Skip to main content

What is a linear exam?

A linear exam is an exam that is administered and monitored by proctoring software in which you are unable to move backward in the exam to change prior answers. Online exam taking programs often require a login, track your time, and prevent changes after the testing window is closed. Sometimes these programs prevent you from clicking out of the testing window or prevent copy-pasting to discourage plagiarism. You may have taken versions of these kinds of tests in the form of Sakai quizzes or exams, online math practice, or LFIT quizzes. In the case of linear exams, the exam format has been chosen in order to help maintain test integrity and discourage cheating through unauthorized collaboration.

Test-taking strategies for linear exams

Linear exams can require some special strategizing insofar as test-taking strategies familiar from traditional take-home exams don’t always apply. For example, you won’t be able to double check your answers or otherwise make use of any time still remaining once you’ve completed the exam. You also won’t be able to complete easier questions before going back to more difficult ones since there is no way to return to skipped questions. However, there are strategies for taking linear exams so that you can still complete all of the questions to the best of your ability within the time allotted.

Control what you can.

Study with time in mind. Linear exams are often open book and allow you to consult your course materials and notes, but watch out for the “open book, easy exam” fallacy. A common pitfall is to assume you do not need to study for these exams because you get to use your notes. However, if you spend too much time searching for information, you will run short on time for the exam. Since you’ll be working on questions one-at-a-time with time constraints, optimize your notes for consulting quickly. Here are some strategies you can try:

  • Create a one-sheet page with key formulas and terms
  • Create an index for notes or readings
  • Color code your bookmarks

Whatever approach you use, practice it while preparing homework or while studying so it’s familiar by the time of the test. Not sure how to practice?

Make a practice test. Collaborate with classmates to create your own practice test questions. Have each person create a few questions, and then ask someone in the group—or a friend outside of the group if you want to create a sense of surprise—to assemble the questions into a single document. Create a reasonable time limit for your practice test and then move through it in a linear fashion, just the way you will be required to progress through the real test. You’ll have to be disciplined while you engage in the experiment and not look ahead or skip around within the practice test. But the practice can help you get used to the feeling of moving through a linear exam.

Set yourself up to succeed. Virtual exams present opportunities for creating a testing space that works for you. Consider the environment you need to feel prepared and focus. Consult our Take-Home Exams tip sheet or our Test Day Game Plan tool for ideas.

Approach each question in a methodical way.

If you are new to linear exams, it may be easy to get flustered during the exam or to become anxious about moving ahead accidentally. Using a methodical process to answer each question can reduce this anxiety and keep you on track to answer each question within the allotted time. Here are some steps you might include in your process:

  • First, read the question twice and restate the question in your own words, if necessary.
  • Jot down key terms or parts of the question on your scratch paper, in the same place you are working out your problems, if applicable.
  • If questions are multiple choice, use process of elimination to reject wrong answers and narrow your search for the best answer.
  • Answer the question to the best of your ability.
  • Last, reread the question and check your answer before moving to the next question.

This last step is very important, since it is not possible to check an answer after moving on to the next question!

Be mindful of time.

Remember, when taking a linear exam, you cannot start with easier questions or test sections, come back to difficult questions, or double-check answers at the end of the exam. So you need to avoid taking too much time on a question by discerning when you need to move to the next one.

  • Plan ahead. First, determine how many questions are on the exam and divide that by the time allotted, in minutes. This is the maximum time that can be spent on any one question.
  • Determine how much time you have for double-checking your answers. Are you attempting to rework a problem, or just rereading the question with the answer to see if it makes logical sense? Whatever your strategy, ensure you leave time for double checking so that you are not making careless errors.
  • Track your progress. If you are moving more quickly through some questions than others, keep track of extra minutes on your scratch paper. These can be used to augment more difficult questions that are giving you trouble or taking longer to answer.
  • Use tools. Wear a watch or use another permitted instrument (a laptop clock, for example) to keep track of your time.

Managing test anxiety

Linear exams can be stressful because you have less control over how you navigate the exam and you may have less experience with them as well. See our tip sheet on test anxiety for information on how to identify the symptoms of test anxiety, who to consult if the anxiety is extreme, and how to manage nerves related to all types of exams.

Connect with support

Connect with the Learning Center. Start studying a few weeks in advance so that you have enough time to prepare for your test. You can also use one of the Learning Center’s weekly calendars to make a study schedule, or use Learning Center coaching appointments to help you learn about study strategies, create a study schedule, and remain accountable.

Connect with your class. Because linear exams do not let you return to harder questions, you may want to ask your instructors about what material is specifically being tested and how they recommend studying for the exam. What have they heard from other students who have successfully navigated this exam format? You can also check out the Learning Center’s tips for studying effectively, or, if your exam is for a STEM course, you can start with our tips on studying for STEM.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 License.
You may reproduce it for non-commercial use if you use the entire handout and attribute the source: The Learning Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

If you enjoy using our handouts, we appreciate contributions of acknowledgement.

Make a Gift