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

Neuroscience. 2015 Jun 25;297:38-46. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2015.03.047. Epub 2015 Mar 25.


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.

Keywords: assessment; cognitive load; educational neuroscience; fMRI; spelling; standardized testing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain / blood supply*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Verbal Behavior / physiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen