Adapting your exam for the online teaching environment

Adapting an exam for a remote teaching environment can be a challenge: aiming to instill academic integrity and maintaining sufficient rigor, while creating open-book exams and accommodating students’ diverse environmental and technological situations. Some instructors may decide that replacing their final exam with a project or a paper will best address these challenges. Others may decide that a final exam is still the best way to meet their course goals.

If you plan to use an exam, you might consider these three options, alone or in combination.  

  1. Give every student a different version of the exam
  2. Ask more open-ended questions

    For both these options, you can ask students to submit scanned copies of their work or upload other materials using a Canvas Quiz, Assignment or by email. Review step-by-step instructions for how to use Canvas to collect student work.
  3. Convert to an untimed, take-home-style exam

Regardless of what format you use, consider the time frame, how you will manage technical challenges, and what you will communicate to students.

Time Frame

Whenever possible the University recommends giving students asynchronous exams -- tests that do not have to be taken at the same time by all students. Asynchronous exams must be completed by the end of the exam period, December 22. 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 at least a 36-hour window in which to take the test. This flexibility will help students in different time zones, with technological or other constraints at home.
  • Untimed, asynchronous, take-home style exams. In these tests, students have a longer amount of time, usually several days to a week, to complete the exam. These tend to be more open-ended assignments.
  • 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?
  • 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.

Giving students a practice exam or a lower-stakes quiz in the same format as your final exam in advance will help find any technical issues before final exam time, and may ease their concerns about this format.

Communicating Expectations

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, and how you want them 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. Also communicate with TAs about when you expect them to be available.

Although all remote exams should be treated as open-book, also let them know the materials and people they are and are not allowed to consult during the test. Reminding students of the Code of Academic Integrity has been found to reduce integrity violations.

Below is a detailed description of the three final exam options mentioned above, including a discussion of the relevant Canvas tools, and guidance on the types of questions that might be most effective for that particular option.

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

To minimize students sharing answers, Canvas allows you to give each student a different version of the exam. If you use this option, you may want to only choose question types that can be automatically graded, which include multiple choice, numerical answer, and a few others. 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.

This strategy alone does not prevent students from searching online for solutions, but this could be mitigated if you ask students to upload it in a separate document once they have completed the exam (as described in how to use Canvas to collect student work). This would also give you the ability to award partial credit. 


Question groups in Canvas Quizzes can be used to generate different versions of the exam.  When you create a question group, Canvas can randomly select a certain number of questions within that group. For example, you can create a question group with five questions in it and ask it to pick any two within the group for each student.  You can use as many or as few question groups as you want.  

You can also create more variation in your exam by using formula questions, which will insert random quantities for variables within ranges that you specify. 

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.

Making Questions For This Format

This strategy requires writing a large number of automatically graded questions, such as multiple choice, matching, or numerical answer. If you have a large bank of questions from old exams, you may want to use those. 

If you have to generate these questions, think about ways to write a good multiple choice question, then consider ways to make small variations on the same question. For example, if you’re asking for students to find a maximum, could you also ask them to find a minimum?  If you’re asking for the effects of a manipulation, is there another similar manipulation to the same system that you could also ask about?

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

Option 2: Ask more open-ended questions

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

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). 


Use Canvas Quizzes if you would like to keep the exam timed. Quizzes have countdown timers that can help students manage their time when taking a timed exam. Leaving "let students see their quiz responses" unchecked in the set up options will be particularly important for this type of exam to prevent answer sharing. It’s worth noting that you can allow students to see their answers again by reversing this setting once all students have submitted their exams.

Limit the use of questions that would require students to upload images or documents in a timed environment, since differential upload times can create an additional time burden for some students.

If asking questions that are easier to answer using paper and pencil, you may want to consider adding a separate Canvas Assignment where they can submit that work, using a scanning app such Office Lens or Adobe Scan (as described in how to use Canvas to collect student work), within 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 on creating a timed exam.

Making Questions For This Format

Converting questions with a single answer to more open-ended questions can be challenging. In general, asking students for explanations, whether they are explaining phenomena or explaining problem-solving strategies, can make a question more open-ended.  

Instead of solving a problem, students could be asked to: 

  • 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 they would 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

Instead of testing factual or conceptual information, students can be asked to: 

  • Apply what they have learned to a scenario
  • Explain the relationship between two ideas or phenomena
  • Analyze an unfamiliar text, object, or set of data
  • Synthesize materials from different lectures
  • Compare and contrast ideas, events, theories or phenomena

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

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

Take-home exams, in which students are typically given several days to a week to work on answers, can reduce the time pressure that comes with timed exams, including the pressures that technical challenges cause.  However, this exam format makes it easier for students to share or look up answers, so the questions must be sufficiently challenging and unique in student responses that copying would be easy to detect. Grading take-home exams is time-intensive. However, creating these types of assessments can be less time-consuming than many of the timed exam formats mentioned above. Because these exams assume that students will have access to a range of materials they can often be very rigorous and allow students to explore ideas.

If this is a very different format than your other exams, you will want to be sure to spend time setting expectations. Before the exam, be sure to  clarify: 

  • How long you expect responses to be 
  • What resources they can or should use
  • 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) to take an image of their answers and convert the file to a PDFwill 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 For This Format

Instructors should write questions which ask students to create unique answers and that make it hard for students to easily find good responses in the book or on the internet. Providing students with the opportunity to select which prompts they address from a list of options or assigning students different prompts will create variability between students that may make it more difficult to share answers as well.  Questions that ask students to pull together multiple key course ideas or to make decisions that are complex and multi-step tend to work well. For example, students can be asked to:

  • 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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