Test Strategies: Computer Based and Computer Adaptive Exams

Taking exams by computer is something students are encountering more often. Some exams are computer based (CBE), which means they are just like the pencil-and-paper exam but digital. Everyone receives the same questions and they are presented in a specific order. Often, computer based exams allow you to skip around through the test, just like you would be able to do with the paper version.


Other exams are computer adaptive (CAT), which means the test questions change to meet the needs of the person taking the exam.   See Wikipedia for more details.  Test-takers cannot skip around on a computer adaptive test. Test-takers are given a question of average difficulty. If they answer it correctly, they get a harder question. If they answer incorrectly, they are given an easier question. Because the test changes according to whether an answer is correct, no two test-takers receive the same exam.

The first tip, which applies to either type of exam, is to use your scratch paper. Reading passages do not normally fit on the screen, so you have to scroll to read the whole thing. Questions either begin at the very bottom of the screen or on the next screen. The same is true for mathematics or science questions that are lengthy word problems or have diagrams to help you answer the question. Use your scratch paper to make notes, copy the diagram, or anything else you feel will help you answer the questions that follow. Of course, you will also need your scratch paper for working out complex mathematical problems.

Other Tips and Strategies

There are several tips and strategies that can help you perform well on both the computer-based and computer-adaptive exams.

- Practice.
Most computer-based and computer-adaptive exams have published practice materials available from several sources. If you cannot purchase one, look in your school or community library for a copy. Try to find a copy with a CD-ROM component that will allow you to practice on your computer. Practicing the test gives you the chance to see the types of questions that are asked, as well as providing you an opportunity to see how the test looks.

- Complete the tutorial.
Many of the exams have a computer tutorial for test-takers immediately before the exam. If your exam has one, make sure you take the time to go through it. The tutorial is not timed, and it will walk you through the process of taking the computer-based or computer-adaptive exam.

- Be aware of the time. Both types of exams have timed sections. Typically, there is an on-screen clock that counts down the remaining time and alerts you when you are down to five minutes. Pace yourself so you can finish the section in the allotted time.

Don’t spend too much time on one question. This is especially true of the computer adaptive test. Computer adaptive tests are scored based on three components: 1) how many questions you answered, 2) how you performed on the questions answered, and 3) statistical information, including difficulty, for the questions answered. Taking too much time on a question can end up lowering your score.

Finally, make sure you know the rules for your particular test. Some allow you to skip around, but others do not. Some allow specific times for breaks, while others require you to log out for a break. Still other tests do not allow you to log out until you are finished, and logging out before the test is over prevents you from receiving a score on any section, even those you have completed.



About the Author

Brian has a BA in Economics, and an MA in Psychology. He lives in British Columbia, Canada. He has traveled widely and has written extensively on education, testing and tests.

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