Administering Written Exams via Canvas

The Canvas Assignments tool can be used for replicating a “take-home” style of exam, or a written exam, in an online or remote course setting. This post will discuss how to decide if this is the right approach for your course, how to set it up in Canvas, and some details for administering it to ensure a smooth launch come exam time.

Things to Consider Before Going This Route

There are a few things to consider before going with this approach:

  1. In effect, this style of exam must be considered “open book”. Understand that students will have access to their notes and course materials (and yes, even access to the internet) during the exam period. You might want to lean into this by asking students to provide references and citations in their responses, like they would have to with a research paper.
  2. This type of exam is quite easy for students to keep a copy of, and potentially could be distributed to students in future classes. Your best bet to ensure exam integrity term-to-term is to either make a unique variation of the exam each term, or write questions that require very complex higher-order thinking and analysis — i.e., questions that knowing them well in advance won’t save a student from putting in the work to create a well-crafted response.
  3. This type of exam works best for written response questions (i.e., short answer, long answer, and essay response types) in which you expect students to provide you with unique answers. It is not a good option for very objective question types (such as multiple choice and true-false questions); the Canvas Quiz tool is a better option for those. Keep in mind that you can always do a 2-part exam if you want to use both approaches.
  4. When setting your test availability window, you are striking a balance between keeping it small to discourage collusion between students, and widening it to allow for more flexibility and accessibility. For a Final Exam, an availability window of between 3 and 24 hours is a common approach used. Also remember that the window you set should align with the exams schedule set for your course by the university, so that your students will not have conflicts with their other courses.
  5. This is a wonderfully low-bandwidth exam option. Other examination methods, such as Canvas Quizzes or testing that uses proctoring software, require constant internet connectivity, and thus can present a real barrier for students with limited access to the internet. Even for students with reliable internet access, exams with constant connectivity are generally a higher-stress situation because of all that can go wrong with an internet connection during the test period. A take-home (or download/upload) written exam is a great way to increase the accessibility of your course, and also limit the stressful nature of web-based examinations.

Setting it up in Canvas

Replicating the “take-home” or written exam approach in an online/remote setting involves uploading an exam file (likely in a Word document format) to your Canvas course as an “Assignment”, setting the parameters for the release date/time and submission deadline, and them communicating with students so that they know what to expect. To complete the exam, students download the Word file, complete their work and save a copy, and then upload their completed exam — all within the access window you define.

The following instructions and links from the Canvas Instructor Guide will walk you through this process:

  1. First, upload the exam file to your course. Depending on the settings of your course, students may have access to view the content of the “Course Files” folder. For this reason, you should also make sure to restrict the file access (either so that it is “Only available to students with the link”, or you can “Schedule student availability” and restrict it to the test access time). This way, students won’t see the exam file before you want them to see it.
  2. Next, create an Assignment Group, and title it accordingly (this is recommended since often exams will be weighted separately from other elements of the course — e.g., the Final Exam alone might be worth 25% of the course grade).
  3. Within that Assignment Group, create your Assignment, but for now, DO NOT publish it (i.e., hit the “Save” button but not the “Save and Publish” button). This ensures that students won’t see anything you don’t want them to see yet.
  4. Edit the Assignment details to suit your needs. Pay particular attention to the following items:
    1. In the Rich Content Editor, add some instructions to students so that they know what to do to complete their take-home exam. You also want to insert a link to the downloadable exam file (e.g., Word document) into the Rich Content Editor.
    2. Set the number of points you are grading the exam out of.
    3. Make sure you have paired the Assignment to the Assignment Group you made earlier, so that it will be weighted properly in your Gradebook.
    4. Set the “Submission Type” to “Online” and only to “File Uploads”; you can further limit this by selecting “Restrict Upload File Types” to just allow Word documents, for example (i.e., doc, docx). More details here.
    5. Under the “Assign” field, specify the “Due” date with the final deadline, and the “Available from” and “Until” fields with the window of availability in which the Assignment (i.e., exam) will be visible to students. In this case, it makes sense for the “Due” and “Until” fields to contain the same date and time (i.e., the submission deadline). For example, you might set the exam to be Available from: Dec. 1, 9:00AM, Until: Dec. 1, 9:00PM, Due: Dec. 1, 9:00PM. This would give your students a 12-hour window in which to download their exam, complete it, and upload it for grading, after which the exam would disappear from their Canvas course (although they should still have a copy saved locally). More details here.
    6. When you are ready, click to “Save and Publish” your Assignment (i.e., exam). Students will not see anything until the availability date/time that you set. To confirm, you can always toggle to the Student View of your course.

Setting Exemptions for Particular Students

There are numerous reasons why a student might need to have additional time to complete their exam, or might need to access it on a different day/time than the rest of your class. When you edit an Assignment in Canvas, use the “Assign to” feature to alter the “Due” date, and or the “Available from” and “Until” dates, just for a particular student. See the following link for details on how to do this: How do I assign an assignment to an individual student?

Optionally, if a student is writing on a different day and you wish to give them a different version of the exam than what the rest of the class wrote, you will need to create a whole new, separate Assignment; upload your alternate version of the exam, and then assign it only to that student.


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