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Tips to help students perform their best in online exams

Creating exams specifically for the internet and focusing on students' mental health help this university's success with online exams.

5 min read


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The University of New England in Australia has been successfully delivering supervised online exams since 2017 to a predominantly online, mature-age student cohort. UNE was one of the first Australian universities to use online supervised exams at scale, which meant that when the pandemic hit in 2020, we had the infrastructure and practices we needed for fully online assessment already in place. We’ve continued to refine our model over time as a core part of our assessment strategy and share some of our insights here for universities that may be at different stages of their journey with online examinations.

The online exams process in action

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Here’s how our program works. Online exams are managed through our integrated department that has carriage of a range of assessment workstreams, and overall we administer between 30,000 and 40,000 exam sittings per year. We partner with an external company that provides human proctoring services — verifying the student’s identity, managing the student’s environment and supervising the student during the exam. UNE sets the protocols for this service, and professors have control over the conditions they set for their exams. The exams themselves are delivered through our learning management system using tools like the quiz activity.

Our strategy is based on a deep knowledge of our learners — we continually evaluate and refine our approach, and our data consistently show high rates of student satisfaction, with experience indicators that track well ahead of the sector average. Rather than recreate paper-based exams on the internet, we focus on using the affordances of the online environment to create a flexible, accessible and comfortable assessment context. We also emphasize staying calm and seeking help, because exams don’t have to be stressful. Here are some of the key components of our strategy that help create an effective student experience.

Be flexible

Removing the dependence that paper exams have on time and space means we can give students the flexibility and choice they need. Our students can choose where they take their exam and when. 

We use availability windows as standard practice, allowing students to choose the time within the window that works for them. Some people have work or family care responsibilities, or simply work better later in the day, and taking an exam at night suits them very well. For others, early morning or the middle of the day works better. 

Choosing a time that works for them and a comfortable, familiar location empowers students to balance study and life much more effectively.

Keep calm and reach out

Language and messaging are important. When we talk about exams being stressful, it reinforces a negative experience. Inflexibility and punitive messaging can also contribute to cheating. Instead, our approach reinforces that staying calm and seeking help can make exams a much more positive experience and reduce some of the anxieties that can contribute to a decision to cheat.

Using human proctoring is a key part of our strategy, and we emphasize a positive relationship between student and proctor. The proctors are not there to police students but to provide clear expectations for the exam context and actively support students to manage any issues that might arise in real time. Proctors take a calm and encouraging approach and can provide instant and tailored support in a way that artificial intelligence tools, or even proctors in physical exam halls, can’t. 

Support and scaffold

We have something called a Try-It-Out Exam, which is a trial run exam that we ask all students to do before sitting an exam. Students book a practice session with a proctor and work through a light-hearted fake exam. This allows students to learn what to expect, identify and resolve any technical issues they might have and become familiar with the process and tools in a low-stress environment. 

We also have a range of support services and options available for when things go wrong. 

Our team provides phone and email support to students and staff, and our proctoring partner provides 24/7 support to students. Technical and environmental issues are a part of life, but we can resolve almost all of them in real time so students can still complete their exam. Flexible scheduling means that if anything happens that can’t be resolved quickly, students can simply attempt the exam at a later time.

Think holistically

Cheating is a complex systemic issue, not simply a moral matter. While our proctoring partner provides environmental controls and identifies any potential incidents to us for investigation, it’s only a small part of the conversation. Systemic issues need systemic solutions – we work with professors and professionals across the institution on assessment design, support provisions, policy and education. Focusing on the big picture is important too – academic integrity incidents happen in fewer than 1% of sittings, so prioritizing strategies that benefit the majority of students just makes sense.

Overall, the key for us is understanding that online exams are a whole new way of thinking about assessment. By leading with the desire to design an experience that’s better for everyone, exploring what’s possible and implementing simple but significant strategies, you can set your online examination program — and your students — up for success.

Kylie Day is the manager of exams and e-assessment and Sarah Thorneycroft is the director of digital education at the University of New England in Australia. UNE uses proctoring services provided by ProctorU.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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