Behavioral and fMRI evidence of the differing cognitive load of domain-specific assessments

S. J. Howard*, H. Burianová, J. Ehrich, L. Kervin, A. Calleia, E. Barkus, J. Carmody, S. Humphry

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)
16 Downloads (Pure)


Standards-referenced educational reform has increased the prevalence of standardized testing; however, whether these tests accurately measure students' competencies has been questioned. This may be due to domain-specific assessments placing a differing domain-general cognitive load on test-takers. To investigate this possibility, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to identify and quantify the neural correlates of performance on current, international standardized methods of spelling assessment. Out-of-scanner testing was used to further examine differences in assessment results. Results provide converging evidence that: (a) the spelling assessments differed in the cognitive load placed on test-takers; (b) performance decreased with increasing cognitive load of the assessment; and (c) brain regions associated with working memory were more highly activated during performance of assessments that were higher in cognitive load. These findings suggest that assessment design should optimize the cognitive load placed on test-takers, to ensure students' results are an accurate reflection of their true levels of competency.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)38-46
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jun 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2015. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • cognitive load
  • standardized testing
  • assessment
  • spelling
  • fMRI
  • educational neuroscience


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