Adapting your exam for the online teaching environment

Adapting an exam quickly for a remote teaching environment can be a challenge: aiming to instill academic integrity and maintaining sufficient rigor, while having to account for technology.

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Promoting Academic Integrity in Online Exams

Creating, Administering and Grading an Exam in Canvas

Using Canvas to Collect Student Work 

As you think about your exam, consider three key issues: the time frame in which you give the exam, the technical challenges your students may face and finally how to set expectations, particularly around academic integrity.

Time Frame

There are three ways to approach the timing of your exam:

  • Timed, asynchronous exams. For timed exams -- one that students must complete within a set amount of time, such as two hours, after starting it -- it is advisable to give students some flexibility about when to take it to allow students in different time zones, with technological or other constraints at home to still do well. This guide provides more information on the settings to use for a Canvas Quiz.
  • Untimed, asynchronous, take-home style exams. In these tests, students have a longer amount of time to complete the exam. Exams like these ask students open-ended questions. 
  • If you absolutely must give a synchronous, scheduled exam -- one in which all students take the exam at the same time -- the university’s policy on final exams requires that you offer the exam at the time set by the Registrar on the final exam schedule. Note that in this case, you will still need to offer an alternate time option for students in different time zones.


Managing Technical Challenges

In structuring your exam, think about technical hurdles students might encounter and how you will handle them. If you are asking students to do a timed exam, you will need to consider:

  • Does the amount of time you’re giving students build in some time for any minor technical challenges that they may encounter? Particularly if you are asking students to upload documents internet speed can alter upload speeds.
  • Will you allow an extra attempt or extra time if major technical problems arise?  
  • Do you know what technologies students have access to?  Do not assume students have access to things like fast internet or printers.
  • Are students aware of the browsers and versions to use with Canvas?
  • Will you allow students with limited internet or technology access to take the exam in a different way?  For example, you could send students with limited internet access a Word or PDF version of the exam.


Communicating Expectations and Academic Integrity

  • Once you decide on a final exam strategy, communicate frequently and in different ways with students, so that they know what to expect.
  • Let them know the time allotted, when the exam opens and closes, the number of allowed attempts,
  • Tell students when you and your TAs will be available and how you want students to communicate about issues and questions they have during the exam. Be specific about any screenshots or details you would like them to include and who they should contact. (And talk with your TAs about when they should be available and what to expect.)
  • Explain your expectations about academic integrity and what materials and people they are and are not allowed to consult during the exam. Reminding students of the Code of Academic Integrity has been found to reduce integrity violations.  For more information about academic integrity in the online space, use this guide. For open book exams, you can use these statements about setting expectations for to begin thinking about how to help your students know what to do.
  • To ask to see student work, you can add an assignment that will allow students to take a picture of their work using their webcam (when setting up the assignment, set submissions to "file upload" and Canvas will give students the option to take a picture with their webcam.)


Exam Options

Option 1: Give every student a different version of the exam

Canvas allows you to give each student a different version of the exam using Question Groups (or Question Banks in New Quizzes). Choose question types that can be automatically graded, which include multiple choice, numerical answer, and a few others. You can also create more variation in your exam by using formula questions (in Classic Quizzes or New Quizzes), which will insert random quantities for variables within ranges that you specify. 

One benefit of this strategy is that if students have any technical trouble during the exam, you could allow students to take a second attempt, and it will not be the same exam.


In making question groups, you will want all the questions in the group to be of the same difficulty, as they all will be worth the same point value. You will also likely want them grouped by topic or skill. For example, in a Physics class, you could group all the questions on Faraday’s Law, then group all the questions on circuit manipulations, etc.  Alternatively, in a research methods class, you could group all the questions asking students to identify different study types, then group all questions asking students to use a particular statistical test, etc. 

Review Creating, Administering, and Grading a Timed Exam in Canvas for more detailed, step-by-step instructions for setting up a Canvas Quiz.

Option 2: Ask more open-ended questions

More open-ended questions are harder to Google and require students to put answers in their own words, making it more difficult to share answers with each other. To prepare students to succeed on these exams explain the types of questions you will be using  and your expectations for the answers.

You can also combine asking everyone some of the same open-ended questions with the option of randomizing some of the more basic questions (as described in Option #1). 


Consider adding a separate Canvas Assignment where students can submit that work, using a scanning app such Office Lens or Adobe Scan or using the webcam.  Set a certain time window after completing their exam to reduce the time pressure of uploading images.

See Creating, Administering, and Grading a Timed Exam in Canvas for more detailed, step-by-step instructions.

Creating open-ended questions takes some thought.  In general ask students for explanations, whether they are explaining phenomena or explaining problem-solving strategies, can make a question more open-ended.  

Option #3: Convert to an untimed, take-home-style exam

Take-home exams can reduce the time pressure that comes with timed exams but can also make it easier for students to share or look up answers.  Setting student expectations and creating questions that are challenging enough to frustrate academic dishonestly but not so challenging that students get frustrated can be difficult.

Yiou should set expectations. Before the exam, be sure to  clarify: 

  • How long you expect responses to be 
  • What resources they can or should use (here is a page with some samples)
  • Your expectations for student collaborations
  • How you plan to evaluate their work


Use Canvas Assignments to collect student work. In setting up the assignment, decide how you want students to submit the work. Use the file upload mode of submission for longer work (textbox submission does not autosave and can lead to students losing work).  Many instructors use a Word document to create their exams and then either ask students to:

  • Answer questions on their own piece of paper, scan the answers, and upload the file.  Asking students to use a scanning app (such Office Lens or Adobe Scan) or to take an image of their answers and convert the file to a PDF will likely work best.
  • Download the exam document and add answers directly to it.  This has the downside that it can be hard for students to write equations or draw graphs in a Word document.

In setting up the Canvas Assignment, you can choose to use Turnitin, which is a tool that can help you to detect if a student’s answer has been lifted from an internet source or another student’s answer.

Review Creating and Grading an Untimed Take-Home Exam for detailed step-by-step instructions.

Making Questions More Open Ended

Question types

  • Annotate a quantitative solution
  • Identify and explain a mistake in a solution
  • Explain why an answer choice is the best option for a problem or scenario and/or why other answers are not. 
  • Describe how to approach a problem, identifying the relevant equations
  • Ask the qualitative consequence of a manipulation without numbers (e.g., will this process go faster, slower, or stay the same rate instead of asking for what rate of the process will be) with an explanation
  • Compare two approaches to solving a problem or testing a hypothesis
  • Apply what they have learned to a scenario
  • Explain the relationship between two ideas or phenomena
  • Synthesize materials from different lectures
  • Compare and contrast ideas, events, theories or phenomena
  • Analyze or draw conclusions from complex information, data sets, or a primary source
  • Come up with a research question and explain how they would answer it
  • Identify applications of course concepts and explain why they chose them
  • Write exam questions that show their understanding of the material
  • Compare and contrast two readings, theories, or images 
  • Represent or organize course material in a new way, such as by making a model, mapping information, making a timeline, or creating a concept map

We have collated Examples of Different Question Types to help with this process.

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