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What is it really like to take an online exam?

A new development as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic is online exams. Student Anna Rees talks through how she did hers and why she thinks they may be better than the traditional exam hall model

    Anna Rees's avatar

    Anna Rees

    June 10 2020
    Multiple choice exam


    The Covid-19 pandemic has altered everyone’s lives significantly and students certainly weren’t exempt. We were unable to return to university and sit our examinations as normal and so many universities resorted to online exams.

    In our current global situation, exams might not seem a priority. But, for students, exam stress combined with pandemic stress makes for a pretty hectic time. Here’s my experience with online exams and how they actually ended up alleviating my stress levels.

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    What were my online exams? 

    I had three online exams in total. Two were essay-based, where the titles were released on a certain date and we were given two weeks to write the essays.

    We were expected to reference as we would for an essay, just on a smaller scale. Our word counts were also reduced to 750 from the usual 2,000 because of the shortened time frame.

    My third exam was a multiple-choice exam. I had 37 questions and 1.5 hours to complete them. All three of these exams were open book, but we were still expected to complete them alone, as in a normal exam.


    How do you study for an online exam? 

    This was something I found quite difficult. I’m going to be sitting at home, surrounded by the entirety of my notes for the year. Do I revise or do I just scramble through my notes to find what I’m looking for when I need it? Luckily, I chose the former. It seemed a good idea to have my notes organised and summarised so that I could access them easily in the exam.

    Although I didn’t revise as thoroughly as I would for a normal exam, I made sure to rewrite my notes for the semester, summarising as I went so that I could condense my notes. I then put all my notes on to a Word document, and added a contents page at the top so that I could find what I was looking for easily.

    The search bar tool came in handy too. It’s not easy to find a single case study among 100 pages of notes. So, I’d search for the word I needed, and found it quickly.

    For me, the key was to be prepared. Make sure your notes are organised so that you can find what you need quickly in the exam. Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s online, this does not change the fact that it is an exam.

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    How did I take the exams? 

    Perhaps the strangest part of all was sitting down at my desk to take a university exam, in my pyjamas with a cup of tea. If you had asked me my perfect exam conditions (if those even exist), that is how I would have described them. I really benefited from the new circumstances and I was definitely less stressed. There was no big, hot exam hall, intimidating invigilators or hundreds of students alongside you. 

    When the essay exams were released, I sat at my computer for the next few hours and did the first exam. It seemed silly to use the entire two-week period when I could dedicate my full attention over a couple of days and get it done. Every so often, I’d go downstairs for a drink or a break, which for me was key.

    Don’t expect yourself to do it all in a day, Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? I’ve never been so stress-free in an exam in my life. I can only hope that my exam quality benefited from this too.

    In terms of anti-cheating measures, for my multiple-choice exam, they created a bank of questions, so each person had a different test with different questions. This was the only anti-cheating measure that I was aware of, but this might have been different across other exam formats or subjects. We were told that we were trusted not to cheat, but no distinct measures were put into place except for this. 


    Online exams or in-hall exams? 

    The online exam experience was beneficial for me. I found myself thinking less about having time to get everything down and remembering things, but instead enjoying studying. I felt I had time to read into topics and really study them, rather than memorising things for an exam.

    I deem exams to be a major flaw in the education system as they are. I usually find myself cramming so much information in that I don’t learn anything.

    My entire schooling, I’ve had to revise a heap of materials to regurgitate them in an exam. And for what benefit? Shouldn’t we be assessed on our ability to use and transform information rather than simply memorising it?

    This has led me to praise the online examination system. It was less stressful, less complicated and assessed capabilities beyond memorisation. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that I enjoyed taking these exams, but they were about as good as an exam could get. 

    Online exams for essay subjects, I can say, work rather well. The scope for cheating is limited anyway, because who can copy an entire essay? There’s also that thing called plagiarism to worry about. Why do students need to sit in an exam hall, costing the university time, staff and money, when they could be sitting it in the comfort of their own homes?

    I cannot comment on the effectiveness of online exams for other exam formats, such as maths, where cheating would perhaps be easier. Or for physics, where you are often expected to handwrite equations. However, for essay-based subjects, I fully support the online system for exams. I deem it to be effective, stress-reducing and technologically forward. 


    My advice for taking an online exam 

    Do not panic, but revise and organise. 

    Take time to prepare your notes in the best way for you. Don’t think you can get away with not revising, because you’ll probably just end up making things stressful for yourself during the exam, which no one needs. Find comfort in knowing that you have power over the exam, perhaps more so than you ever have. Stay in your pyjamas or dress up for the occasion. Have a cup of tea or hot water bottle by your side if you need it. Don’t feel like you need to copy the conditions of a normal exam to a tee. This is your exam, be as comfortable as possible so you can do your best.

    Other people might try to cheat or work together, but the important thing is to focus on your own work and have trust in your revision. You can do an exam alone in a hall, so you can do it alone at home.

    Read more: How to deal with exam stress


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