Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The optimal time for taking a test

As consultants specialising in online testing we are often asked whether there is an optimal time of the day for taking an online test. Now a recent study suggests that the time of the day might make a difference at least for older adults.

John A. E. Anderson and his colleagues from the University of Toronto had 16 young adults (between 19 and 30 years of age) and 16 older adults (between 60 and 82 years of age) complete different tests assessing attention in the afternoon (between 1:00 and 5:00 p.m.). Moreover, they had 16 older adults (between 60 and 87 years of age) complete these tests during the morning (between 8:30 and 10:30 a.m.). During some of the tests participants underwent brain scans in the fMRI scanner.

Both the test and brain scan data showed that older adults were more easily distracted in the afternoon. In the morning, their performance was similar to younger adults’ performance and so were the activation patterns in their brains: areas associated with improved ability to resist distraction were active. However, in the afternoon, older adults’ performance was poorer and activation patterns in the brain were significantly different from the morning patterns. The conclusion the authors draw from their results is that for older adults it is recommended to complete tasks that require attention in the morning because at that time of the day they are less receptive to distraction.

The original article was published in the journal Psychology and Aging, the pdf is available here. There is an outline of it on Sciencedaily.

What the authors themselves admit is that they did not have a fully crossed design, meaning they did not test younger adults in the morning as well. Therefore it might very well be that there is a performance and activation difference between morning and evening for young adults as well. Moreover, they did not test the same group of older adults in the morning vs. in the afternoon, therefore some of the performance differences might also be attributable to group differences. Also their findings might not be applicable to all older adults. There are still people who are more alert in the evening as opposed to people who are more alert in the morning, so to the former this finding might not apply. However, also against the backdrop of previous research, it is pretty likely that there are differences in attention for older adults across the day. So generally speaking, older adults seem to be less distractible in the morning than in the evening. Therefore for this group of people it seems that it makes sense to take an online test in the morning.

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