Student sitting at a desk in front of a laptop

Preparing for Online Exams

December 1, 2020
Author: Tine Reimers and Sharon Kelly

Tips to perform your best on end-of-term tests

Read on to explore the various kinds of tests you may encounter this year and how you can prepare for them, as well as some general tips to help you get prepared for a successful exam season.

Types of online tests

Here are some different types of tests your instructors may have decided to use this semester to evaluate your learning, and some prep strategies.


Multiple-choice exams

Your instructor may decide to run tests online as they would in a class setting, aware that collaboration (peers talking to peers and sharing their best answers for peer review) will occur. They realize that this type of collaboration is a very good learning strategy and that some students will learn as they take the test and benefit from their own and everyone else’s preparation.

Student prep strategy:

Make friends with a few people in the class, study together and make plans to take the test together to pool your efforts. The instructor will likely assume that you will have your books open, so there may be a time limit on the test. This means you can’t possibly look up all the answers during the test, so prepare by memorizing relevant vocabulary and facts, and know your resources well so you can look information up quickly if you don’t remember what you studied. You can use a program like Microsoft OneNote to create tags for key terms to find information in your notes quickly. Finally, follow the exam preparation tips outlined on this Learning Matters webpage


Multiple-choice exam with several versions

Your instructor may decide to run tests online as they would normally, but they create a “bank” of questions using VIULearn, which requires additional work on their part. This means students each get a different sub-set of questions to answer, so collaboration is minimized. It is still possible for students to discuss and answer each question in the same room or virtually, but that would mean they answer all the questions for two tests instead of just the one they are assigned and consequently have done twice the work.

Student prep strategy:

Pick at least one study buddy and make a commitment to help each other prepare for exams. When you are studying together and teaching another person what you are learning, you can learn more and your depth of learning increases. Not only that, when you team up with someone else to study, opportunities to socialize rise and loneliness in virtual learning can drop if you cultivate at least one friendship in each class. Here are some more tips from Trent University on studying for online, open-book exams.


Short-answer tests

Instructors can set exams where answers cannot possibly be looked up online by creating problem-solving or critical thinking short-answer tests. To ensure students are practising critical thinking, short-answer questions usually contain realistic circumstances or situations that ask the student to apply learning rather than testing facts and definitions.

Student prep strategy: 

Start by learning the terminology, facts and concepts so you are better able to apply them to cases and short answers. If the instructor uses short-answer testing, they probably also taught the course using cases that encouraged you to practice applying concepts, so make sure you work through all examples and cases the instructor assigns for homework. Also, actively participate in exercises, examples and cases given in class even if it is not for marks, as they are designed to help you be successful on the test. If you don’t understand how to apply the knowledge you are learning, consider creating a study group or study with a partner so you can help each other. Here are some tips from Education Corner that will help you prepare for short answer tests.


General exam prep tips

No matter which type of test you are writing, these strategies will help you get ready to rock your take-home tests.


Time management

Set up a schedule with your own personal deadline for each of your exams so you don’t have to submit all of your exams on the same date. Make your own due dates for each of your exams so that you block time on your calendar, then do your best to stay true to these deadlines. Taking control of your schedule, within the bounds of what your instructors expect, will help relieve your stress. Try creating positive pressure by committing to a deadline for each test with a friend in the class and hold each other accountable for staying on task. When studying or working through an hour block on an exam, go distraction free and turn off notifications from your phone and computer or just remove them from your device completely. For more tips, check out the Manage Time and Concentration page on the Learning Matters website.



When it comes to crunch time, we may decide we need less of the kinds of activities that build our energy, alertness and positive mood such as sleep, rest, nutrition and social connections and activities that give us bursts of joy and belonging. If you think of yourself as not just a human doer that has lots to accomplish, but also a human being that actually has a higher performance potential if you are rested, well-fed, socially connected and happy, you may have a higher motivation to maintain self-care all through the exam period so that you bring your best self to each day you sit down to complete your take-home exam.


Study strategies

Start by familiarizing yourself with the learning outcomes for your course – found in your course syllabus. After setting learning outcomes, instructors design quizzes and tests to assess against those outcomes. Read more about this on the Study Skills and Techniques page of the Learning Matters website.

Many students forget that their instructor is a key learning resource. If you are at all confused, your instructor is there to assist you in learning, so please do not be shy – email them, Zoom them or attend virtual office hours and ask when you do not understand. Check this link out on Learning matters regarding connecting with instructors

Joining study groups or getting a study buddy is an ideal way to help keep you on track. You can quiz each other or teach each other concepts. Take advantage of Peer-Supported Learning (PSL) if it is available in your program. PSL is free, regularly supported study sessions with a trained peer.


Managing anxiety

Finally, learn to manage your anxiety and practice being calm. Silence your mind on a daily basis and learn to breathe mindfully. This will help you practice shifting into a state of calm. When you can learn to silence and take command of your mind to focus on the task at hand, you are able to stay in the present and in a state of calm focus. Find resources and links in the episode notes on the Successful U podcast’s third episode – handling stress.

Great test-taking strategies start with good preparation strategies. That includes checking in with your instructors about expectations regarding content and style of test as well as collaboration on tests and assignments. Time management, stress management and applying a variety of study strategies all work to contribute to a positive experience of getting ready for and then doing one’s best in taking an exam. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you want support – there is a wide variety of resources and supports available to you.

Sharon Kelly is VIU’s Success Coach. Tine Reimers is a Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Specialist with the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning.

Check out this cool infographic created by the Custom-writing team for some more tips! 

info graphic on being a successful online student

Related Posts

Got an article idea for the blog? Email

Sign up for our blog