Canvas - Best practices for delivering online quizzes and exams in Canvas

When using Canvas to deliver online exams, there are many best practices and Canvas features instructors can leverage to make exams go smoothly. Even the most carefully thought out and laid out plans can go awry, so you should have a backup plan in place in case something doesn’t work the way you anticipated in Canvas.

    Quiz/exam start times: Instructors with courses of 200 students or more are advised to stagger quiz start times in Canvas in order to avoid quiz load delays for their students. Even varying the start times for groups of students by 5 or 10 minutes can help avoid delays with quizzes loading due to a large number of students clicking to begin the quiz simultaneously.

    Consider the best format for the exam in Canvas

    Question types

    Any online exam is going to involve questions. Canvas provides 11 types of questions within its Quizzing tool. For a deep-dive into those types, review this Canvas guide, How do I create a quiz with individual questions?

    Some question types (multiple choice, true/false, essay) are fairly simple to create. Other types (fill-in-multiple-blanks, multiple drop-down, matching) require a little more time to learn how to create. If you focus on application and deeper-level kinds of questions you can still get a fairly complex assessment of student learning out of simple questions.
    Of these 11 question types, nine of them will be auto-graded, meaning you will provide Canvas with the “correct” answer. Thus, Canvas can automatically assess the question, and produce a “right or wrong” response, and grade it accordingly. The two question types that will require human intervention are the “Essay” question (very popular) and the “File Upload” (not nearly as common).

    One question at a time

    By default, Canvas will present the quiz questions to the student in a single, constant stream. To navigate from one question to the next, the students simply scroll down. At the bottom of the page of questions, there is a “Submit” button.

    Canvas provides an option that will interrupt that continuous flow. This option, “Show one question at a time” causes only one question to appear, with a “Next” button beside it. This means Canvas saves the response after each question is submitted, giving some protection to your students from technical difficulties. This option is recommended for online exams. For more information, review this Canvas guide, How can I create a quiz where students see only one question at a time?  
    (Note: Some users have reported moving quizzes to a one question at a time format leads to longer load times.)

    Lock questions

    If you select “Show one question at a time”, an additional option becomes available: “Lock questions after answering”. This option, if activated, prevents a student from going backwards, through these one-at-a-time questions, and altering answers. This allows you to reveal an answer to an earlier question later on in the test without worrying about students then going back and changing their answers, making it easier for you to build a cohesive assessment.

    Maintain exam integrity in Canvas

    Randomize questions

    For online exams, it’s recommended to create a Canvas question bank (a large pool of questions) to pull into question groups in your quiz. Doing this lets you randomize the questions so that each student essentially gets a different exam and can help reduce compromised exam integrity. For more information, review this Canvas guide, How do I create a question bank in a course?

    To randomize the question order you must use the Question Groups feature, which allows for two effects that can improve the integrity of your exam. First, it allows you to create a group of, say, 50 questions, but set a limit of only 10 questions to be presented to each student. That way, each student gets a randomly selected group of 10 questions pulled from that pool of 50. Second, the order in which the questions appear will also be randomized. With this feature, even if you only created a group of 10 questions, you could still set the limit at 10 questions to be presented to each student. In this case, all students will receive the same 10 questions, but those questions will be presented in a randomized order. For more information, review this Canvas guide, How do I create a quiz with a question group to randomize quiz questions?

    Randomize answers

    Canvas gives you the option to randomize the order in which answer choices are presented using the “Shuffle Answers” option when setting up the quiz. This will affect the answer options for multiple choice and multiple answer questions. Be mindful, this option would likely render it impractical to use answers such as “All of the above”, or “Only A and B”. For more information, review this Canvas guide, What options can I set in a quiz?

    Modify answer display settings

    The default quiz question answer option in Canvas lets students see the correct answers for all questions both as soon as they submit the quiz and at any point after that. To increase security of your exam, it’s recommended you adjust your quiz settings to either let students see the answers only once after each attempt, or do not allow students to see their responses at all in Canvas (in this case, establish a policy that stipulates exam answers will be shared after the exam period has ended and any potential make-up exams have been completed). For more information, review this Canvas guide, What options can I set in a quiz?

    Use an originality checker for papers

    For exams where papers must be submitted, consider using the Turnitin originality checker service, which is integrated with UW-Madison’s instance of Canvas. 

    Review quiz logs

    Canvas keeps a log of each student’s interaction with a quiz. This Canvas Quiz Log can be generally useful in understanding how much time a student used to take an exam, for example. This feature is designed to help you investigate problems that a student may have in the quiz. If a student reports problems accessing a quiz or gets bumped offline while taking a quiz, the data may help support that issue. While data in Canvas Quiz Logs can provide useful information, it should never be taken by itself as evidence of academic misconduct. The logs, in particular, are good only for general information, specific entries in the log may not be entirely accurate. Instructors should never use a single data point to take any action in regards to a student. For more information about how to access the Canvas Quiz Logs review this Canvas guide, How do I view a quiz log for a student?

    Schedule the Canvas exam and set a time limit

    You should schedule your Canvas exam to align with your course’s scheduled exam time, as per UW-Madison faculty policy. When thinking about your final exam in Canvas, consider whether to offer a fully online exam synchronously and weigh that against your student’s availability and needs. You may provide an extended time frame to students for completing an asynchronous exam, provided the original exam date/time falls within the larger exam time frame.

    For the most equitable exam experience for your students, it’s recommended that you set a time limit in Canvas and a wide exam availability window, ideally 30-60 minutes more than your official end time of the exam. Doing so will grant all students the same amount of time to take the exam, even if they choose to/need to start late or are geographically dispersed and helps ensure each student’s time limit expires before the availability window closes. Exams will auto-submit when the time limit runs out or when the availability window ends, whichever comes first. It’s important to note that exams with time limits will continue to have the clock run on those limits even if Canvas is closed during the exam (either because the student closed the browser accidentally, the browser crashes, the internet connection is lost, etc.) But the student can simply rejoin the exam, as long as it is till during the available date and time of the exam. 

    Finally, if you have a large class with over 200 students, consider staggering start times by group for your synchronous exams (by 10-15 minutes) in order to reduce the possibility of load problems with Canvas that could potentially be caused by hundreds of students accessing the same quiz at the same moment. While unlikely, the possibility for those types of interruptions does exist, and staggering start times can help reduce their likelihood.

    Decide how to release grades

    Remember, Canvas can autograde all multiple choice questions (and several other of the question types). If your exam consists entirely of multiple choice questions, you don’t need to do anything. Canvas will autograde the exam, and students can have their grade within seconds of completing the exam.

    However, Canvas cannot autograde essay questions. If your exam contains even one essay question, Canvas will autograde any other multiple choice questions, but will not post the final grade for the student to see until you (or a surrogate) go into the exam to review the response, and manually input a grade.

    In either case, you may wish to hold student grades until all exams have been completed and you’ve had a chance to review the results. Then, you can release grades to all students at the same time. To hold grades until you formally release them to all students, change the Grade Posting Policy for that assignment to Manually. For more information, review this Canvas guide, How do I select a grade posting policy for an assignment in the Gradebook?

    Set up a communication channel to use during the exam

    For exams with a smaller delivery window, some instructors choose to keep a Blackboard Collaborate Ultra room open during the exam so students can drop in and ask questions. Others will set up a single discussion forum in Canvas, which they will monitor during the exam and promptly answer questions. Since it is a discussion forum available to all students, other students can see the questions and answers, alleviating repeat questions. If you can’t do either of those, you can always make it clear to students you’ll be available via email or Canvas conversations during the exam and will respond promptly. 

    Test it out beforehand

    The best way to predict how your exam will look for students in Canvas is to test it beforehand. This is an especially critical step for online exams. Every Canvas course comes with a pre-loaded “test student” which you can use to complete the exam in a Student View. Then, after exiting Student View, you can go to the Grades tool, locate the test student (at the bottom of the roster), and review the exam that you just completed as the test student. For more information, review this Canvas guide, How do I view a course as a test student using Student View? 

    Make a backup plan

    You should expect problems to occur during online exams. It’s necessary to have a plan in place for students who have problems with their exam and cannot, for whatever reason, complete the exam in Canvas. Consider making an electronic backup copy of the exam, outside of Canvas in case there is a failure that prevents all students from taking the exam in Canvas, or to provide to individual students who encounter problems. Some instructors ask their students to keep track of their answers as they complete the exam, whether in a local document or on paper, so that they can simply send you the answers directly by the deadline if need be.

    Communicate with students

    It’s important to provide students with communication explaining all the details of the online exam, including:
    • How to access the exam, and when
    • How the exam works, including some example questions
    • How much time they should allow themselves to complete the exam, and any Canvas time limits
    • How the grading/scoring will be factored
    • When grades will be released (immediately or later)
    • Any other helpful information that will help them complete the exam
    • A link to the academic misconduct statement, if you haven’t already shared it
    You can do this by creating a Canvas page or module containing this information. Consider making it a required element of your course, or an exam prerequisite, so that you ensure all students have seen the information before taking the exam. If you’re comfortable with video, it might be reassuring to students to see a video of you conveying this information. To do this, consider uploading a short Kaltura recording in Canvas

    Understand Canvas exam safeguards for students

    Canvas has features designed to safeguard students’ quiz progress and answers to ensure they are not lost during an online exam. For instance, Canvas checks for an internet connection throughout the quiz and warns the student to reconnect if it recognizes a lost connection. Losing internet connection in the middle of an exam does not automatically cause problems. The primary advice is: Do not close the browser window in which the exam was started. In multiple test cases, even if a student loses internet connection, they will still be able to continue with the exam. (It appears questions are loaded into the browser.) Also, if there is a time limit on the exam, the timer continues to wind down, even though there is no internet connection. The student simply needs to reinstate internet connectivity, complete the exam, and submit it as normal. 

    Canvas also saves and submits each student quiz answer immediately. This means that answers and progress should not be lost if the internet connection fails or even if the student’s browser were to crash or be closed during the quiz. The student can simply return to the quiz and continue from the point they were at when the quiz was interrupted. Note that essay questions are saved as soon as the student goes to the next question, however, it’s still good to encourage students to work on essay questions on their computer in something like Word, then copy and paste the answer when they are ready to submit it.

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