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Online Exams

This resource was developed from a COVID-19 Online Discussion Forum for Equity Practitioners held on 22nd April 2020.

Our approach

Our sector has substantial collective expertise in determining and applying reasonable and fair adjustments to support students with disability. And while online learning may be a new medium for some, the adjustments are essentially the same, and it’s around negotiating how these will be delivered.

We also need to acknowledge that the student response to current learning online arrangements will be varied, and while some may love it others find it does not suit them at all. Some students may not be able to perform within an online exam arrangement. Additionally, there are some students for whatever reasons are unable to sit exams, and in these cases, we need to advocate strongly to unit coordinators for alternative assessments, that meet the same outcome of the examination.

We need to ensure that students are front and centre of the minds of academics and exam staff when they're making decisions about how to develop, schedule and facilitate the exams.

As online or alternative assessments may be new for many academics this unfamiliarity and uncertainty can create fear and mistrust. We need to assure them that these assessments can be completed, whilst adhering to suitable academic rigour. There are available systems and technology - and while it may be new to them, it has been tried and tested and trusted by many institutions around the world.

It’s important to start discussions with exam teams as soon as possible, and to remind them about the need for papers to be accessible. For example, using word documents rather than PDFs.

It may be advisable to do an audit of Alternative Exam arrangements for all students registered with our respective disability services so we can flag priorities -such as students requiring scribes or alternative software - and to start working on solutions with the exam office.

Online Exam Options

There seems to be a range of different options being offered both by different faculties within institutions and between institutions. These include:

  • Proctored exams where the invigilation (supervision to ensure the exam adheres to university conditions) is administered by a video link. The student uses their camera to show the invigilator that the space has no notes or prompts and can be approved. The student then has to sit the exam while being viewed through the camera.
    • Some Universities do this through a webcam provided free to the student and posted to them.
    • Swinburne University uses the ProctorU platform. This is a robust and sophisticated system that provides detailed analytics. The student is recorded during the entire exam and invigilators get alerted if the student's eye gaze goes off the computer for an extended time.
    • For more information on ProctorU view a video from ProctorU or Swinburne Online, what to expect with online exams
    • Note that some students, such as those with paranoia may find this extremely challenging and they may not be able to sit exams in this way.
  • Exams where students are given an online exam to complete in a defined time period. These may be invigilated, unsupervised or alternative assessment taskThe arrangements for these can include:
    • Set Standard time - students are allocated an exam at a set time and date, similar to the time allocation for the same on campus exam.
    • Flexible Standard time – students are given the standard time for the exam but are given a window of time to complete it in. For example, a 2-hour exam in a 24 hour window of time, and the student can log in and out as many times as they wish as long as they spend no more than 2 hours in total within the 24 hour period.
    • Additional time – all students are given additional time. For example, if an exam would usually take 1 hour, all students are given 2 hours to complete.
    • Extended time – students may be given an untimed exam that needs to be completed in a certain time period, such as 8, 12 or 24 hours.

Note that while some academics may insist that it is an accreditation requirement to have an invigilated (supervised) exam this may not actually be the case, and it can be worth checking the necessity for this premise.

It seems that many universities are opting for non-invigilated exams at this stage.

Considerations for Adjustments

Extra Writing Time

Should a student with disability who normally has access to additional time in exams be granted additional time for exam arrangements where everyone has additional time? For example, if everyone is given 2 hours to complete a one-hour exam should we advocate for students who usually have an additional 20 minutes per hour to be given 2 hours 40 minutes to complete the exam?

In some cases, as long as the additional time frame incorporates the provision of the additional time that the student needs this may be sufficient and there’s no need for extra time. Before we go in to advocate for any further extra time it’s important to consider if there is an actual need and purpose for the extra time. We also need to consider the effect on students’ energy and concentration of having extended exams if extra time is provided in addition to the already extra time given to all.

Research suggests that when all students are given extra time, most still complete the tasks within the original time allocation, except for a small number of students with disability who may require further additional time.

In relation to extended time exams, such as eight hours or twenty-four hours to complete the assessment, we also need to consider the effect on the student of having this additional time assessment as well as exam scheduling issues and appropriate rest breaks between sessions. Otherwise we may be disadvantaging some students by providing additional time in these situations.

However, there can always be a case for extra time. But rather than automatically providing that as a blanket provision it’s important to check in with the student about why they might need extra time and be guided by their needs.

Rest breaks

The invigilation in a proctored exam can and should allow for rest and/or toilet breaks. It’s important that the invigilator knows about the student’s approved and required exam adjustments.

For example, within ProctorU the student can communicate with the invigilator via the system’s chat capacity that they will be leaving the room to for a toilet break. They can also inform the invigilator before the exam of how long for and when they will take rest breaks. Or if the exam invigilation is done by webcam and the invigilator is provided beforehand with all the relevant adjustments in the student’s access plan.

Toilet breaks are a reasonable provision. And just as if someone in an exam centre is permitted to leave the room and go to the toilet without being followed in there, this needs to be permitted for online exams. We need to place some trust in our students.

Using scribes and readers

While Swinburne has not had direct experience administrating proctored exams for students requiring a scribe or reader it is envisaged that assistive technologies such as Dragon or live captioning may be useful in some of these contexts.

Reader/Scribes can also be accessed via Zoom, where the student, their reader/scribe and invigilator are all on the Zoom call. Alternatively, the exam may be done without a scribe, as the record function on zoom means that the student’s oral answers can be sent straight to the unit coordinator. (Please note that a recording is a lot more time intensive and difficult for an academic to mark as per a written paper)

When using a reader/scribe for a proctored exam where it can be done over a 12-hour period we need the student to tell us when they’re going to start the exam so we can have the scribe and invigilator there at the same time. In some situations, the reader / scribe will also be the invigilator.

However, when we have a student requiring a scribe and / or reader in a timed online exam, it may be more reasonable to request that the student be given an alternative assessment.

Split exams

For students who need to complete an exam over two or more days, for example they may only be able to sit for 15 minutes at a time, Proctor U allows for the student to hit the pause button and then resume, until it’s complete. As the Proctor U doesn’t allow students to go forward in the exam it is robust and upholds integrity.

Student resources

Many universities are developing specific resources to help students transition into online assessments and exams. An example is:
Griffith Thrive Online -

PS: Some COVID-19 silver linings

  • We've shown ourselves we're capable of a lot more than we'd previously thought in a very short space of time.
  • It’s a wonderful opportunity for universities to rethink how assessments and exams are delivered.
  • The resistance, roadblocks and barriers to delivering more online education have suddenly been removed.
  • There is more flexibility and understanding for individual student needs, not just students with disability but the whole student cohort.
  • Students are now being supported by the removal of issues where we have been attempting to remove these same barriers over an extended time

Written by: Debbie Hindle