With nearly two weeks under your belt, hopefully any initial fears, frustrations, or feelings of futility have been replaced by growing confidence and comfort with remote teaching. It reminds me of how it feels when I go out for a long run. The first mile is the worst. But, once I get comfortable with my stride and breathing, I feel like I can cruise along for miles. Everything seems great on the flat, straight stretches. Then, I turn a corner, a big hill looms in front of me, and I’m huffing and puffing and fighting the urge to turn for home. Right now a mid-term exam might be looming in front of you and represent that hill you’ve got to climb on this remote teaching run.

Hopefully, this post can help propel you up that hill. In it, we’ll consider the value of frequent, low-stakes approaches for exams, which also apply to papers; suggestions for writing exam questions that are less amenable to cheating and more reflective of higher-level learning; and logistical considerations for distributing and submitting exams. You may be wondering about options for proctoring remote exams. In the spirit of sticking with existing technologies with which you and your students are comfortable, and because the philosophical and logistical questions are worthy of a separate post, they won’t be addressed here. Additionally, while I would encourage you to consider whether alternatives to traditional summative exams might be warranted, we’ll save those options for another post.

Small, Frequent, Low-Stakes Options

In some courses, students have an opportunity to demonstrate their learning only twice in the semester, on a mid-term and a final exam, or on two big 20-page papers. Even under normal circumstances, high-stakes, high-stress exams or papers can create conditions that cultivate dishonest behavior. Are few, high-stakes assessments the only option you have to document and evaluate student learning of your course outcomes? In both face-to-face settings, and these remote teaching conditions, frequent, low-stakes, and mastery-based assessment options are alternatives that make assessment a learning experience for students; a meaningful evaluation metric for faculty; and reduce the pressures that stimulate cheating. Warning: students may perceive these assignments as “busywork”. Make sure you are explicit and transparent about why you are giving these assignments and that you value this work in your grading scheme.

Consider spreading out your remaining exams or papers into shorter, focused assignments or assessments. Convert 1 big mid-term exam into multiple mini-exams; 1 big paper into weekly or bi-weekly papers. This will spread out the points, reduce the pressure students feel, and provide more timely and topic-specific feedback for everyone about their progress learning the content and adapting to the new course format. Under these conditions, you can also effectively leverage the “testing effect” — when repeated testing promotes long-lasting learning — by consistently including recurring or similar questions about important course content.

Help students prepare for mini-exams or bi-weekly papers with low-stakes quizzes or journal entries that provide feedback and practice opportunities. For quizzes, pull the questions from a larger test bank and create variants by changing discrete elements such as the sign, tense, or unknown variable. Apply a reasonable time limit which discourages simply looking up answers, forces familiarity with the content, but allows for unforeseen disruptions. Set the quiz parameters to give immediate feedback on the overall score and which questions have been answered correctly and incorrectly. Allow at least two or more attempts to repeat the quiz and record the highest grade earned. These conditions promote practice, direct students toward fixing mistakes, and can lower their anxiety about grades.

Writing Questions for Remote Exams

Design the exam with the approach that it is essentially open-resource since you can’t be sure it is not. With this mindset, focus on questions that require explaining why an answer is correct rather than just picking the correct answer. You can make the questions involve calculations, conjugations, or memorization, but make the answer require doing something higher-level with that product or fact. The following paragraphs offer some ideas for writing questions for remote exams.

Write questions with a two-part answer. The answer to Part 1 could be the result of a calculation, translation, the memorized fact, anything that demonstrates the lower-level learning. This could be done in a multiple-choice or fill in the blank format to increase grading efficiency. Require students to submit evidence to show their work solving the problem. Then Part 2 could require higher-level thinking or deeper understanding of the answer from Part 1, using a short-answer format for example. Credit for correct answers to Part 1 and Part 2 could be weighted equally; Part 2 could be worth more than Part 1; or credit could be earned only if both Parts were answered correctly.

Ask questions that require more than a “plug-and-chug” level of understanding. Create a visualization, an equation, lines of code, output from an experiment, raw data table, or a scenario that is incomplete. Ask students to explain what is shown or what is missing; interpret and apply critical analysis; predict what happens when something is added or changed. Ask students to identify errors — in a translation or conjugation; in a proof, a calculation, lines of code, or a signaling pathway; in a process to be followed, or a line of reasoning.

Ask questions that probe conceptual understanding. Give a scenario, set of conditions or parameters and ask students to set up the problem. Give the students a problem and ask them to explain the steps in words rather than just give the answer. Give a problem and a partial solution, then ask, “what is the next step?”, or “why is this step necessary?”. Or, give the students the answer, a couple conditions, and ask them to create the original problem.

Logistical Considerations

Once your exam is written, how are students going to take it? Will it be synchronous or asynchronous? Within or outside the LMS? Will there be time limits? Will it involve paper and pencil or only digital formats? Since each situation is different, there is not a universal “right answer” to these questions. However, in all situations, aim to err on the side of flexibility and inclusivity for all your students.

For all exams, remind students of the honor code. Their acknowledgement of it, as well as the consequences for violations, could be the first “question” on your exam. Give students a chance to practice using the tools that will be part of the assessment and to submit answers to the types of questions you plan to ask before doing it on an exam. If you use time limits, err on the side of giving students more time, both because of the new mechanics of doing it online AND because there could be unexpected network outages or disruptions. If you decide to do the exam during a synchronous block of time, make yourself available for students to ask questions of you and for you to communicate clarifications and corrections with them, just like if they were doing it face to face. You could do this as a Zoom session that would be open during the time you designate for the exam.

There are a number of options for “offline”, pencil and paper-based variants for remote exams. For example, you could release the exam online through the LMS, email, or sharing a link. Students would answer the questions using pencil and paper. Then students could scan their pages into a digital format and submit by a deadline via email or an upload to the LMS or a Google drive. If you choose this format, the scanned work could be submitted as a PDF file. The PDF format is preferable over simply taking photos and submitting jpeg files since those files can be quite large and may exceed limitations. Students could also answer questions by typing into a Microsoft Word or Google doc. In this case, poor handwriting becomes less of an obstacle. Pencil/paper based work could be inserted into the document using a smartphone to capture an image and share it to the device being used to complete the exam. You can provide feedback using the commenting and track changes functions.

There are numerous options for students to use to scan their pages and create PDFs, including free scanning apps for smartphones as well as printer/scanners. Adobe Scan is a free mobile app that students can log into using their email address. Genius Scan has a free version that provides a PDF rendering of pictures taken on the phone or tablet. It will detect the document, apply distortion correction, color, and brightness adjustment to enhance readability, and create multi-page PDFs which can then be shared via email and other modes. You can read more about scan options here. Giving students feedback on exams submitted this way could be done using the Commenting tools, such as sticky notes, highlighting, and text boxes in Adobe Acrobat. As you consider all these electronic options, don’t forget the mail! Whether for distributing exams or other materials, or for students submitting work, the physical mail might be an acceptable solution.


Remote exams can be an effective tool to both promote and evaluate student learning. If you lower the stakes, are flexible with timing, and craft questions that require higher-order thinking and yield answers that can’t easily be copied, then exam time doesn’t have to be a hill in your remote teaching race that breaks your stride or slows you down. You’ve got this!


  1. Karpicke JD and Roediger HL, 2008. The Critical Importance of Retrieval for Learning. Science, Vol. 319: 966 – 968.
  2. Natalie Parker, Director of CETL and Distance Education, Texas Wesleyan University. A Rationale For Replacing High Stakes Exams With Multiple-attempt Low-stakes Quizzes.



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