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Test Taking for Online College Students: How Exams Work in the Virtual Classroom

Tests will be a huge part of your education — and when you’re an online student, testing might look and feel different. Find out how tests are administered in online courses, as well as valuable tips to online test-taking that will help you squash your test anxiety.

A happy female student working.

Online learning has become a major part of our lives. Without the option to transition to the digital classroom during the pandemic, millions of students around the world would have been left without an education. While it’s easy to see how beneficial online school has been, many of us still have questions about the logistics of it all. One of the biggest questions surrounds how test-taking works in this new virtual landscape.

We’re used to teachers, professors, and test proctors monitoring students while they take exams. But with the shift to online, who is going to ensure that students don’t cheat or exceed time limits? Luckily, a lot of creative problem-solving has gone into improving how online learning works. Taking tests as an online student can feel essentially seamless and the quality doesn’t have to suffer just because it’s not in person. Learn how test-taking works online, find out how to prepare for an online exam, and get expert advice for making it work in the online classroom.

Test Types: Exams You May Encounter Online

Colleges have gotten creative when it comes to testing their online students. The type of test that will work best for a given course will depend on the subject, the objective of the exam, and the importance of the exam. Take a look at the most common types of exams below and get tips for prepping for each type.

Timed Exams

Professors used timed exams to help keep students on track and, in the case of closed-book exams, to help ensure they don’t cheat. Some timed exams include a single block of time for the entire test (e.g., one hour), while others use timed questions (e.g., sixty seconds per question).

You’re more likely to come across timed exams in technical disciplines such as mathematics, business, and science rather than studies in the arts and humanities, which typically call for longer answers.

Prepping For & Passing Timed Exams

These types of exams can feel stressful if you don’t adequately and correctly prepare for them. Think back to when you prepared for standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, or GRE. To feel confident on these exams, you likely took at least one timed practice test to make sure you knew how to pace yourself. Try to keep that in mind when studying and remember not to spend too much time on any one question.

Untimed Exams

Untimed exams may seem like a blessing, but they can also be a curse if you don’t establish your own method to keep yourself on track. These types of tests focus more on your depth of understanding than timed exams do, giving you the space to think critically about how you want to answer the question. Professors commonly use untimed exams for topics that require written answers rather than true/false or multiple choice.

Prepping For & Passing Untimed Exams

Preparing for untimed exams looks completely different from timed tests. Focus on your understanding of the material rather than how quickly you can recall information. Make sure to ask whether you can go back to a question or skip a question; if not, the answer will be submitted once you click forward.

Open-Book Exams

Open-book exams may sound easy at first, but in reality, they often require you to know where to find much larger amounts of information than a traditional closed-book test. Your ability to retrieve information will be on display and play a large part in your final score. Be sure you understand whether the exam is open book (as in textbook) or open notes (as in notes you’ve taken on the subject).

Prepping For & Passing Open-Book Exams

Since you don’t need to memorize or learn specific material, it becomes more important than ever to know where to find the information quickly. Whether you’re using a traditional or digital textbook or notebook, consider going through and adding highlights, arrows, bookmarks, and other tools that help you locate material that’s most likely to be on the test.

Live Online Proctored Exams

Many schools use live online proctored exams to conduct real-time testing without any concerns for cheating. Actual proctors observe you via your computer’s camera during the entirety of the exam, making sure you don’t do anything against the rules. They may also ask you to swivel your camera around the room and your desk to ensure you don’t have any notes or other materials that could be used to cheat nearby.

Prepping For & Passing Live Online Proctored Exams

In terms of preparing for and passing live online proctored exams, study as you would for any of the tests listed above. For instance, if it’s a timed exam, you’ll need to pace yourself effectively. If having someone watching you makes you feel uncomfortable or distracted, try taking a practice test or reviewing while FaceTiming or using Zoom with friends or family to get used to the format.

Record-and-Review Proctored Exams

Because live online proctored exams are expensive to organize and difficult to scale up for many students, some schools turn to the record-and-review method. With this, students must record video and audio of themselves taking tests via their computer camera and submit it. This method is commonly used in medical-related degrees, such as nursing, where students must perform a specific task on video and be graded on their technique.

Prepping For & Passing Record-and-Review Proctored Exams

Because these exams often focus on identifying whether a student knows how to adequately conduct a particular skill-based function, practice multiple times before sitting down to record yourself for the exam. Try recording yourself several times to make sure all of the steps can be easily seen and understood. Make sure the camera angle clearly shows you using the proper technique and that your lighting is good.

Automated Proctored Exams

Automated proctored exams offer the most advanced form of proctoring for online students and removes the need for humans to observe or review film footage. Students record the audio and video during their test and submit them for review. Proprietary AI technology scans through the video, looking for any suspicious activity, background noises, or lack of eye contact with the screen during the test.

Prepping For & Passing Automated Proctored Exams

As with other proctored exams, make sure you feel comfortable with the format and practice any techniques before you start filming yourself for the actual test. You should also make sure you have proper lighting in the room where you plan to take the test, as failing to do so can create mistakes in the AI review of the footage. Similarly, make sure your camera lens is clean before starting.

10 Top Tips for Online Test-Taking

Taking a test as an online student can look vastly different from taking one in person. Try the tips below to feel comfortable, confident, and prepared when testing day arrives.

Tip 1

Make sure your software is up to date

Trying to take a test with out-of-date software can prove difficult or even disastrous. Before testing day, make sure all of your software and required plug-ins are up to date and work properly. If possible, try them out beforehand. If you plan to use a laptop to take the test, make sure you sit near a power source so you don’t have to worry about the battery failing.

Tip 2

Close all applications and disable your pop-up blocker

To avoid having your computer freeze or encountering other technical issues, close all other applications except for the one used for your online exam. Some tests may include pop-ups, so make sure you turn off your pop-up blocker. Failing to do this could mean the test doesn’t work properly, or you miss important information due to new windows not opening.

Tip 3

Understand the exam structure

As highlighted earlier in this guide, online exams come in many different forms. Because of this, make sure you understand the test structure before starting it. Is it all open book? Is there a timed section? Are you permitted to use any materials? Be clear on what to expect and factor that into your study approach.

Tip 4

Read and reread the instructions

After taking several online exams, you may feel comfortable and confident with the format. That said, you should always carefully read and reread instructions, as they could be different based on the subject or class. Assuming you know how an exam works can end in disaster, so take the extra 30 seconds to review all directions and requirements before getting started.

Tip 5

Ready your test-taking space

Taking tests from home or another remote learning location can feel substantially different than a classroom environment. Create a space where you can focus without interruptions while taking your exams. In addition to using a room with a door, make sure you choose a space that’s free from distractions and in an area with a strong Wi-Fi signal.

Tip 6

Give yourself plenty of time

In the case of exams that don’t require you to log on at a specific time, make sure you’re giving yourself ample time to take the test without feeling rushed. Taking an exam in the wrong headspace or feeling rushed can make you pay less attention and result in incorrect answers. If an untimed test needs to be submitted before midnight, don’t wait until 11 p.m. to get started.

Tip 7

Have a plan for technical trouble

Despite your best-laid plans, sometimes your technology has other ideas. If you find yourself in the middle of a test and lose connection, you need to have a backup plan. Letting your professor know ASAP is a good start, so make sure you have their contact info easily accessible. It can also help if you take screenshots on your computer to prove where you were in the exam when the technical issues started.

Tip 8

Don’t underestimate open-book exams

Because arranging supervision or proctoring for every test and for every online student is impossible, many distance-learning exams are offered in an open-book format. Don’t think that just because you can review your notes while taking the exam means you don’t need to study beforehand. Many open-book exams bypass multiple-choice or true/false questions, instead looking for written responses that demonstrate comprehension and thoughtfulness that you can’t create on the fly.

Tip 9

Keep Word or a blank Google Doc open

If your exam includes an essay component, the testing software will likely provide a test field where you can write your answer. If the text box makes it harder for you to concentrate or write in an essay style, use the software you feel most comfortable with when writing an essay. For many, this is Word or Google Docs. Feel free to type your essay in your preferred program, then copy and paste it into the exam’s text box. Just to be safe, in advance confirm with your professor that this technique is okay.

Tip 10

Confirm submission

After finishing your test, make sure you properly submit it before exiting the page. Many online exams include a “Submit” button at the end. After clicking it, make sure you receive some type of confirmation that the exam form is transmitted properly. To be extra safe, take a screenshot of the submission page just in case you need to prove it later on.

Expert Advice for Taking Tests Online

Q: What are some of the common mistakes online students make when preparing for exams?

A: The most common mistake is treating the online test like an in-person exam. Students prepare for an in-person exam with the expectation that they have a finite amount of time to complete the test (usually the span of a class period). They study and prepare, fill out the study guide or cheat sheet if the professor allows, and come into the exam not only knowing a great deal of information but also where to find additional information if they are allowed a page of notes.

Students don’t engage in as much preparation for online exams because they fall into the trap of thinking that, because they are taking an exam online, they have time to look up answers to questions during the test. As a result, they spend a huge amount of time (which increases anxiety and apprehension) because a test isn’t usually meant to be an all-day activity. This mistake is also costly because many professors create time constraints (i.e., forced response in 60 seconds) or random order on tests and students panic if they didn’t know about the constraints in the beginning. In short, the time during the test shouldn’t be the only time students review the material and students should treat the study process in the same way they would for an in-person test. 

Q: If you could provide online learners with three pieces of advice, what would they be? 

A: 1.) Take the time to explore which method of study works best for you. 
Are you a flashcard person? A write-out-all-the-notes person? A type-everything person? A highlight-in-the-book person? A crammer? A slow and steady? Students don’t realize that there are hundreds of effective study methods if the one or two they might know about don’t work for them. Leave enough time to try different methods to find what works. If you find that group study sessions don’t work for you, don’t keep going to them thinking that you’ll eventually get the habits down (i.e., if you’re incredibly social and use group sessions to socialize, this is unlikely to change! That’s okay, but try a new method). 

2.)Create multiple small-scale study sessions leading up to the test.
No matter what method of study you land on, you will do better in the long run by reviewing smaller amounts of material over a longer period of time (repetition) than trying to learn and remember a semester of information the night before the exam. Multiple shorter sessions help solidify the information in more concrete ways than one large session with only one start and one review. 

3.)Keep to the regular habits that work well for you leading up to the exam, and plan for them.
If you are not a night owl, don’t try to squeeze in study sessions late at night. If you work better with proper nutrition, plan in the time to make a healthy breakfast on the morning of the exam. Students get so focused on “the test!” that they forget there is a whole ritual and routine (getting enough sleep, eating well, prayer and meditations, etc.) that they might engage in on a regular basis but that they forget to do on the day of the test. Keep healthy habits even during the stressful testing times. 

Q: Where can distance learners turn for advice from their schools on test-taking?

A: Most universities have facilities and resources that students can take advantage of prior to the test, like centers for teaching and learning or tutoring centers. There are some other resources available that can aid in test-taking as well. If the professor focuses on long answer or essay questions, students can take practice drafts of sample questions to the writing center to assess clarity, organization, and sometimes citation. We think of the writing center for papers, but often writing is needed for testing and students can get assistance on the method of writing alongside the content of writing that they usually think of when studying

Q: What should students do when facing technical difficulties during testing?

A: This question can best be answered by having a “preoccupation with failure” mindset. What can go wrong on a test? The internet can short out, they can lose their work, they can have electricity problems, or they can have a schedule conflict when sharing the space with other remote learners in the household. If internet, Wi-Fi, and sharing are an issue, the student may want to rent a cubical in the school library or on campus so that they can be assured of stability. The bonus here is that there is documentation if the school library loses internet during a test, and the professor is likely to be more understanding. Other options might be to rent a space in a local library or publicly available space as long as there is privacy and quiet.

If students are worried about losing their work, for example on an essay test, they might ask their professor if they can write their responses on a Word document (which they can save) or a Google Doc (which automatically saves) prior to entering their response in the test format. Students also might encounter issues with some online testing services that monitor browser use (prohibit users from opening tabs or recording test-takers). Students can do their best to plan for this by requesting to test the software or technology with the professor prior to the exam (like with a sample test). This way a student can be assured that they are testing in advance and troubleshooting. There are also considerations worth mentioning, like charging devices the night before a test and repairing any computer issues in advance (like a mouse that doesn’t work or certain keys that “stick”).

Online Test-Taking Resources

16 Online Test-Taking Tips

The University of Tulsa provides this comprehensive list for distance learners.


If your school allows for open-note exams, Evernote offers a great option to organize and manage those notes in a way that works for your online testing style.

Giving Exams Online: Strategies and Tips

This Vanderbilt University resource supports professors trying to make their online tests both challenging and fair.


This free resource provides tons of helpful tools that can help you with organization, goal-setting, time management, notetaking, and online test preparation.

Marinara Timer

This customizable productivity timer can help familiarize you with various timeframes and get comfortable taking an exam under pressure.

Online Testing Strategies

Use these ideas to help you feel knowledgeable and prepared for any type of online exam.


This free online tool can help you make flashcards and other online study materials.

Test-Taking Strategies for Online Students

The University of West Georgia put together this YouTube video with ideas for getting prepared for online exams.

What It’s Really Like to Take an Online Exam

Times Higher Education provides this student essay about what it’s like to take tests as a distance learner.