Get information and advice on various forms of online assessment, from open-book exams to peer evaluation. Plus, see our tips on avoiding unfair means and plagiarism in your online assignments.
Are you working towards online assessments? Taking your exams or other kinds of assessment online poses a number of challenges, but it also has some important advantages.
Rather than worrying about how to get to the exam venue and having all the right things with you, you can simply find a comfortable space that works well for you, settle down and get the most out of yourself.
The emphasis also shifts away from retention of basic facts and information to a more realistic test of how you access and apply your learning, often with fewer intense time constraints.
Foregrounding these practical skills can help take away some of the artificial pressure of exams and allow you to demonstrate your grasp of the subject area.
Your online exams may either be
- synchronous: exams that are run live, with all students joining simultaneously
- asynchronous: exams that give you a set window of hours or days in which to complete them
Synchronous exams have more in common with traditional invigilated exams. The time pressure involved will mean that it may not be realistic to use books and resources to research your answers mid-exam.
You should prepare for synchronous exams in much the same way as you would prepare for invigilated exams. This means you should place emphasis on learning the key information that you will need to draw on and apply in the exam.
Think in advance about how you will approach the exam. For example, ask yourself the below questions:
- How long will you allocate to have an initial look over the paper before starting to answer questions?
- How long will you need to check your answers at the end?
If additional resources are allowed, organising your reference materials is key, as you will need to access the appropriate information quickly and efficiently. Consider using flashcards, post-it notes, sticky tabs and colour-coding to manage your resources.
Asynchronous exams are likely to involve less time pressure. They test understanding and analytical skills, rather than retention of facts and information.
With the luxury of time to process the questions, plan and structure your answers, you will be expected to put forward more involved responses. These should draw on multiple theories, examples, case studies and so on.
Your preparation should focus on developing a good overall understanding of broad topic areas and how ideas interconnect within and across these areas. Using tools like mind maps and identifying relevant examples and case studies in advance will help you to produce structured and organised answers during the exam period.
Types of thinking tested
An open-book exam allows you to make use of supporting materials, such as lecture notes, books and other resources.
As you can access these additional resources during the exam, these forms of assessment test how you demonstrate higher-order thinking. This means applying, analysing, evaluating and creating, rather than testing your ability to recall or remember specific information.
The Bloom model of learning hierarchies structures these types of thinking in a pyramid. The categories are as follows, from top to bottom:
- Creating: Developing your own interpretation.
- Evaluating: Making judgements based on evidence.
- Analysing: Relating to other examples and evidence.
- Applying: Using knowledge in practical ways.
- Understanding: Making sense of knowledge.
- Remembering: Recalling facts and information.
Preparing for open-book exams
There are a number of things to consider when preparing for open books exams. To prepare, you should take the below steps.
Revise in advance
Approach your revision as you would for any other exam or assessment. Don't wait until the assessment starts before looking through your lecture notes and other revision material.
Treat your notes and textbooks as a backup that you may need to refer to for accuracy, and revise the material beforehand, as you would normally. This way, you can spend most of the exam time carefully reading each question and then planning and writing your answers, as you would in a closed-book exam
Organise your materials
Focus on organising your notes and other resources so that you can access them quickly during the exam period. Group them around specific themes and possible questions.
These exams often take place in a time-limited format, so you want to minimise the time you take searching for information.
See the University of Reading's guidance on preparing for open-book exams.
Using past papers
The best way to improve your time management for an open-book exam is to practise using past papers or questions you set yourself:
Gather all the notes and resources relating to your exam, and find a place where you can work without interruption.
Set a timer for the same length as your final exam will be – you don't have to stick to this strictly, but it can help to get a feel for how long you will have.
After you finish your practice, read through your answers and crosscheck them with your notes.
Make a list of topics that you spent a lot of time looking in your notes for – these are ones you may wish to revise more. Bookmark them clearly so that you can find them quickly next time
Open-book exam formats
Open-book exams can be in a range of different formats. Examples and how to approach them are below:
If your exam is made up of essay questions, spend a few minutes planning each one before you start to write.
Read more guidance on structuring essays, to help you make sure you include enough critical analysis.
Multiple-choice or short-answer exams
There are a few different strategies you can use to approach these types of exam. Get advice on multiple-choice question exams.
Top tips for open-book exams
Write about the right things
Don't just copy from your lecture slides and textbooks – open-book exams are more focused on
- the connections between ideas
- proof that you understand the topic using critical analysis
Find a suitable exam environment in which to work. Eliminate distractions from children, pets, visitors or the TV.
Place a "do not disturb" or "testing in progress" sign on the door of the room where you are taking the test.
Inform family members who might also be home that you will be taking an exam for a specific time to minimise interruptions.
Turn off phones. If you have a landline, set the ringer to silent or low.
Prepare your tech
Test the hardware to make sure that batteries are charged, there are no technical faults etc.
Have your login details and password to hand.
At least 15 minutes before the exam, set up your environment to make sure you do not have any computer or internet access issues.
Minimise risk of issues
Reduce the chances of having to stop mid-way, eg make sure you eat and visit the toilet in advance.
Have the test instructions to hand, in the event something goes wrong.
Video – Your exams: online
Watch a short video containing tips for taking exams online:
For tips and strategies on approaching multiple-choice exams, view our page on exam techniques.
The following are some overall tips that might come in helpful:
- Look over the whole paper to get an overview of where the marks are allocated.
- Don't get too bogged down on one question – remember to keep an eye on the clock.
- Answer the easy (or easier) questions first.
- Understand the guessing correction and act accordingly.
- Take care not to miss any questions out – every mark counts!
Important: Always follow department guidelines to make sure your work is in line with expectations from your tutors.
You may find that you have a substantial amount of written work to prepare as part of your assessment. The following points might be helpful as ways to plan and organise this work over the next few months.
If you have multiple deadlines for assessed work, make sure you have a good plan for how to approach them.
Focus on one assignment at a time
Take one thing at a time, and use your diary or calendar to set your own mini-deadlines or milestones along the way to keep on track.
Break down the task
If you are working towards larger-scale pieces of work, set yourself goals along the way. For example, a goal could be to finish a section or chapter by the end of a week.
You might consider setting daily word count challenges to keep making incremental progress, but bear in mind that some days will be easier than others!
Focus on the task, then relax!
Have a go at structuring your writing time to avoid distractions:
- switch off your phone and avoid the internet
- write for 25 minutes, for example
- reward yourself with five minutes off for a cup of tea
Repeat this cycle a few times to make focused progress on your work. This technique is known as the Pomodoro Technique.
Watch our 25-minute study session video to learn more about the technique and get a virtual study buddy.
Proofread your work
Go over your work, preferably after sleeping on it for a day or two to give yourself some critical distance from the text.
Proofreading is a vital final step of the writing process. Picking up on those issues, typos and mistakes can make a huge difference to the overall quality of your work.
Browse our writing resources, including guidance on essay structure, scientific writing and proofreading.
View the Library's referencing guidance.
If you're asked to produce and submit a recorded presentation for an assessment, apply the same principles as you would for a presentation delivered face-to-face.
Planning and structure
Review the specific guidance from your department about things like presentation format and length.
Also, check the assessment criteria in your department. They are likely looking at the content rather than the quality of the production, as they will know that everyone will have access to different software and equipment when creating recordings.
Find a quiet space with minimal background noise to record and test sound and audio quality in advance and take time to practice in advance of making your final recording.
Other resources and support
Browse our digital support for help creating recordings (student login needed).
Reflection is just like other kinds of academic writing – you need to use high-quality evidence and data to ensure that your conclusions are valid.
However, when you are writing reflectively, you are your own data set. Making sure that your experiential data is accurate, honest and authentic is vital to producing a useful reflection that will allow you to gain something from the overall process.
Using the Gibbs model
The Gibbs model captures the key stages usually involved in a full reflective account:
- Description: What happened? This is usually kept to the minimum needed to allow the reader to understand the context of the experience.
- Feelings: What were you thinking and feeling? This is the really important bit! Be honest and capture something authentic about the experience. How did you react? how did you feel?
- Evaluation: What was good and bad about the experience? Was it a positive experience? Or were there things that went less well than you hoped?
- Analysis: What sense can you make of the situation? Can you place the experience into a wider context? Have you had comparable experiences before? Is there evidence or literature that backs up your experience, or challenges it?
- Conclusion: What else could you have done? Overall, what can you take away from this? Have you learned anything from the experience?
- Action plan: With all this in mind, what will you do differently next time?
Remember: reflection should be cyclical. This means it should feed into and inform the next experience, so make sure you complete the cycle by developing a good plan for next time.
Portfolios provide a way to collect, curate and present evidence and reflection on your learning over a period of time. They can be a valuable way to record and look back on your own progress and identify skills that you have developed along the way.
The following tips might help you to produce a successful portfolio:
Is your evidence sufficient?
Have you included enough evidence to fulfil the requirements of the portfolio?
Often a portfolio will be a chance to present evidence from a range of different learning experiences, so be sure to draw on multiple examples if possible.
Is your evidence authentic?
A portfolio is a personal artefact, so try to be honest and capture your feelings and emotions as well as the bare facts.
If you are keeping a learning log as part of your portfolio, try to record something about how the experiences recorded made you feel at the time. This will provide valuable evidence to look back on later.
Is your evidence reliable?
Have you included proof or evidence of engagement with required learning activities?
This will help to ensure that your portfolio is a genuine and accurate record of achievement over a period of your course.
A poster is a visual representation of your work that is designed to share an overall summary of your project with a viewer. Posters are used widely as a way to disseminate academic research, for example at conferences.
The following points will help to make sure your poster is as effective as possible as a vehicle of dissemination.
Keep it brief
A poster should include no more than 200–500 words of text. Think of it as a visual representation of your abstract, ie a top-level summary of your work.
Break it down
Organise your poster into key sections, for example, introduction, methodology, findings, discussion and conclusion.
Plan and design
How you will arrange these sections on the poster to make it easy for the reader to follow?
You might find it helpful to sketch out your ideas for an overall design on a sheet of paper before you start working on-screen.
One of the main benefits of a poster is to allow you to make it visually engaging.
If you're using data, can you present it in graphical form? Are there aspects of your methodology that could be shown visually, for example as a flow chart?
But remember, keep it simple and don't overdo it!
Representing data visually
Key questions to consider when producing graphical representations of your data are as follows:
Type of graph
Is the graph I've chosen suitable for the data I'm plotting? Perhaps the results may be better demonstrated using a different type of graph.
Are my plots misleading in any way (by choice of scale)? If quantities are being compared, are they plotted in a way that makes sense?
If your graphs use colour coding, consider whether they're easily differentiated for people with colour-blindness.
For example, you may choose to use both symbols and colours, or differentiate line graphs with dashes and dots.
Can readers easily see the information on the poster or infographic? Often plots can be too small, and things like axis titles and scales can be difficult to read.
Consider that the size of any text within a graph should be appropriate for the scale of the poster or infographic.
A good infographic uses data or information to tell a story in a visual way that is accessible to a viewer. You might want to consider using infographics to represent
- processes (timeline, methodology, etc)
- spatial data (maps, networks, etc)
- hierarchies (layers, dependence, etc)
- comparisons (size, strength, etc)
- information and facts (icons, visual cues, etc)
- numerical data (charts, graphs, etc)
Software for infographics and posters
PowerPoint: Design posters or print layouts.
Photoshop: A powerful suite of design tools for image manipulation.
Canva: Simple graphics for online content (free version available).
Infogram: A tool for the creation of simple charts and infographics.
At some point in your university career, you may take part in a group assessment that includes an element of peer evaluation in the marking process.
Peer evaluation means that as part of your work, you will evaluate the contribution of other members of your group. Similarly, those in your group will also evaluate your contribution, and provide feedback on your contributions.
Purpose and benefits
Peer evaluation is a valuable assessment method. It will help you to develop and enhance your personal attributes and employability skills as outlined in the Sheffield Graduate Attributes.
These skills include your interpersonal skills and working with others. As a student, now is the ideal time to develop these skills.
Your role is not to reward or punish group members. It's to offer an outside perspective on peer strengths, roles and dynamics, as well as to reflect collectively on improving group practice.
By participating in peer assessment, you can use peer feedback to identify areas in your working process that may require further development.
Using this feedback alongside reflective practice can help you learn from the experience to improve or refine the way you work if you are placed in a similar situation. Read more about reflective practice
Increasing your confidence in group work will likely be of benefit throughout your entire career. Being able to identify where you can improve these skills, and how your skills are viewed by others, allows you to reflect on your practice and gauge where to improve.
Carrying out peer evaluation
Peer evaluation is undertaken using a tool called Buddycheck.
When you're working on a group assignment, you will need to answer evaluative questions about your peers' and your own performance in the group, and give feedback.
The individual scores you give to your peers will not be visible to other group members, but you may be asked to provide constructive feedback.
Peer evaluation should be an open and honest process for all. Comments should solely reflect an individual's contributions to the group work in the assessment you have been asked to evaluate.
Any feedback that refers to anything outside of the assessed content area, such as performance or group dynamics in a different assessment, will not be accepted. This may lead to the peer marks being amended or rejected by the module leader.
Peer evaluation criteria
There are numerous ways you can contribute during group work, and not all of them are obvious.
Peer evaluation will usually include a range of different criteria to assess how effectively you have participated. These might include your
- contributions to teamwork, including in producing work, contributing to discussions and aiding others
- interactions with teammates, such as how you have listened to others in the group, liaised between different group members, encouraged others and been receptive to feedback
- keeping the team on track, such as by monitoring group progress, intervening when there are issues or giving constructive feedback
- expectation of quality, eg motivating others in the group, investing time and effort into the work and believing in group capability
- knowledge, skill and ability, including how you have demonstrated and acquired these, or your capability to adopt different roles within the group
These points were adapted from the CATME framework.
Tips for peer evaluation
When you're part of a peer-evaluation project, make sure you
- are honest in your evaluation of yourself and others – this enables everyone to get the most out of the process
- use guidance on effective group work and collaboration to understand how to work together as a group – see our group work and collaboration guidance
- reflect and review – the feedback is there for you to learn from and use to improve your skills
- communicate effectively – read our guidance on communicating effectively online
Unfair means in the context of online assessment is exactly the same as unfair means in other forms of assessment. It refers to any form of cheating or attempts to gain an unfair advantage in your assessment.
Below are some study skills techniques to help you avoid unfair means.
Planning and organising your notes
Take time to plan and organise your notes.
In your notes, include as much detail on your references as you can, eg book or journal title, page number, quotation marks if it is a direct quotation, etc.
This will allow you to more easily identify the source of information during your assessments. This will also help you with time management as you will need to spend less time searching for information.
Don't just copy
Apply critical thinking within your reading and note-taking, as opposed to simply copying information directly from sources. Can you rephrase the source in your own words? How strong and reliable is the source?
Use reference management software to organise your references. See the Library's information on reference management tools.
Quoting, paraphrasing and summarising
Develop your quoting, paraphrasing and summarising skills to make good use of sources:
- Direct quoting: Using the exact words of the original text in quotation marks, together with your analysis or explanation.
- Paraphrasing: Explaining an idea or concept from a source in your own words.
- Summarising: Providing a brief overview of the main ideas in one or more sources.
When summarising, paraphrasing or quoting, you should always include a citation!
The aim is to demonstrate that you have not only read the sources, but also understood and interpreted them.
Watch our workshop on paraphrasing and using academic sources
Using resources to develop your skills
Make the most of advice and guidance available, including the below:
Your course or module handbook, for specific guidance on department policies and expectations.
Library workshops and online tutorials on research skills and critical thinking, to develop your citation and referencing techniques.
Videos on the 301 Kaltura Channel, to develop your note-taking, critical-thinking and academic-writing skills.
The Student Services Information Desk (SSiD) unfair means information for further information, guidance and support.
Book a Study Skills Workshop or 1:1 appointment
Would you like to explore a study skills topic in greater depth? Book on for a face-to-face or online workshop or 1:1 Study Skills appointment (current students only).
A world top-100 university
We're a world top-100 university renowned for the excellence, impact and distinctiveness of our research-led learning and teaching.