Best Practices for Online Exams

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With the Fall 2015 semester at its midpoint, one thing is on the mind of students and faculty alike: “Midterm,” which means, “exams.” In the last week or so, I have set up a lot of Midterm exams in Sakai (our learning management system, LMS), and they all had one thing in common: “multiple choice.” Instructors rely heavily on multiple choice (MC) exams to evaluate student learning outcomes. This is understandable because multiple choice exams offer convenience, ease of grading, quick and easy feedback, among many others.

PS: Sakai can grade multiple choice, true/false and fill-in-the-blank questions automatically.

Whereas a good MC or online exam should be able to assess the key components of a course, in other words, measure the learning goals and objectives of the material(s) covered, it should also adhere to some e-Learning best practices.

Although there are lot of best practices in this regard, here are a few to keep in mind:

1. Be consistent

Decide early on how many answer choices to make available to students for each question, and stick to it. If, for instance, you offer A to D as answers in the test, stay consistent throughout. In “Multiple Choice Questions In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know,” Christopher Pappas, advises that “as a general rule, you should limit the number of variables to 4 or 5, as this decreases the chances of a learner correctly guessing the answer and prevents memory overload.” By doing so, you allow students the opportunity to process and retain information easily, and reduce the chance of them getting confused. This also allows them to quickly move through the test, especially if it is timed.

2. Discourage cheating

A good multiple choice assessment discourages cheating, not only in the way and manner the questions are created, but also in the way they are administered. Because it is easier for students to congregate in computer labs or form “study sessions” during the test, it is important to take measures to prevent such unethical behavior.

i. Time the assessment

Students are discouraged from overt cheating when they’re constrained by time. The fact that they don’t have infinite time to complete an assessment encourages them to concentrate on the task of completing the assessment within the allotted time.

ii. Randomize the answers

Randomizing the MC answers is a tried-and-true way to discourage cheating. Assuming that merely timing the test fails to discourage the “congregation,” then randomization becomes the gatekeeper. When I set up tests or quizzes, I not only randomize the questions, but I also randomize the answer choices as well.

iii. Randomize the questions

Sakai allows for the randomization of questions with the click of a button. In addition, we can also create question pools, where a pre-determined number of questions are randomly drawn for each student. Again, it wouldn’t hurt to randomize the answer choices too as an added measure.

3. Provide feedback

Endeavor to provide some feedback to the students beyond simply giving them the correct answer(s). A detailed feedback goes a long way to reinforce learning. Another great feature of Sakai allows for extensive feedback to be included for every question. The e-Learning Center (eLC) staff can help!

Dickinson, M. (2012, March 12). The Thing about Multiple-Choice Tests …. Retrieved July 29, 2015, from

Pappas, C. (2015, July 28). Multiple Choice Questions In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know. Retrieved July 29, 2015, from

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