Writing Your Online Exam Strategies for Success

Last semester, writing an exam meant writing frantically for two hours in a silent exam hall. This year, with exams moving online, we’ll all be sitting at home, typing away on our laptops and submitting our answers through My Dundee. The transition to online exams may seem daunting, but these top tips will help you thrive in this new exam format.

Set Up Your Space

Say goodbye to rows of desks in a silent exam hall… and get to work setting up your own personal exam-writing space.

Find a quiet place to write your exam. A "home office" setup is ideal, but a corner of your bedroom or living room can also work. If you live in a busy household, try to establish ground rules with your family or flatmates to keep noise and interruptions to a minimum. At a pinch, noise-cancelling headphones can help improve your focus. Make sure your space is comfortable but productivity-oriented; as cosy as it might be, you won't do your best work curled up in bed!

Arrange your stationery. Your exam may be computer-based, but it's good to have a few physical tools to get your eyes off the screen. Notebooks, pens, sticky notes, and coloured pencils will give your hands and eyes a welcome break from the computer. If you get stuck, they can even help generate new ideas!

Check your internet connection. Make sure you're set up reasonably close to the router and use an online Broadband Speed Test to check how quickly you'll be able to upload/download large files. If you live with others, plan your internet use around busy times— internet speeds will likely be fastest first thing in the morning, or you could set a large file to upload overnight.

Gather snacks and drinks to keep you going. You might not be allowed to take chocolate into an exam hall, but there's no reason you can't enjoy your favourite foods while writing your exam at home. Try to stock up on healthy snacks, such as fruit and nuts, and drinks lots of water. Too much sugar and caffeine might feel great at first, but you don't want to crash halfway through the exam.

Manage Your Time

We all know how to write an essay in two weeks or how to tackle an exam in just two hours… but how do we manage our time during an online exam?

Make a game plan before the exam begins. Allow time for eating and sleeping as well as breaks for exercise and socialising. Remember, an online exam is designed to only take 2-3 hours, just like it would in person. Whether your exam is 12 hours or 48, you'll have more than enough time for sleeping and self-care. Remember— you'll work better if you're well-fed and rested.

Schedule your time during the exam. Allocate your time according to how much each section of the exam is worth. If you have three questions, two worth 25% each and one worth 50%, you should allocate half of your time to the bigger question and divide the other half between the two smaller questions. Make sure to leave enough time to do a good job on the most important questions.

Keep to your schedule. If you're really struggling with a question, it's better to move on to the next one for now, then come back to the hard question at the end. Make sure to take breaks, just like you planned, and to go to bed when you intended to. Often, the right answer will come to you while you're out for a walk, or when you're asleep!

Leave time to finish well. We'll talk more about this later, but it's important to schedule time at the end for editing and checking your work, as well as for uploading your file when you're done. If your exam is due at 11am, plan to be finished writing by at least 10am.

Plan Your Answers

Just like in a normal exam, spending a few minutes planning out your answers can make the difference between a well-written exam and a series of disconnected points.

Read the exam paper carefully. Spend a few minutes making sure you understand exactly what each question is asking. Descriptive words— analyse, describe, compare and contrast— can help you figure out what the question wants you to do.

Identify the questions you need to answer and decide on the order you’ll answer them in. If you have a choice of questions, make sure you choose ones that allow you to demonstrate the range of your knowledge, rather than overlapping material. Tackle the questions in any order you want— you could finish off the most difficult question right at the beginning, or maybe you prefer to build up from easy questions to more challenging ones. Just remember to leave enough time to answer the difficult questions worth the most marks.

Outline your answers before you start writing. It can be tempting to start scribbling right away, just to get something written, but spending a few minutes outlining your answers will save you time in the long run. Just write down the main headings and a few subpoints— this will make sure you don't forget any important points once you start writing.

Aim for quality, not quantity. A concise answer that covers all the main points within a clear structure will impress your marker more than a rambling answer that tries to cram in absolutely everything you know. If your exam has a wordcount, make sure to stick to it. Even if not, be aware that a longer answer isn't always better.

Keep Going!

Writing an exam at home is that awkward length somewhere between a marathon and a sprint. Here are some ways to get the most out of your precious hours without burning out.

Take intentional breaks. Scientists may disagree on exactly how long we can concentrate for, but no one can focus for hours on end! You might want to just power through, but the reality is that if you don't take breaks, your brain will take them for you. It's far better to intentionally take 15 minutes to rest, rather than trying to keep working when your brain isn't at peak performance.

Make sure your breaks are truly restful. It's so tempting to scroll through Facebook or Instagram, but it's best to get away from the screen. Ideally, you'll do something physical and enjoyable. Go make a cup of tea, work out, or play a musical instrument.

Remember to eat, sleep, and exercise. Did you know that at the 1904 Olympics, only 14 of 32 marathon runners managed to finish the race? Bizarrely, the organisers thought that the athletes would run better if they were only given one water break! You may not be running an Olympic marathon, but taking care of your body is essential to doing your best in your exam.

Connect with others. Call up a friend or family member just to chat and try eating at least one meal with members of your household. The rules against plagiarism mean that you can't discuss the exam with your coursemates, but it's totally acceptable to get your best friend to send you encouraging gifs every hour or so.

Avoid Plagiarism

Giving credit to your sources and producing high-quality work of your own is just as important during online exams as it is in essays or traditional exams.

Explain ideas in your own words. The best way to demonstrate you understand something is to explain it in your own words, rather than just quoting someone else's explanation. If the exam asks you to explain a key concept, pretend you're talking to a friend on your course and write down what you'd say. Avoid copy-and-pasting sources from the internet and changing a few words— this is plagiarism, and will show up on Turnitin.

Remember to reference your sources. Even in an online exam, it's important to give credit where it's due. If you use anyone else's exact words, you need to put them in quotation marks. If you use ideas or information from someone else's work, make sure to cite that, too.

Avoid colluding with your coursemates. Studying together is a great way to learn, but you aren't allowed to plan answers together or to discuss answers during the exam. Check out our guide on Collaboration vs Collusion to learn more.

Finish Well

An online exam doesn't have to be as polished as an essay, but there are some easy things you can do to make sure you submit your best work.

Leave time for a final check. Set aside at least an hour at the end of the exam to go over everything. You can quickly proofread your work, add any missing points, and fix any factual mistakes. It's best to do this after taking a break, so your brain is fresh and alert.

Upload early. You should practise submitting before the exam, but even if you're familiar with the exam platform, it's best not to wait until the last second. Leave yourself at least half an hour to spare, just in case something goes wrong. Remember, if you have any difficulties, contact us immediately at Help4U@dundee.ac.uk.

Reward yourself! Once your exam is done, it's time to celebrate! Treat yourself with an afternoon off, a favourite snack, or a binge-worthy Netflix series. Even if you have more exams coming up, make sure to take at least a few hours to rest— you deserve it!

This guide was created by Dr. Rachel Horrocks-Birss at the Academic Skills Centre, University of Dundee (Scotland, UK). Please contact us at asc@dundee.ac.uk.

Created By
Rachel Horrocks Birss


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