Four Ways to Replace the Written, Proctored, Synchronous Final Exam

Here are four commonly used ways to replace your in-person, proctored, synchronous final exam.  Each approach is described in detail along with recommended practices and links to examples from courses taught by Waterloo instructors.

  1. Summative Assignment Instead of an Exam
  2. Open-Book, Asynchronous, Unproctored Exam
  3. Optional,  Asynchronous Unproctored Final Exam
  4. No Final Exam or Summative Assessment

Refer to the Accessibility Checklist for Alternative Assessments to ensure that your alternative assessment is accessible to your students.

1. Summative Assignment Instead of an Exam

A summative assignment is a substantial end-of-term assignment. It can either be a culminating assignment or it can focus on a specific set of learning outcomes. A culminating assignment is one that assesses students’ ability to synthesize and apply core concepts from the entire course.

The summative assignment can be due during the last 5 days of the Formal Lecture Period if it is worth no more than 25% of the final grade. In courses without a final exam, the summative assignment can be due during the exam period (see University Policies, Guidelines, and Academic Regulations) rather than in week 12, but note that assignments cannot be due during the study period between the end of the Formal Lecture Period term and the start of the Final Exam Period (See The Final Exam Period).

Recommended Practices:

  • Avoid scheduling other due dates or tests in close proximity to the summative assignment due date; students need (and want) sufficient time to devote to a summative assignment, especially if it is a culminating assignment.
  • Design assignments with the summative assignment in mind so that you can scaffold students’ learning across the term and avoid duplicating the requirements of the summative assignment.

  • Provide clear assignment instructions at the beginning of the term or at the very least well ahead of the due date so that students can be strategic about time management since they are likely juggling multiple demands and due dates.

  • Provide clear instructions and parameters (such as the number of pages or word count) as well as a marking guide or rubric so that students know the expectations.

  • Be available to answer questions right up until the assignment due date.

  • A summative assignment due during the exam period can be worth more than 25%; however, it’s still advisable to keep this component worth around 30-40%. When students earn the majority of marks during the term, they can gauge how they are doing in the course.

  • Do not assume that students have a printer or other technological devices such as a video camera or microphone.  All technological requirements must be stated clearly in the course outline.

  • You may contact your subject librarian to coordinate support for students working on research-based summative assignments.

Examples:  MATH 136, ENGL 101A
See Appendix for details.

2. Open-Book, Asynchronous, Unproctored Exam

An exam can be timed or untimed. Do not confuse the window of availability of an exam with the duration of time students have to write the exam.

An untimed exam is released to the students and they complete it and hand it in by a specific due date. It is recommended that you give some indication of expected time to spend on it, so that students don’t spent too long (e.g., “You should be able to complete this exam in 2 hours.”), but there is no time limit that you are enforcing.

timed exam has two components

  • Duration of the window in which the test is available (check with your Chair or Director as some departments may be coordinating exam periods)
  • Duration of the time students are given to write the exam within the window of time that the test is available (this is set by instructors; usually equivalent to the same time as a regular final exam, plus a buffer for technology hiccups; consult your Associate Dean for more information)

The Quiz tool (or Mobius, for STEM courses) is the most useful for timed exams: the question types can be auto-graded (e.g., multiple choice, true/false, fill in the blank) or manually graded (written response). Questions that require students to draw (either by hand or electronically) must be submitted using a Dropbox or Crowdmark, as the quiz tool does not accept attachments.

Whether timed or untimed, the exam can include a variety of question types (e.g., problem-based questions, essay answer, multiple-choice, short answer, exercises, etc.).

Recommended practices:

Content and Format

  • Given that enforcing a closed-book exam in an unproctored situation is impossible, we recommend using an Academic Integrity statement that students must sign or otherwise acknowledge, thereby setting up the exam to be a level playing field. If students are simply told not to use any resources at all, those who normally wouldn’t consider cheating are suddenly struck with the reality that their peers who may have no similar qualms now have an opportunity to unfairly achieve a higher grade. Simply by outlining some resources that are available, and outlawing others that are not, the playing field is leveled and honest students are able to proceed with confidence, while those who were planning to cheat will do what they were going to do anyway.
  • Explicitly state that the exam is open-book and provide students with a list of acceptable resources for use during the exam. For example: in a language course, students could be allowed to use their textbook and a dictionary, which might reduce the likelihood of students googling answers out of desperation. In a STEM course, students might be allowed to have a formula sheet with them during the exam.
  • If you would like to have a “closed-book” exam, you can use the following wording:
    • By starting this exam and uploading your work to the dropbox, you acknowledge agreement with the following statements:
      • This is a closed book exam; no aids are permitted.
      • I have received no assistance in the writing of this exam. I confirm that I will not access the Internet or any other resources in the writing of this exam.
      • This exam is protected by copyright. I understand that reproducing or sharing contents of this exam in any manner is a violation under Policy 71.
      • I acknowledge that the typical penalty specified in Policy 71 for a first offence of premeditated cheating is zero on the test, course failure, suspension and disciplinary probation.
  • Avoid high-stakes final exams – keep the weight below 40% (aim for 25% to 35%) so that students’ final grades are not based primarily on how they perform on one assessment.
  • Primarily use higher-order thinking questions, i.e., those that require students to apply, analyze, synthesize, and critique course material, rather than basic recall questions for which students could just look up the answer. Here’s an example of how to revise a multiple-choice recall question, for which students can easily look up the answer, into an application question for which it is not easy to simply look up the answer.
Recall question for which the answer would be easy to look upSame concept revised as an Application Question (not easy to just look up the answer)

 Which of the following is the definition of the term self-concept?

  1. A person’s concept of how others see them.
  2. A person’s beliefs about the self that organize and guide the processing of self-relevant information.
  3. A person’s images of what they dream of or dread about the future.
  4. A person’s answers to the question “Who am I?” 

Barbara replies to her therapist, "How do I see myself? Well, I'm socially anxious, insecure, relatively intelligent, and terribly shy." Barbara's response reflects her 

  1. Looking glass self
  2. Self-concept
  3. Cognitive dissonance
  4. Working memory
  • During the term, show students Bloom’s Taxonomy and give them examples of questions  at the recall level as well as at the level you will be testing.
  • On the final exam, use question formats that students have practiced and received feedback on during the term. In other words, don’t give an exam with essay questions if your weekly quizzes included only multiple-choice questions.
  • For essay-based exams, aim for 1-3 questions that focus on getting students to demonstrate that they know how to retrieve, apply, and integrate information covered during the course. Specify a reasonable word count for essay questions so students know that the parameters of the essay exam are not the same as the parameters of a major essay written during the term.
  • For courses which are numerically focused, an unproctored exam can look much like an assignment.
  • For multiple-choice questions, consider drawing a random set of questions from a question pool. 
  • In STEM, consider using a pool and algorithmic questions.
  • In STEM, consider using fewer computational questions and more conceptual, high-order thinking questions.
  • Consider using case studies, as long as you use them during the term so students learn to analyze and respond to them.
  • It is possible to set up a quiz in LEARN, but then to also provide a PDF of the questions so that students can work out the problems on paper, and then input their answers into the quiz. If you do post the questions in PDF form, then do not scramble the order of either the exam questions or response options in the LEARN quiz, forcing students to use exam time to track down the location of each question.
  • Do not assume that students have a printer or other technological devices such as a video camera or microphone.  All technological requirements must be stated clearly in the course outline.

Administration of the Exam

  • Final exams during the final exam period should have a generous availability window such as 48 to 72 hours so that students can manage possible conflicts with other courses or other commitments, whether or not the exam itself is timed.
  • When preparing your students for an open-book, unproctored exam, explain that the focus of the exam is on assessing higher-order thinking skills. Encourage students to study for the exam. Provide clear instructions and clear parameters so that students know what you are expecting; use rubrics whenever possible.
  • Clearly state which weeks of content the final exam covers (e.g., Weeks 9-12, the entire course).
  • Review your learning outcomes and ensure that the exam covers any learning outcomes that were not fully covered in the in-term assessments. 


Your choice of tool depends on your exam. See Keep Learning Final Exams for an overview of options. 

Academic Integrity

Design an asynchronous, open-book, unproctored exam that minimizes the potential for academic misconduct. See Keep Learning Academic Integrity

Examples: GENE 123, SocWk 222R, HIST 216, PHYS 111, PSYCH 312
See Appendix for details.

3.Optional,  Asynchronous Unproctored Final Exam 

Even when campus closure isn’t a concern, some instructors make the final exam optional so students can choose how to demonstrate their learning in a way that suits their learning needs. If you choose this approach this means that you will have 2 grading schemes in your course. 

Recommended Practices:

  • On the syllabus, clearly state how the final grade will be calculated for students who choose the final exam option and for those who choose the no final exam option.
  • Provide a date by which students need to decide which option they have chosen (that is, the final exam or no final exam).
  • You still need to follow all of the best practices for final exams, as outlined in #2, including specifying timed vs untimed, which resources are permitted, etc.

Examples: PSYCH 101R
See Appendix for details.

4. No Final Exam or Summative Assessment 

With no final exam or summative assignment, the assessments done during the term (tests, assignments, and other graded learning tasks) total 100% of students’ final grade. Note that any assignment or test scheduled during the last 5 days of the Formal Lecture Period must not be worth more than 25% of the final grade (see University Policies, Guidelines, and Academic Regulations).    

Recommended Practices:

  • Have a balance of formative assessments (no or low grades, meant to give feedback) and summative assessments (graded work like midterms or major assignments).
  • Ensure that your assessments address all of your key learning outcomes.
  • Schedule some assessments after the Add date, but still early enough in the term that students can gauge how they are doing and improve through the rest of the term. Also, when students receive some grades and feedback before the first drop date, they can make informed decisions if they need to make any changes to their course load. 
  • To help students stay on track throughout the term, incorporate frequent low-stakes assessments (such as a weekly quiz) but avoid assigning several different low-stakes learning activities each week. Aim for a balance in the number, frequency, and weight of assessments; avoid having very few high-stakes components (for example, don’t have two midterms, each worth 50%). Consider replacing high-stakes midterms with a series of quizzes that assess a smaller amount of course content.
  • If you use quizzes or assignments every week or every two weeks, consider dropping the lowest mark(s).
  • Design online tests according to recommended practices; see option #2 “Open-book, Asynchronous, Unproctored Exam”.
  • Do not assume that students have a printer or other technological devices such as a video camera or microphone.  All technological requirements must be stated clearly in the course outline.

Examples: AHS 105, GEOG 207, DUTCH 271, SOC 101, GEMCC, SWK 605
See Appendix for details.



1. Summative Assessment Instead of an Exam

  • MATH 136: Final Assignment released in Week 12 and due at the end of the exam period. 

  • ENGL 101A: Introduction to Literary Studies: Final Anthology ProjectFor this assignment, students “edits” their own thematic introductory literary anthology, comprised of approximately 5-6 texts from the course this semester (in class or online; with short poems, they may include up to 8 texts).

2.   Open-book, Asynchronous, Unproctored Exam

  • GENE 123:
    • In this circuit course, the exam is composed of 5 questions. The instructor uses Mobius to randomly assign questions to each student. Students can only submit the final answer, so they will not get any partial mark for the question which is a clear disadvantage of this approach. To minimize the impact of this, the instructor designed the questions as follows:
      • Questions 1-3 were relatively long circuit questions, and each question included 6-8 different requirements that do not depend on each other so that if students made an error in part (a), they would not be penalized in part (b).
      • Question 4 was composed of several circuit questions: each one has only one quantity to calculate and those circuits are completely independent of each other.
      • Question 5 was from a pool of multiple-choice questions or similar questions like question (4).
    • The instructor tried to give relatively easier questions than previous offerings to compensate for the missing of the partial marks
    • The average grade for the exam was 73% which is very close to the averages in previous terms
  • SocWk 222R: Students will be shown 8 short answer/case study questions from which they will choose 5 to write. The 8 shown will be drawn from a pool of 12.

  • HIST 216
    • Original instructions: “The exam is two questions and you have two hours. Good luck.”
    • Revised instructions: 
      • Here is the final exam. Please answer in essay form (PDF or DOC/DOCX) and upload to the "Final Exam" Dropbox by 11:59PM on Sunday, April 19th. Questions? Let me know.
      • It should take you about two or three hours to do if you did it in one sitting after studying, to give you a sense of my expectations (although, it may take you longer if you're writing it completely open book). You should aim for ~ 1500 to 2000 words minimum, but you can go longer if you want. Don't worry about referencing but obviously make clear where you're getting your ideas from.
      • THE EXAM Answer one (and only one) of the following questions in essay form. They should provide an opportunity for you to show off your knowledge. Make sure to have a thesis.”
  • PHYS 111: Exam with physics problems that students have to solve on paper then take a picture or scan and submit it in Crowdmark. Available for 48-hour window but to be taken with 24 hour once they started it.

  • PSYCH 312: The final examination is weighted 25% and consists of multiple-choice questions (15% of final grade) and a written component (10% of final grade).

To reduce the stress for students, the authors decided to create a midterm that covers the first half of the course and reduce the final exam weight and cover the other half of the course.

Activities and AssignmentsWeight (%)
Group Discussion  3 x 3% = 9%
Written Assignments  3 x 5% = 15%
Quizzes 4 x 6.5% = 26%
Midterm Examination (Modules 1- 6) 25%
Final Examination (Modules 7-12) 25%

3. Optional  Open Book, Asynchronous Final Exam - Examples 

  • PSYCH 101R
    • Optional Final Exam. If you would like to increase your grade or have missed a midterm test without documentation, you have the option to write the final exam. The final exam will replace your lowest midterm grade. If your final exam grade is lower than your midterm grades, it will not replace them. The final exam will be cumulative, covering all the text, lecture, and readings from the entire course. It will include multiple-choice questions only.  

4. No Final Exam or Summative Assessment - Examples

  • AHS 105 Mental Health Literacy Grade Breakdown
ComponentWeight (%)
Learning Activities   10%
3 Unit Tests   40%
Individual assignment - Personal Mental Wellness Plan 25%
Group project - Mental Health Literacy in Your Community 25%
Total 100%


  • GEOG 207 Grade Breakdown
AssessmentsWeight (%)
Quizzes (best 10 out of 12) 40%
Discussion Summary Assignment 20%
 Assignment 1: Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation at the Community Scale 20%
Assignment 2: Emissions and Mitigation at the Community Scale 20%


  • DUTCH 271: Introduction to Dutch Culture Grade Breakdown
Activities and AssignmentsWeight (%)
Introduce Yourself   Ungraded
Weekly Discussions and Discussion Summary Paper  30%
Novel and Essay 10%
Quizzes 5%
Journal Entries 10%
Final Journal Submission 10%
Final Paper 35%


  • SOC 101: Introduction to Sociology Grade Breakdown
Activities and AssignmentsWeight (%)
Introduce Yourself   Ungraded
Quizzes (best 8 of 10; 2.5% each)   20%
Written Assignments (best 8 of 10; 7.5% each) 60%
Week 4 Discussion Assignment 10%
Week 10 Discussion Assignment 10%


  • GEMCC 620 Climate Data and Analytics Grade Breakdown
Activities and AssignmentsWeight (%)
Introduce Yourself  Ungraded
Discussion  15%
Lab Report 1 20%
Lab Report 2 20%
Lab Report 3 20%
Lab Report 4 25%


  • SWK 605: Knowledge Mobilisation Grade Breakdown
Activities and AssignmentsWeight (%)
Mind Map Assigment   15%
Knowledge Mobilization Initiative Group Assignment  50%
Knowledge Mobilization Initiative Initiative Reflection 5%
Discussion Summary Assignment 30%