Assessment Design: types of assessment task

Unseen Exam

What is it?

This kind of assessment almost needs no introduction, as most people will have heard the phrase ‘you may now turn your paper over’ at some time in their educational career. An unseen exam is a time-constrained assessment task, presented to students for the first time at the beginning of the assessment.

Unseen exams are usually hand-written and last two to three hours. They are sometimes required by professional bodies.

Recommended levels:


Suitable for groups?


Things to think about

Unseen exams test the ability to work under a time constraint and can be very stressful for students. Unseen exams are an artificial situation which students are unlikely to encounter outside education. They may favour a particular learning style and it is usually recommended that they are used as part of a varied assessment strategy to allow students to demonstrate their ability in a range of situations.

The traditional unseen exam consists of a series of essay questions or scientific or mathematical problems. The wording of the questions will reflect whether you want students to demonstrate recall of the course material under examination conditions (using phrasing such as ‘describe’, or to apply what they have learned to novel situations and problems (using ‘evaluate’, ‘analyse’ and ‘solve’). It can be difficult to do both of these things thoroughly under time-constrained conditions.

Students who need extra time for writing, or who have difficulty in hand-writing and need to type their assignments, will need special arrangements to be made in advance.

Assignment length

The usual rule of thumb for an exam question is that students should be able to sit and write the answer in half the time available for the question (the other half of the time being for thinking and planning). A student who has prepared the question in advance might be expected to be able to write more than they could for a question which they see for the first time as the exam starts. In a two hour exam, students might be able to write 2000 – 3000 words in total but this is very variable depending on discipline and level.

Group work

Unseen exams are taken by individuals.

Plagiarism Issues

There are unlikely to be plagiarism issues with an unseen exam, although students with excellent recall may be able to use the words of others to answer questions; these would be difficult and time-consuming to detect as papers are hand-written.


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