How to manage online exams

This section looks at how to manage online exams. This includes information about what to expect, how to prepare for an exam and practical tips to help you perform well.


You will have had experience of exams in secondary school. Exams can be delivered in a variety of different ways including written, practical or oral exams. They will often take place at University but in some cases will be take-home tests. Most commonly, exams take the form of a set of questions that you need to answer and are a way of measuring your knowledge in that particular subject. Exams are timed and often take place in a controlled environment with an invigilator present. Exams are just one form of assessment that will take place on your course, you will also be assessed via coursework.

‘Exams used to cause me to have really bad melt downs. I would turn over the page and my mind would go blank. Now I’ve realised that getting stressed doesn’t really help and I am much better at managing in exams.’
(Biosciences student)

Some University courses (such as PhD’s, vocational qualifications and creative topics) do not include exams and will instead offer assessment opportunities via practice placements or fieldwork assignments. On most courses however you can expect to sit exams at least once during the year, most commonly in May and June.

Since March 2020, some exams and assessments have taken place online. This means that, although you don’t have to worry about finding the right room, or arranging a smaller venue, you will have to make sure you are organised about the timing of each exam, as some may overlap.

Some courses use short, timed exams, while others have longer exams in which students can access all their course notes and textbooks and spend longer composing an essay over the course of two or three days. If a student is eligible for extra time on exams, or rest breaks, that time is added onto the total for a short exam, but the 48- or 72- hour exams are designed to include the additional time requirements of those students.

How could this affect me?

Many students report finding exams stressful, particularly in terms of preparation and knowing what to expect. It is important to remember that exams are only one form of assessment and that you will be assessed using a variety of methods on your course.

For autistic students one of the challenges relates to organising a revision timetable and not becoming overwhelmed by all of the reading material.

‘I feel like I need to read absolutely everything on the course reading list even though this takes ages. I find it hard to just revise certain topics.’
(Engineering Student)

Many autistic students report feeling very anxious during the exam period particularly in terms of practical arrangements. If you have a mentor or study skills tutor, you can speak to them and develop strategies to reduce your anxiety.

If you have a scribe or a reader, we can arrange for you to be matched with a support worker and you would agree to ‘meet’ via video call, and work on a shared document during the exam period. Sometimes students who are eligible for a reader or a scribe may instead choose to use assistive software during online exams. The Disability Service can help to arrange this support for you.

What to do next?

In addition to revising for exam content, make sure your additional arrangements are in place, if you have them.

Practical tips

These tips are intended as a guide so you can pick out the ones that are most helpful to you.

Before the exam

  • Many autistic students find it difficult to do targeted revision and to take regular breaks when revising. It can be helpful to set a timer to ensure that you revise a topic for a set period before moving on to the next topic
  • Many students report that mindfulness meditation or breathing techniques help them to relax before an exam. There are lots of resources out there that you can try that will guide you through the meditation process.
  • In order to revise most effectively it’s a good idea to use a variety of approaches. This could include using recordings, making a mind map and taking notes which you could display in a visible area.
  • Get as much rest as you can, 6-8 hours a night is recommended. Even if you can’t sleep, give your body a chance to rest and make sure that you have a chance to wind down before going to bed
  • Try to eat at least one proper meal a day including vegetables and protein and make sure that you stay properly hydrated. Although some people find caffeine useful in the short-term as a stimulant, it is not helpful for those that are prone to anxiety
  • Try to exercise daily, as this will help relax tense muscles, use up any excess adrenaline and increase circulation.

During the exam

  • If you feel anxious, practice breathing exercises to keep calm
  • Make sure you are sitting comfortably. Place your feet firmly on the ground and relax your shoulders. Adjust your computer screen and chair so that you are looking slightly down at the screen and your arms are parallel to the floor when you rest them on the desk.
  • Take a few seconds before opening the exam to let any initial feelings of anxiety subside
  • Plan your answers out briefly to ensure adequate time for each question. Before you start writing. have a look through the exam paper to see how many questions you have to answer. You can then work out how many questions you have to answer in the time available by dividing the time by the number of questions.
  • Many autistic students report that they become easily distracted by sensory stimuli and this can be particularly problematic in an exam. Make sure you are in a quiet space for your exam.
  • Stay hydrated throughout the exam by drinking plenty of water.
  • Take short breaks at the end of each question.
  • Avoid perfectionism – check spelling and punctuation and use sources if necessary but remember that you aren’t expected to produce the same level of writing as you would be in your coursework
  • If you feel unwell during an exam, taking a few deep breaths and a drink of water may be sufficient for you to calm down. If you remain unwell, tell your course leader as soon as possible.
  • If you are unwell over the exam period you may need to submit Individual Mitigating Circumstances. These are a way of letting the University know about something which may have affected your exam performance. You will need to complete a short form explaining how you were affected, and provide some evidence such as a note from your doctor. You can speak to the Wellbeing Service or the Students’ Union Advice team for help.

After the exam

  • Consider what went well and what didn’t go so well. Use that knowledge to inform you on how you prepare for your next exam
  • Don’t be too self-critical if you think you haven’t performed well. Remember that exams are stressful and it’s common to have doubts about your performance after the event
  • Whatever the outcome congratulate yourself for taking the exam and all your hard work!

Questions to think about

How will you tackle your revision? If it’s an open-book exam, can you use some extra time to revise for a closed-book exam?

Where will you sit the exam? In your room or in another private, quiet space?

If it is an exam which takes place over a number of days, how will you manage the time allowed? Have you got other exams taking place over the same few days?

Will you need any assistive software? If so, have you raised this with the Disability Service?


Additional information and links

Read on to find out about how applying for special exam arrangements can help you to perform your best in the exam.

Applying for special exam arrangements

If you think your autism impacts upon your ability to perform in an exam then you can apply for special exam arrangements. You will need to fill out an application with the Disability Service and provide medical evidence of your autism. The Disability Service will then make a recommendation about what adjustments are needed based on the evidence you provide and the adjustments you request.

Common adjustments that can be arranged are extra time, rest breaks, a reader or a scribe. Other more personalised adjustments can also be considered on a case by case basis. Once your special exam arrangements are agreed you will be sent a letter confirming this and the arrangements will be put in place for the duration of your course.

Deferral/ Individual Mitigating Circumstances

If you don’t feel well enough to sit your exams because of a physical or mental health reason you can apply for individual mitigating circumstances.

About the author

This article was written by Lucy Balaam, Disability Advisor (Autism Spectrum) at University College London, with additional information by Tash Hobbs from Student Support at the University of Bath.