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Exploring student perspectives on online exams

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, the shift to online exams is more than a temporary response to the challenges of the pandemic; it’s emerged as a more permanent presence in higher education. For most institutions, student satisfaction remains a top priority, and their attitudes to online exams are no exception.

In this blog, we’ll explore the nuances of student attitudes in the context of online exams and share our experience and customer insight.

What do students like about online exams?

Recently published research[1] that reviews numerous studies into online examinations, finds a general preference for online exams over more traditional exams. Typing rather than writing, speed, ease of editing and time saving are given as the main reasons.

  •  Ease of use and editing

It’s clear the ability to simply delete text, rather than erase or cross out is quicker. Furthermore, online exams give the flexibility to re-arrange sentences and paragraphs that paper exams do not. Some also feel that they present a more authentic format – closer to what they imagine their future real-world environment will be like.

Enhancing the exam experience was a key consideration in the development of our eSystem software. That’s why features such as a progress panel (to flag questions & monitor progress), text strike through and highlight and accessibility options are available. Another huge advantage is the count-down clock – making time management much easier.

For exams that contain images, online formats offer a superior experience.  There are no poor or grainy reproductions that can happen with paper. Plus, being able to zoom in and pan around images is immensely beneficial.  As our customer Newcastle University School of Medicine highlights:

“The feedback was that students found the eSystem really easy to use. The fact that you could enlarge images as well was great and a feature they particularly liked”  – Alice Morrison – Newcastle University

Read the full case study: Newcastle University

  • Improved learning & feedback

The research reveals students feel online exams improve learning and feedback. Using exam software such as the eSystem makes it quick and easy to provide personalised, detailed feedback, directly into student inboxes. Candidates can review their reports, see how they compared against their peers and also identify any learning gaps.

  • Better environmental credentials

Finally, we expect the environmental impact of exams to become an increasing concern. With online exams, you have less paper and less travel – two big positives for the environmentally conscious.

We have seen this in practice with our customer, Aga Khan University Medical School East Africa. With candidates across several different countries, it wasn’t unheard of for them to travel for several days across multiple countries to attend when it was a paper exam. So, being able to take online exams is very beneficial, both in time and travel impact. They were also pleased with the reduction in paper:

“I cannot underscore enough that the eSystem has saved us so much.  In terms of the environmental impact – saving on paper, in terms of time – it’s injected a high degree of efficiency into our exam processes” – Kennedy Njenga – Aga Khan University School of Medicine.

Read the full case study: Aga Khan

What are students’ main concerns with online exams?

It’s common for attitudes to online exams to be mixed, with both students and exam staff often sharing the same concerns.

  • Technology Failure

Technology failure and lost data are most frequently cited. However, with the eSystem, you can be confident this won’t be an issue. The system automatically saves as the exam progresses. In instances of internet or technology failure, students start back where they left off once the exam resumes. If appropriate, it’s possible to add extra time so they are not at a disadvantage.

  • Inequalities

In a second piece of research,[2] published on BMC Medical Education, the potential for an uneven playing field was also a cause of apprehension. In particular, concerns about inequalities in internet access and equipment. As best practice we recommend running exams on-site in computer labs, this is also the preference of students in this study.

  • Cheating

Concern that it’s easier to cheat with online exams is common. Whilst our experience tells us it’s not the case, we do understand that institutions face these worries. Newcastle University is a good example. Faced with this very issue when they ran their first online exams, they conducted a thorough investigation. Reassuringly, as discussed in the case study,  they found no evidence of this and the fears were unfounded.

Furthermore, with the eSystem, there are many mitigations to ensure exam security and integrity. Features such as timed exams, randomised questions and secure exam browser all offer an extra layer of security. With secure exam browser,  its not possible to access anything other than the exam itself. It completely locks down the device and prohibits access to documents, files or web browsers during exams. For those who require additional reassurance, perhaps for high-stakes exams, our software is also compatible with proctoring software.

Do online exams affect student performance?

What do students think of online exams when it comes to performance? The systemic review of online exams,1 reports favourable perceptions, with students feeling they perform better. Interestingly, there is no significant difference in performance between the two exam formats when looking at actual results (rather than perceptions), which is reassuring for all.

An increase in anxiety around changing to online exams is fairly common. Both from students and academic staff. The research shows differing results –  some experience less anxiety, yet for others, it increases. With the eSystem, we find that any apprehension quickly disappears once participants use it. As UCL found when they moved their MCQ exams online:

“It was amazing, after the success of the first exams any initial apprehension was completely gone. Everyone was delighted and once they had seen it working so well there was pressure to move all of the OSCE’s over as soon as possible!” – Gaynor Jones, UCL Medical School.

Read the full case study: UCL Medical School

You can further assuage fears by providing comprehensive training and setting dummy exams that allow familiarisation and practice ahead of the real thing.

What can we conclude about what students really think of Online exams?

In conclusion, generally, online exams are the preference, for reasons such as ease of editing, timekeeping and improved feedback. Concerns over unfairness and cheating can be minimised by running exams in computer labs rather than remotely, or by using the security features of the software. Clearly explaining what happens in the case of technology or internet failure, and offering assurances that no one will be at a disadvantage can also greatly help. Giving participants training and time to practise with the software can address any increased anxiety about online tests.

For institutions, online exams bring tangible benefits in the form of improvements to workload, ease of marking, speed of results, reduced logistics and potential cost savings.  As we repeatedly see with our eSystem customers, once all involved use the software, the obvious benefits outweigh any concerns.

Get in touch

If you’d like to find out more about our eSystem software, talk to us. Call our sales team on +44 (0) 1223 851703 or email



[1] A systematic review of online examinations: A pedagogical innovation for scalable authentication and integrity

Kerryn Butler-Henderson, Joseph Crawford

Comput Educ. 2020 Dec; 159: 104024. Published online 2020 Sep 22. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2020.104024

[2] Jaap, A., Dewar, A., Duncan, C. et al. Effect of remote online exam delivery on student experience and performance in applied knowledge tests. BMC Med Educ 21, 86 (2021).