If you check this box, each student will get the whole set of questions in your quiz, but in a different order.
    • You may want to set up sections (folders) in the question layout to group the questions. This may be less confusing for students. If you use sections (folders), the order of the sections (folders) will be shuffled (i.e., put in random order), but the questions within each section will NOT be shuffled.
  • Optional Advanced Settings (click to expand)
    • Check “disable right click” and “prevent using email, message, etc.” within LEARN t restrict what students have access to on their computer.

Optional Advanced Properties

In the restrictions tab of the quizzing tool:

  • The start/end date for availability means the link to the exam will be available during that window of time.
  • Once a student clicks on the link, they have the allotted time (in the Timing Sections) to do the exam (e.g., 90 minutes).
  • You may want to add a buffer of additional time to allow for the time it might take for the exam to load and the student to begin the exam.
  • Enforced Time Limit

    • Must be selected to enforce a time limit for the exam (e.g., 90 minutes).
    • If selected, a countdown clock is visible to the student.
    • Enter the time limit in minutes and then add the desired grace period. (e.g. 15 min – the “grace period” is over and above the time limit, so 90 + 15 = 115 min in this example).
    • Under “Exceeded time limit behaviour” select “Prevent the student from making further changes.”

Note: In this unusual situation we face with the move to online exams, many are adding a bit of extra time to alleviate student stress somewhat.

Optional Advanced Restrictions


If the exam is set to be graded immediately upon completion (under Assessment tab) or even if exam grades are published manually before the end of the exam period, grades may be released to students when they shouldn’t be.

If the quiz is connected to the gradebook (under the Assessment tab), the gradebook item should be set to be released AFTER the end of the exam period (that must be done in the gradebook).


Please note that Policy 46 - Information Management states:  “Final examination and final course grades shall not be posted before the final examination period ends.” (That's under Appendix A - Access to and Release of Student Information > Public Release of Student Information).

By default, grades are released in the "Default View" (under Submission Views tab). The Default View should be modified to NOT select "Show attempt score and overall attempt score". You can set up an “Additional View” to release the grade and/or feedback after the final exam period has ended.

Default View

View Details

Recommended for Question Creation

  • "Randomizing the answers" means shuffling the order of the multiple-choice answer options

    • This feature helps to prevent the correct answer for everyone's question 5 being c) for example. 
    • Use this option as much as you can...BUT do NOT check that box if the response options have "positional" wording: "all of the above, none of the above, a and c are correct, etc."
    • You need to choose this feature when adding/editing each individual question. It is NOT possible to set questions to “Randomize the answers” for all or multiple questions after the fact.
  • Question Bank. Create large banks of questions for online exams and have each student get a random sample of these questions (e.g., 50 questions from a bank of 75 questions).
  • Use the arithmetic question type to create calculation-based questions that have different parameters and numbers in the questions and in the answers.
  • Keep the timeframe for having access to the test reasonable, but short.
  • Keep the amount of time for actually interacting with the test as short as is reasonable, (e.g., 1-2 minutes for each multiple-choice question), but remember to consider the increased cognitive and psychological load of our students in extraordinary circumstances  

Other Considerations:

How long should students have to complete online tests?

1-2 minutes per question is a recommended minimum, depending on how long/complex the questions are (e.g., if students are retrieving knowledge about multiple concepts or are asked to think critically or analytically, add time for that). One rule of thumb is to time yourself reading the longest question twice, including all the answer options, and then double or triple the time.  Also, keep in mind that you have “expert thinking” in the subject matter, while your students have “novice thinking” or “developing thinking” in the subject matter, so perhaps a bit of an extra time cushion is warranted, particularly in stressful conditions.

Concerns about academic integrity

Usually, the motivation to create tight time restrictions is a concern about academic integrity. However, there are other ways of addressing this concern:

  1. Write questions that are not so easily Googled (e.g., not fact questions, but questions that are applied to a scenario or integrate multiple concepts, as these are more difficult to simply look up on the spot).
  2. Keep online tests low-stakes (worth lower marks). Is there a way you can alter the grading scheme to provide a less stressful online final exam experience and at the same time keep the rigor and integrity of your course assessment?
  3. Include an honour statement (see the Teaching Tip Sheet entitled Making the Transition to Take-Home Exams for an honour statement template.)

Remember that the shorter the time window, the more anxiety students may have, and the more anxiety they have, the more requests for accommodations/modifications instructors will likely receive.

If your students are unable to write the online exam for any reason, you will be advised to follow regular exam regulations (see


Desire2Learn Quiz Resources 

teaching tipsThis Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Making the Transition to Online Exams. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.