Computers mightier than the pen in tests

COMPUTER-BASED assessment methods have increased students' performance and boosted correct responses in exams by an average of 13.5 per cent, researchers have found.

As well as raising overall performance and pass rates in exams, the findings show that use of CBA has helped to cut the time needed to test students.

Surveys built into the two-year study also revealed that 90 per cent of lecturers thought that computer-based tests offered the best possible measure of their skills and knowledge.

The research project, which has collected data from more than 2,000 students at the university of Derby between 1997 and 1999, has now run more than 6,000 individual computer tests on the assembled data and is, says overseer of the project Paul Bocij, the only study of its kind conducted to date in the UK.

Mr Bocij, director of Advanced Multimedia, an educational computer consultancy based in Derbyshire, says the research provides important new evidence of the advantages CBA offers in the future of further and higher education.

He explained the increased levels of students' performance in terms of a greater "task focus". "Simply, I believe that there is an effect that sharpens concentration when students use CBA," he said.

The research defies the widespread belief that paper-based tests allow students more freedom to look through test questions, compare them, or tackle them in non-chronological order according to their varying levels of confidence about each particular quesion.

Dr Patrick Jones, executive vice-president of the Professional Examination Service in New York, who administers a wide range of exams in the United States, said the research confirmed his view that CBA gave students an advantage by allowing for individual approaches.

Multiple choice exams administered via pencil and paper-methods present students with too many incidental distractions that can lead to error, he suggests. Typically, they present candidates with several items per page in small font size and oblige them to transfer information to a "scannable" answer sheet, while they must remember to leave a gap on this sheet whenever they "skip" a question.

"This process is prone to error and clearly leads to fatigue and stress. In contrast, candidates taking a CBA are presented with one item at a time in a large font and if they choose to skip an item they can mark it for review later in the test," said Dr Jones.

Mary Benwell, director of learning at the University for Industry - which is currently planning a package of online learning for students to be launched in the autumn - said the findings were also in keeping with her own experience at UfI.

"When people work at a screen, it can increase their confidence, and these results may reflect that effect. It also appears that computer-based learning can be a strong motivator and can overcome resistance to learning among key groups that have been turned off by traditional classroom teaching," she said.

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