Online vs Paper-Based Exams: What Are the Differences?

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Technology is often all around students in schools, colleges and universities, from computers in every classroom to online assignments, and revision websites relied on by thousands. Despite this, most traditional exams, including GCSEs and A-Levels, are still paper-based. Yet in recent years, with the COVID-19 pandemic shifting so many parts of education online, many people have been wondering about the possible move to online assessments.

A range of exams can now be taken online – everything from university modules to ABRSM music qualifications. It is still hard to say whether online exams are better than the traditional paper-based approach, but it is certain that both types of assessment are now common in all stages of education.

The main difference between online exams and paper-based exams is as their names suggest. One type of exam is done on a computer and the other is a physically written exam. As a result of these stark differences, other differences between these exam types include their anti-cheating measures and their accessibility features. This is because these are both designed to suit the exam type.

With that in mind, this article will explore the differences between online and paper-based exams, and the pros and cons of each. Is one method better than the other? Should you prepare for them differently? Keep reading for more!

What are online and paper-based exams?

First, let’s clarify what online and paper-based exams actually are. Paper-based exams are the traditional tests many of us are used to in school. There’s a printed exam paper, and you write your answers down on paper too, whether that be in the question booklet or on separate sheets. This is all done in an exam room, overseen by an invigilator.

‘Online exams’ can mean a couple of different things. Often, it is a similar setting to paper exams, with students sitting answering questions in an exam room, with an invigilator. The main difference would be that the questions are on a computer screen, and you answer them online, rather than all on paper.

On the other hand, ‘online exams’ could refer to exams you sit on a computer, remotely. You could be at home, answering questions on a computer, with a webcam on instead of an invigilator in the room with you.

What are the differences between online and paper-based exams?

As suggested by the names, the main difference between these two types of exams is that one is done online, via a computer, and one is done on paper! But there are of course more detailed differences in how these two exams are run.

For instance, the anti-cheating measures have to be slightly different, and it is important as a student to be aware of what you can and can’t do in an exam.

You may think that an online exam means you have access to the internet, but this is almost never the case. Online exam systems should have a security measure which means you can’t leave the exam page or open any other tabs.

On the other hand, in paper-based exams, you likely need to be silent as soon as you enter the exam room, even if the papers aren’t out yet. This isn’t something you would have to think about if you were taking the exam alone at home!

The two types of exams also have different types of accessibility. Online exams are often thought of as more accessible, as it is relatively easy to adjust the test to support any disability a student may have. Equally, some students, or schools, may not have access to a reliable internet connection in their area, so it is easier for them to sit exams on paper rather than relying on technology.

Check out this article from ExamVictor for plenty more information about online vs paper-based exams.

The online vs traditional debate is nothing new, and there are a range of little differences that make people prefer one method over the other. Keep reading for some of the key advantages and disadvantages of online vs paper-based exams.

What are the benefits of online exams compared to paper-based ones?

Online exams are definitely the newer of these two exam formats, but there are plenty of advantages they have compared to the traditional paper-based assessments. In many ways, computers can make things more convenient, for both students and exam coordinators – whether that be easier marking, accessibility or better security for these important exams.

For another guide to advantages, have a look at this article from SFJ Awards.

1. Taking exams at home avoids travel difficulties

Although not all online exams can be taken remotely, a significant number of them can be. This means students don’t have to travel to exam centres. I’m sure many of you will be familiar with worrying about when the bus is going to come, or getting to school too early for an exam because you didn’t want to risk traffic!

No travel takes this extra weight off students’ shoulders on an already stressful day. This also makes exams more accessible for students who have difficulty travelling, or live far away from designated exam centres.

2. Results are often available quicker

Computers can do a lot of automatic marking if the test contains multiple choice questions. This saves the time of examiners, and means it is quicker for them to get through any questions that cannot be automatically marked. This hopefully means results get out to students quicker, which is almost certainly a good thing – no-one likes waiting weeks and weeks for results!

Time is also saved because paper copies don’t need to be scanned in and sent to examiners – everything is already online.

Similarly, computers can automatically come up with analytics for the exams. This can include statistics about how many students got each multiple choice question correct, or how long the average student spends on certain questions. This information can then be used to improve tests in the future, and can possibly be used to provide helpful feedback to students.

3. There is less admin work involved

Although this one may not affect students as much, there is almost always less administration work involved for online exams. For exams taken at home, there is no need to organise a suitable centre and room, or invigilators who can come in person.

The papers themselves are also easier to handle when it is all online – there is no need to worry about printing the papers, storing them securely, sending them off to examiners, and so on. This also makes the process more eco-friendly as a whole.

4. Online exams are often more secure

As mentioned, there is a lot of work involved in transporting and storing physical papers. There is a possibility during all of these that papers may get lost, tampered with, or damaged. Although this doesn’t happen very often, it is still a risk. Online exams generally get rid of these possibilities.

That being said, some would argue that there is a risk of hacking with online exams. Overall, there will never be a way to make exams 100% secure. However, both online and paper-based exams currently have lots of security measures to ensure students are not disadvantaged.

What are the disadvantages of online exams compared to paper-based ones?

Of course, there are difficulties associated with online exams, so there are still a good number of benefits to keeping exams paper-based. As mentioned, the setup for online exams is relatively new. We do not yet know whether this method will be used more often in the future, or if paper exams will prove the better option.

For even more pros and cons, check out this article from RM Technology.

1. Online exams rely on a good internet connection

The biggest disadvantage of online exams is that they absolutely need you to have a good internet connection. It is unfair for a student to try to take an exam if pages do not load, or it takes too much time for their answers to submit, for example.

This is an advantage for the traditional method – a physical paper can’t stop working halfway through an exam! Similarly, different computers will all work slightly differently, and some may run exam software better than others. Paper-based exams are more consistent this way.

All of this means some students prefer paper-based exams. Once the test has started, they can focus just on answering the questions, rather than worrying about the wi-fi connection.

2. Some styles of question don’t work online

Although the content of online and paper exams doesn’t have to be different, the types of questions you asked are likely to be slightly different. For example, paper-based science exams may ask you to draw a graph or diagram. This can’t be done online.

Online exams tend to have more multiple choice questions, as they are easy to answer online, as well as quick to mark. Some students may see this as an advantage! However, there is no doubt that an online exam can limit the types of questions that can be asked.

3. Online exams aren’t suitable for national qualifications

The COVID-19 pandemic meant many parts of education were moved online. However, key exams like GCSEs and A-Levels were cancelled rather than done virtually, and since coming out of the pandemic, they have returned to their original, paper-based format.

It is difficult to move these systems online, and there are no major concerns about sitting them on paper. It seems that for now, there aren’t enough benefits to online exams for them to become the norm – although of course, this could change in the future.

How should you prepare for online vs paper-based exams?

You may be surprised that the preparation for online or paper exams is essentially the same. The focus is generally on the content you need to know, and exam skills such as time management, rather than how you sit the exam.

That being said, there are a couple of things to be aware of for each. It is highly recommended to do some sort of mock exam to replicate exam conditions. Therefore, if you are sitting a paper-based exam, try to print out an exam paper beforehand, rather than look at questions on a computer screen.

You should also get ready for the logistics of the exam at least the night before. For paper-based exams, this could mean getting all your stationery together. On the other hand, for online exams at home, you may want to check your internet connection, device and webcam are all working as they should be.

Have a look at this article from EDExams for tips when taking an online exam.

Are online or paper-based exams better?

There is no definitive answer about which exam format is better – it is really down to personal choice. You may prefer paper-based exams if you do not have a reliable internet connection at home, or prefer online exams because you dislike your long journey to school to be on time for exams.

Hopefully, this article has given you a complete guide to how online and paper-based exams differ. As mentioned, both methods are currently used for different exams. It is likely you will have to sit both types of test throughout your years as a student and may come up with a preference of your own.

For more discussion about the pros and cons of online vs paper-based exams, have a look at this article from EDExams.

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