A study report issued by the American Psychological Association says that spending hours taking a high-pressure aptitude test may cause a person to feel mentally fatigued, but it does not necessarily have any adverse affect on test scores.
"The experience of fatigue during testing does not appear to be, in and of itself, detrimental to test performance," said co-authors Dr. Phillip Ackerman and Ruth Kanfer.
Reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, the study may help overcome the concern 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 generally used for admission to college and regulated professions like medicine, law and accounting.
During the study, the researchers gave 239 freshman college students from the Atlanta area three different versions of the SAT Reasoning Test.
The conditions arranged for the test simulated the actual exam, with start times of 8 A.M. on three consecutive Saturdays.
The tests were specially constructed for three different durations: 3.5, 4.5 and 5.5 hours.
The 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.
The researchers observed that the longer the students worked on a test, the more they reported mental fatigue.
However, despite reporting greater fatigue for longer tests, the students' average performance for both the standard and long tests was significantly higher than for the short test.
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.
"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.
As regards why some test-takers report more fatigue, the researchers say that their personalities come into play here.
They say that test length may not matter, as 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 said.
According to the researchers, 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.