During the pandemic, universities shifted to online exams and changed the structure of assessment fundamentally. Now, as normality resumes, some universities are moving back to the traditional in-person exams. However, it seems that some students want online exams to stay. In fact, we run a poll and out of  250 votes, 70% of students favoured the online structure. So, today we’re here to ask why it is so popular.

Firstly, how do online exams work?

student completing an online exam for university

Essay-Based Exams

Each university has different approaches when it comes to doing essay-based exams online. However, the majority will release the paper, and require it to be submitted in a specified timeframe. Typically, this time frame is longer than the time that would be given in an exam hall. This is in order to account for submission and technological problems, as well as time zones for those students who are not in England. The University of Bristol, for example, usually gives between 24 hours and five working days.

These are known as take-home timed assessments.

Short Answer/ Multiple Choice Exams

For multiple-choice exams, some uni’s recorded the student and the screen to ensure there was no cheating. Alternatively, others, like the University of Birmingham, shifted to an open book process in order to ease the pressure. The exam would be timed in the same manner as an in-person exam, with some universities giving an additional few minutes to submit the paper(s). Students will start the exam when it is released, and sit through and answer until the time is up, before submitting. Some systems will allow for breaks, while others are continuous. Most systems are comprehensive enough to allow students to flag questions and go back and forth in the paper to change or correct answers.

Practical Exams

Presentations and group presentations online are created in different formats. Some universities prefer recorded PowerPoints to be submitted, whereas other universities require a live presentation via an online meeting space, like Zoom or Blackboard. When it came to Labs or Practical Assessments, some universities skipped this component altogether. Others used virtual labs and more integrated skill questions into short answer papers. In examining a student’s analysis of results, set results are given for all students to work their pre and post labs with.

So what are the pros and cons of online exams? Let’s go through them.

written exam paper


Pro – With approximately two years of examinations online, some students have never been through in-person exams. In fact, their last in-person exams may have been GCSE’s: a long time ago, and a set of exams that work in a different format to the various in-person university exams. A shift back to them would require students learning new skill sets to adequately prepare.

Con – On the flip side, online exams may have been perceived as a temporary diversion from the well-established norm. The in-person format may offer them more familiarity and their revision skill set may be designed for it over online exams.

Extra Time

Pro – Although the details vary by each university, many are set up to create a contingency for any technological difficulties. This is established in the timeframe given to submit essays. Having a day (or more) to write a two hour essay releases the pressure and allows for breaks. Without rushing to finish the essay,  quality is not compromised and the student can showcase their ideas rather than their speed. Additionally, for those essay based subjects that require research, time is saved with easy access to resources online. This gives students more time to focus on their ideas and analysis, rather than memorising large amounts of information.

Con – The extra time reduces the high-pressure environment created by in-person exams that some students thrive in. Too much stress is not healthy. However, the right amount encourages the best work of a person. Good stress that is caused by in-person exams is not always replicated by the less intense online version, meaning that students don’t always perform their best.


Pro – For those universities that rely on written work during in-person exams, the option of a laptop is a blessing for some students. Many find it easier to edit their work, and type out ideas faster. As it is online, many also find it easier to switch between tabs for relevant research and references than they would to search through books in person.

Con – It’s important to remember that not all students have access to the easiest or necessary technology needed for online exams. As well as this, we’ve all had internet issues when we least needed them. Imagine your laptop crashing as you hit the deadline!

Likewise, the increased screen time is also unhealthy and sometimes detrimental for students’ eyesight; especially in timed exams that do not allow for breaks.


Pro – Some students do best when in an area of comfort and security, whether it’s their home or the library. We know where we are most productive, and online exams give us the opportunity to work in those areas. Those with disabilities may also find it easier to accommodate their needs for the exams.

Con – Not all students can access a suitable area to take an exam in. Many socioeconomic factors create an unfair playing ground when taking the exam. The mental concentration that the exam hall demands is also not easily replicated without invigilators to enforce it. As well as this, some disabilities, like ADHD, work better with an in-person environment. Technology also can’t replicate in-person labs, creating an unrealistic environment for those assessments. Read more about these pros and cons here.

With the majority of students preferring exams to stay online, it seems the pros have outweighed the cons. Do you agree? Leave your thoughts below!