Students’ experiences of remote online exams at a distance learning university

Aristeidou, Maria; Cross, Simon; Rossade, Klaus-Dieter and Wood, Carlton (2023). Students’ experiences of remote online exams at a distance learning university. In: EARLI 2023: The 20th Biennial EARLI Conference for Research on Learning and Instruction, 22-26 Aug 2023, Thessaloniki, Greece.



As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities had to re-structure their assessment design, policies and processes. The assessment conversation around the design of the online exams and the technology used aimed at ensuring that student expectations were met while securing assessment standards. This study aimed to explore student views at a major distance-learning university in the UK about participating in online remote exams. The institution replaced the common pre-covid practice of taking face-to-face exams at local centres appointed by the university with remote open book-style exams. Findings from 107 student responses to an online survey on online exams pointed to positive and negative areas of experience with online exams. This study provides an agenda for universities with temporary and permanent distance learning programmes to develop or improve ways that students or particular groups of students are assessed by providing positive areas of perception.

Extended Summary:

Over the last two years, HEIs have made significant progress in assessing how well online exams have worked and identifying the issues of having online exams present. Particularly in 2020, most institutions offered a 'no-detriment' policy, ensuring that students could not be seen to be disadvantaged in having their mode of examination changed to an online one (Gamage, Pradeep & de Silva, 2022). It is clear that the experiment of having exams delivered in an online format has allowed institutions to question what the most appropriate format for the future is (St-Onge et al., 2022).

This study aims to extend and shed new light on current knowledge about online remote exams in higher education. For this purpose, we explored university students’ experiences and views on online remote exams at The Open University, an institution with a long tradition of distance learning in the UK. Pre-pandemic, courses predominantly comprised two elements: continuous assessment during the module managed via the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and a final assessment that was either a face-to-face exam or some form of assignment or project work, essay or report submitted via the VLE. Approximately 24% of the courses ended with a face-to-face exam. This face-to-face component was removed during the pandemic and is currently being replaced with remote open book style exams with future plans to move on to an online exams model. The open book style exams had multiple formats, ranging from multiple choice questions with a 2.5-hour submission window to essays with a 7-days submission window.


For the current study, we recruited students of any year and faculty at the The Open University to take part in an online survey. Prior to completing the survey, the respondents were provided with an online information sheet. The survey ran between 5-23 April 2021 and received 631 responses. The dataset was anonymised prior to initiating the process of data analysis.

This work focuses on responses to (a) a closed-ended question on whether students had a positive, negative or mixed experience with online exams and (b) an open-ended exploratory question inviting students to report their previous experiences with online exams, if any. Content analysis was used to make valid inferences from the survey respondents’ open-ended responses focusing on the meaning in context (Krippendorff, 2018). The authors went through students’ comments and ascribed descriptive code to each comment. The codes presented areas of positive or negative experience with online exams.


The majority of respondents (83%) reported that they never completed an online remote exam at home (or work) as an alternative to their face-to-face exams. The rest (n = 107) completed online remote exams at home in one course (12%) or more than one course (5%). This may have occurred due to the pandemic or to accommodate students with disabilities or other circumstances as part of standard processes. The students who completed an exam at home mainly described their experience as positive (76%, n = 81). However, some students had a mixed (19%, n = 20) or negative (5%, n = 5) experience.

Exploring students’ comments on positive experiences (n = 76), the area with the largest proportion of positive mentions (36%) was ‘exam duration and time’, followed by ‘anxiety/pressure’ (26%), ‘exams at home’ (20%), ‘travel to exam centre’ (16%), ‘real-life equivalent’ (8%), and ‘invigilation’(4%). The following responses relate to the elimination of travel-related stress and the comparison of open-book exams to real-life tasks:

“There was no leaving time for travel, stressing about traffic jams and not knowing where I was going”

“Although it was nothing like the time pressure I would have felt doing a three-hour exam, there was still an element of this kind of stress, but the open book/longer timeframe aspects of the experience allowed me to feel I had done a reasonable job and written everything I wanted to. This kind of situation feels more akin to a normal experience in my professional life and, therefore, a far better assessment of my ability in real life".

Exploring students’ comments on negative experiences (n = 15), the area with the largest proportion of negative mentions was ‘equipment and technical issues’ (52%), followed by ‘invigilation and rigorousness’ (26%), ‘exam duration and time’ (9%), ‘marks’ (8%), and ‘distractions at home’ (7%). In the following responses, students expressed their concerns about adequate technology for exam submission and distractions at home during the exam:

“I did not have adequate (despite mobile phone apps, the quality is not as good as a flatbed scanner) and therefore, I ended up typesetting my paper. This took about 4 hours in its own merit”

“The only negative was that I had both children at home, and so there were a few unavoidable distractions".


The evidence from this study suggests that while the majority of the survey respondents show a clear preference towards online remote exams, there is no clear ‘winner’ as different groups of students reveal barriers and challenges in assuming a different exam model.

Our findings add to a growing body of literature on assessment in higher education overall and online exams in particular. The feedback provided by the survey assists The Open University in strengthening communication opportunities that enhance student awareness of measures available for the required and achieved quality assurance. Also, it urges the university to work towards designing systems that can effectively host online exams and support students in feeling confident with the technical aspects.

This study provides an agenda for universities with temporary and permanent distance learning programmes to develop or improve ways that students or particular groups of students are assessed by providing positive areas of perception.


Gamage, K. A., Pradeep, R. G., & de Silva, E. K. (2022). Rethinking Assessment: The Future of Examinations in Higher Education. Sustainability, 14(6), 3552.

Krippendorff, K. (2018). Content analysis: An introduction to its methodology. Sage publications.

St‐Onge, C., Ouellet, K., Lakhal, S., Dubé, T., & Marceau, M. (2022). COVID‐19 as the tipping point for integrating e‐assessment in higher education practices. British Journal of Educational Technology, 53(2), 349-366.

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