Exam Anxiety: How Can Online Examinations Help?

Stressed candidate sitting an online examination

University and advanced professional education naturally comes with some level of nervousness and stress, particularly when it comes to examinations. The advent of COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation given that most students now have to attend class and do their exams online. This reduces the normal interaction with other students and tutors which can lead to learners feeling more isolated and nervous about the educational process. While experiencing anxiety is normal for any test taker, being too nervous can negatively affect performance significantly. This is because it can cause memory loss, reduce concentration and prevent the candidate from displaying the knowledge that they have learned, so that their mark is not going to reflect their actual ability.

With exams, students may experience low or high anxiety:

  • Low anxiety: This set of students might feel a little nervous when examinations are approaching. They are still able to study though without allowing the anxiety to get in the way. They also are able to answer questions during the exams.
  • High anxiety: Students with this type of anxiety are immediately anxious when posed with an exam or test. It is so bad that they may try to boycott the exam. Even if they manage to show up, they will endure the exam with a lot of fright in play. Students with high anxiety will have racing heartbeats, damp hands, and shortness of breath.

There are techniques that can be employed to help students displaying anxiety, and this can effectively help with exam performance. If a student has symptoms of high anxiety they should be encouraged to let their examining body know in advance, and steps can be taken to reassure them and provide extra support. There are ways in which online exams can be used to help manage and reduce test taker anxiety. Here are some suggestions:

1. Improve the exam environment

As mentioned above, special consideration could be given to students suffering high levels of anxiety. Some of the students will be able to tell what will assist them, especially if the student is not too young. With an online exam there is the benefit that the student does not have to travel to a test centre, but rather can sit the exam from the familiar environment of home. Reducing the travel commitments and anxiety about getting to different places on time can be a huge help to exam takers. Exam candidates can be encouraged to find a comfortable desk and chair in their house to sit while doing their exam which can make them feel more at ease. They should also make sure there won’t be any distractions from family or pets coming into the room.

2. Brief Exam Provider and Supervisors

The examination provider should ensure that the invigilators assigned to the online exam are briefed to offer extra support and reassurance to any nervous candidates on exam day. This will enable the supervisors to be ready and know how to take care of the situation, and they can go to extra lengths to ensure the candidate is at ease as much as possible. At TestReach, for example, our supervisors go through extensive training to ensure they provide a professional and supportive service to all exam takers and we can adapt to special requirements for individual learners who suffer high anxiety.

3. Give Extra Time and/or Breaks

Another way to consider students with high anxiety is to avail them more time and give some breaks in between. Your online exam provider should have the facility to add extra time to exams for students who require this special consideration. You can read more about exam accessibility options here.

4. Allow the student to have someone with them

There are stories of some students practically so panicked by the exam situation that they will only be able to respond when they have a friend or relative to calm them. This can be facilitated if it is agreed with your online exam provider in advance, as they will just need to advise the invigilator of the exam that the student is permitted to have one person with them. Having a familiar person there to reassure them may go a long way to reducing the nerves, although it should be understood that in the invigilated environment the candidate shouldn’t be discussing questions and answers with the person – they are there for moral support.

5. Using online video guides

As a way to prevent low grade anxiety in students, it is recommended that the exam provider utilise online videos to help get students well prepared. If they know what the online exam platform is like to use and how to prepare for exam day, this reduces uncertainty, and they can concentrate on their study and the actual exam - and not on how to navigate the software. Your online exam software provider should have support videos to prepare candidates. You can even consider making a video for your own institution if you have very specific questions or procedures you wish students to follow.

6. Promote flexibility

Permitting flexibility gives students some control over their learning process which is likely to motivate them and reduce anxiety. There are two ways in which online exams can help with this – there may be the option to allow students to sit their exam a time that suits them rather than all at the same time. Also, when setting a test, examiners can potentially allow for extra time (for example it might be decided to allow an extra 15 minutes for all students) so that the students who are nervous about using technology have a bit more time to allow for adjusting to a new way of answering questions. At TestReach, extra time can be added on a global basis by candidate so that the candidate will always have more time for exams, or it can be granted on a per-exam-paper basis, depending on the requirements.

7. Consider alternative assessment

The constantly evolving status of the pandemic calls for educational institutes to provide an alternative mode of assessment so that no student is disadvantaged. Alternatives for online exams such as well-researched projects can be considered and included in the assessment process. Your online exam provider may also provide the facility for formative assessments to be uploaded for grading which can be used in addition to summative end-of-year assessments. For students to earn the required grades, they can also be given a chance to make oral presentations of their projects via video conferencing platforms, which is quite normal in certain professional spheres such as medicine.

8. Consider Open Book Exams

As a potential reduction of stress, examiners can consider setting open-book exams where students have the liberty to refer to their reading materials if they wish to. The beauty of these exams is that they are set to test students' understanding and not how much information one can recall. They aren’t as easy as many people would imagine.

Candidates are tested on their ability to source relevant information within a limited time, analyze that information, think critically, interact and understand the content deeply, and then apply that knowledge to answer questions without copying verbatim from books. Examiners need to make it clear to students that they cannot just copy content straight from the internet of books.

For educational institutes that do feel comfortable giving open book exams, they can always try the option of requiring exam candidates to electronically sign an integrity contract where they vow not to participate in any exam irregularities. They can still be supervised but you just need to make sure that the supervisors are aware that certain resources are allowed. In this environment, you can also consider a timed online exam that is not supervised, but which still enables the candidate to take their exam on a laptop and work as they used to, and to do this from a comfortable home environment.

9. Offer exam-taking preparation trials

It is ideal if there is some type of practice test that students can take so that they feel very familiar with the online exam platform in advance of exam day. Examining bodies can do this in different ways depending on the provider, who may have sample tests or tutorials available, or you may choose to set up a practice test with similar question styles that will appear in the exam. Practice tests really help anxious students to reduce the exam jitters and enable them to perform at their best. Through practice, students can identify what is expected of them and they can master how to manage their time. This kind of preparation also instills a positive attitude among students which eventually boosts their morale and confidence.


Given the uncertainty in recent times, online exams are the new normal, and examining bodies need to intervene to help their students adapt. While institutions step in to devise systems to help students access their exams despite current restrictions, they also have features which can promote the psychological well-being among candidates. Being able to sit their exam from a familiar environment from home, with less travel, and with a trained supervisor there to advise and guide them – it adds up to a less stressful experience than a ‘normal’ exam day in a crowded exam hall.

If you’d like to read more about stress and online examinations, this case study from the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapists is an interesting real-life view of how an organisation, whose focus is on the mental wellbeing of patients, addressed the reduction of exam anxiety using online invigilation.

As a thank you and acknowledgement to this blog author we are providing a link to this interesting website on remote patient monitoring devices. Read on to learn more about this new area of medical study. If you enjoyed this blog, please sign up below to receive our updates, which are only once a month or less (we won’t overload your inbox!)