June 2, 2009 Spending hours taking a high-pressure aptitude test may make people feel mentally fatigued, but that fatigue doesn't necessarily lead to lower test scores, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association. If anything, performance might actually improve on a longer test, the study found.
"The experience of fatigue during testing does not appear to be, in and of itself, detrimental to test performance," said co-authors Phillip Ackerman, PhD, and Ruth Kanfer, PhD.
The study, in the June Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, stemmed from concerns that when taking longer tests over several hours in one sitting, students would feel increasingly fatigued, and, in turn, perform worse. High-stakes tests are typically used for admission to college and to regulated professions such as medicine, law and accounting.
Cognitive fatigue -- a sense of being mentally worn out or exhausted -- is actually only partly determined by the length of the test, according to the research. Some people simply seem to feel it more than others in situations that demand prolonged concentration and mental effort.
In the study, 239 freshman college students from the Atlanta area took three different versions of the SAT Reasoning Test. Under conditions simulating the actual exam, with start times of 8 A.M. on three consecutive Saturdays, the students completed tests specially constructed for three different durations: 3.5, 4.5 and 5.5 hours. (The current SAT is 3.75 hours of testing over a 4.5-hour session. In this study, the short version of the test had one less of the verbal, math and writing sections; the long version had one more of each. Otherwise, the tests were the same.) Students received a cash bonus if they beat their previous SAT scores.
Before, during and after each test, students completed a questionnaire designed to asses their mood, emotions, confidence, subjective fatigue and more. As expected, the longer they worked on a test, the more the students reported mental fatigue. At the end of 5.5 hours of testing, students reported high levels of fatigue.
However, even though students reported greater fatigue for longer tests, their average performance for both the standard and long tests was significantly higher than for the short test. In fact, the short-form average score was 1,209 out of a possible 1,600; the standard-form average score was 1,222; and the long-form average score was 1,237. Scoring was weighted to make performance comparable across the different length tests.
"A difference of 28 points, as shown between the short and long sessions, would be meaningful, especially if a student's on the borderline for an admission cutoff," Ackerman said.
So why do some test-takers report more fatigue? Personality comes into play, Ackerman and Kanfer found. Students who reported more fatigue for the long tests also were likely to report more fatigue for the standard and short tests. They even were more likely to report fatigue before they started the tests. The students' fatigue was less related to how much sleep they had the night before than to individual differences in stable clusters of personality traits, such as achievement motivation and competitiveness (less fatigue) and neuroticism and anxiety (more fatigue).
In other words, test length may not matter; some people are just plain more likely to feel testing fatigue. "Fatigue appears to be more about the individual's expectations of and prior experience with testing than about the length of the test," Ackerman concluded.
The authors said that there is much to learn about how students regulate their effort to achieve higher scores despite longer test sessions. "One possibility is that more students respond to feelings of fatigue by increasing rather than decreasing their effort," said Ackerman.
Given the increasing reliance by schools, employers and certification boards on long high-stakes tests, Ackerman and Kanfer hope that knowing that cognitive fatigue probably won't hurt scores will encourage more students to take these tests, which serve as gateways to opportunity. However, the authors suggest that future test-takers complete entire practice tests in a single sitting, so that they know how they might feel when they take the actual test.
The College Board, which publishes the SAT, sponsored this research. However, Ackerman and Kanfer, whose research focuses on abilities, motivation and cognitive fatigue, noted that the results reported in their paper are their own, and do not reflect opinions or positions of The College Board.
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- Phillip L. Ackerman, PhD, and Ruth Kanfer, PhD. Test Length and Cognitive Fatigue: An Empirical Examination of Effects on Performance and Test-Taker Reactions. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, Vol. 15, No. 2 DOI: 10.1037/a0015719
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