Educators: Creating take-home exams

Educators are finding themselves asked not only to be experts in their fields, not only to care about teaching and learning, but also to (quite suddenly!) translate their expertise in the classroom into exciting and equitable online lessons and exams. It’s a tall order. So we have some quick and dirty tricks to help educators with writing take-home exams, especially with essay or long-answer type questions.

Creating a Good Take-Home Exam

Some educators are very confident with the online or take-home exam space. If that is you, then this probably isn’t the blog for you. But it might give you some ideas and bolster your confidence in what you are already doing. 

But if you’re an educator and you know you are very good at what you do, but are lacking that confidence when it comes to setting take-home or online exams then this is the blog for you.

Some questions educators commonly have around take-home exams are:

  1. How do I make sure that my students don’t cheat?
  2. How can I prevent my students from plagiarising if they are at home?
  3. How do I write good take-home exam questions?

So let’s go through these.


Some Guidance on Take-Home Exam Questions 

Whether or not students cheat and/or plagiarise on a take-home or online exam are often directly related to the third point, the quality of the questions. Below are some easy-to-use strategies to help limit the temptation for students to cheat and/or plagiarise on your take-home exams or online exams.

First things first, let’s define cheating in this context. Given that a take-home exam or an online exam allows students to use resources at their disposal – notes, texts, the internet, etc. – it is quite likely that one of those resources they may use is each other. Let’s agree that it’s not “cheating” for students to work together or struggle through some questions by bouncing ideas off each other.

What is “cheating,” however, is if students go online and pay someone to write the exam for them or provide them with answers.

So what is the best way to create a situation where the latter is very difficult?



  • Include open-ended questions. As much as possible, have open-ended questions, questions where there is room for interpretation, creativity, and critical thinking. In this way, students aren’t necessarily working towards having the “right” answer (which they can easily get from one another or someone else), but rather working towards the best expression of their own right answer.
  • Use sight passage.  If possible, try to use compare/contrast long answer or essay questions about things that you give them as sight passages on the take-home exam. In this way, you are able to provide them with something where their response matters the most and is harder to share that on-the-spot comparison with someone to write for them.
  • Have a bank of different questions. Mix up the questions for different students. Ultimately if you want to get at their thinking on a particular subject, if you can do it, provide different questions for different students in the exam.
  • Use sight passages that are unknown or not well know. For instance, in History or Literature classes, find a section of something that isn’t easily googled and ask essay questions directly related to that passage. For other sorts of analyses, have graphs for discussion with data that you’ve made up or supplied yourself, so that the “answer” isn’t easily found anywhere beyond the student’s own ability to analyse what you’ve given them.


Depending on your institution’s policies, if you can open the exam timeline and close it within a set period of time, make sure to communicate that timeline in advance to students. Often access to devices and internet for take-home exams is not the same as if students were in class or on campus, so communicating the timing of the take-home or online exam in advance so that students can plan is very important. 

And when in doubt, it’s often better to be kind and generous in this time of anxiety and uncertainty rather than to be harsh. Our job as educators is to assess what students have learned, to the best of our abilities, rather than to try and catch or trap them.

Take-home and online exams may be new to you now, but COVID19 is changing the landscape of education now and into the future and these types of exams are likely going to be here to stay. So why not take this opportunity to experiment with these types of assessments now?


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