Computer-based (CB) assessment is becoming more common in most university disciplines, and international language testing bodies now routinely use computers for many areas of English language assessment. Given that, in the near future, IELTS also will need to move towards offering CB options alongside traditional paper-based (PB) modes, the research reported here prepares for that possibility, building on research carried out some years ago which investigated the statistical comparability of the IELTS writing test between the two delivery modes, and offering a fresh look at the relevant issues.
By means of questionnaire and interviews, the current study investigates the extent to which 153 test-takers’ cognitive processes, while completing IELTS Academic Writing in PB mode and in CB mode, compare with the real-world cognitive processes of students completing academic writing at university. A major contribution of our study is its use – for the first time in the academic literature – of data from research into cognitive processes within real-world academic settings as a comparison with cognitive processing during academic writing under test conditions.
The most important conclusion from the study is that according to the 5-facet MFRM analysis, there were no significant differences in the scores awarded by two independent raters for candidates’ performances on the tests taken under two conditions, one paper-and-pencil and the other computer. Regarding analytic scores criteria, the differences in three areas (i.e. Task Achievement, Coherence and Cohesion, and Grammatical Range and Accuracy) were not significant, but the difference reported in Lexical Resources was significant, if slight. In summary, the difference of scores between the two modes is at an acceptable level.
With respect to the cognitive processes students employ in performing under the two conditions of the test, results of the Cognitive Process Questionnaire (CPQ) survey indicate a similar pattern between the cognitive processes involved in writing on a computer and writing with paper-and-pencil. There were no noticeable major differences in the general tendency of the mean of each questionnaire item reported on the two test modes. In summary, the cognitive processes were employed in a similar fashion under the two delivery conditions.
Based on the interview data (n=30), it appears that the participants reported using most of the processes in a similar way between the two modes. Nevertheless, a few potential differences indicated by the interview data might be worth further investigation in future studies. The Computer Familiarity Questionnaire survey shows that these students in general are familiar with computer usage and their overall reactions towards working with a computer are positive.
Multiple regression analysis, used to find out if computer familiarity had any effect on students’ performances on the two modes, suggested that test-takers who do not have a suitable familiarity profile might perform slightly worse than those who do, in computer mode.
In summary, the research offered in this report offers a unique comparison with real-world academic writing, and presents a significant contribution to the research base which IELTS and comparable international testing bodies will need to consider, if they are to introduce CB test versions in future.