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Five Ways Colleges are Moving Final Exams Online

William Leach

By Dr. William Leach, Associate Professor (Teaching)

It’s Finals Week, campus has been closed since mid-March, but your professors are determined to finish the semester, ready or not. With social distancing mandated nationwide, taking your final exams the normal way – showing up in class, Blue Book in hand is not an option. So, what will finals look like in 2020?

The classic Final Exam – a two-hour affair occurring at an officially designated time and location – is a closed-book test. Its greatest strength for learning assessment is measuring each student’s ability to recall information from short-term memory. This type of learning is the most basic type in Bloom’s hierarchical taxonomy of learning objectives. Memorizing is a basic form of learning both because it is rudimentary, and also because memory is foundational for higher types of learning such applying, analyzing, or evaluating.

The closed-book and timed administration of the conventional exam minimizes opportunities for students to refer to unauthorized resources besides their own memories, such as notes, classmates, or the World Wide Web. Although high-stakes closed-book exams have their limitations for assessing learning, they do play an important time-honored role in helping the university measure and certify learning outcomes.

However, when Finals Week falls in the middle of a global pandemic, the standard, proctored, closed-book exam is not feasible, and universities must turn to alternative examination practices.

Here are five go-to strategies that colleges are using to move their final exams online. Each option not only tests what students learned this semester, but might also test the patience, creativity, and resilience of students and instructors alike:

1. The Honor System

This is the classic proctored exam minus the proctor. Students are trusted to complete the exam at home, alone, without assistance, while putting “pencils down” at the designated clock time. This approach could work well in degree programs with especially high ethical standards and an established culture of academic integrity. Would it work at your college?

2. Online Proctoring Services   

At the opposite end of the trust spectrum are commercial services that universities purchase to monitor students while they take an exam online from home. These services typically involve installing software on the student’s computer to “lock down” a web browser so that it can only access authorized sites. The software may also monitor internet traffic, keystrokes, or mouse activity and then generate a report for each student flagging any suspicious behavior. Most also employ a webcam paired with either artificial intelligence or a live human proctor to verify each student’s identity and to detect evidence of cheating through eye movements that stray from the main computer screen, or the presence of other humans in the room.

Despite the typically high cost per student, many universities find these services attractive. Students, by contrast, may resent being electronically surveilled at home.

The efficacy of these monitoring services varies. Determined cheaters could possibly defeat the safeguards by using multiple devices and internet connections.

3. Online Question-Bank Exams

Another computer-assisted approach without the Big Brother overtones is a self-administered online exam using a large bank of comparable questions, random question selection, random question order, and random parameter generation for questions of a mathematical nature. Because no two students receive the same exam, it’s harder for students to “collaborate” online. Moreover, if the exam is timed and the number of questions is large enough to challenge the most advanced students, average students will run out of time if they try to look up answers in their notes or the Internet.

Building these exams online requires instructors to make large upfront investments. However, because the computer automatically scores closed-ended questions, they can save time on grading. To save additional time, prepackaged exams for popular courses can be purchased from major textbook companies.

4. Open-Book Take-Home Projects or Papers

Recognizing that real life is an open book test, and closed book exams are difficult to implement online, many instructors prefer to assign take-home projects or papers. The complexity, uniqueness, and effort involved to complete these assignments helps deter students from farming out the work to roommates or paper mills. Online services such as Turnitin can detect and deter plagiarism.

A main advantage of projects and papers is they typically are better at assessing higher-order types of leaning, such as evaluating and creating, especially when designed as “active learning” projects in which students apply what they have learned to solve problems that mimic real-world scenarios. Ideally, these assignments include a detailed grading rubric so that professors and student are on the same page regarding expectations for A-level work.

A downside is that grading papers and projects is labor intensive, making them less feasible for large sections. On the other hand, projects lend themselves to group assignments, which can mitigate the grading burden while creating opportunities for students to practice the soft skills of collaboration.

5. Skill Performance Video Exams

For hands-on disciplines, students traditionally need to demonstrate mastery of practical skills. In USC’s School of Pharmacy, while the campus is closed, some courses are using Zoom for live video assessments. “We have each student talk through their clinical reasoning while demonstrating the skill and how they would perform it,” says Edith Mirzaian, Associate Professor of Clinical Pharmacy, and Assistant Dean of Curriculum. Dr. Mirzaian adds that “some skills absolutely have to be assessed in person, so we will schedule those to be completed in the Fall” when classes can resume safely on campus.


With college campuses closed nationwide, instructors are getting a crash course in online pedagogy, including the pros and cons of various options for conducting learning assessments online. If there’s a silver lining to this unplanned professional development, it is that instructors everywhere are gaining first-hand appreciation for what online education can and cannot achieve. After the virus recedes, and college life returns to normal, instructors will likely use some of this experience to enhance how they teach and how they evaluate student learning in their face-to-face courses.