Tests on Computers Versus Tests on Tablets: Do Students Perform Differently?

 Schools are moving from paper to online tests. Researchers are considering the effects of using tablets or computers on large-scale assessment performance.

Laurie Davis, Ph.D., has been studying how students take tests on different devices for Pearson since 2012. Her research shows that students perform best when they use technology with which they are familiar.


“When kids are comfortable and confident with the device, they do better,” Laurie says. “Using an unfamiliar device gets in the way of kids answering questions and could result in less accurate results.”

A Better Study: Devices Assigned Randomly

Laurie recently conducted a statewide study where students were randomly assigned to use a tablet or computer to see if there was a difference in test scores.

964 high school students from five school districts in Virginia were given online tests in reading, science, and math.

About half of them took the 80-minute test on a desktop or a laptop, and about half of the students took the test on a tablet.

Laurie and her fellow researchers found that there was no significant difference in scores across subjects, gender, and ethnicity.

“Results indicated no significant differences between tablets and computers for math and science at any point in the score point range or for any student subgroup.”

Boys did slightly better on reading questions when they used a tablet.

There isn’t enough data to explain why this happened. Laurie says it might be because boys perhaps find reading on a tablet more engaging than on a computer.

Finding the Right Device for Each Student

Laurie suggests this 3-step process to determine whether a student is comfortable with a particular device for testing:

  1. Ask the teacher if the student is able to use the device comfortably.
  2. Ask the student if they are comfortable with the device.
  3. Practice on the device and verify the student is comfortable using it when responding to test tutorials or practice questions.

Developing a ‘Halo Functionality’

There are obvious differences between a student’s use of a computer versus a student’s use of a tablet.

For example, on a tablet, students use their finger to interact directly with the screen to select or move objects and position the cursor. They use a mouse to accomplish these same tasks on a computer.

Usability studies show using a finger is far less precise than a mouse—and it can be frustrating to students.

So, Pearson developed a “halo” functionality for graphing questions on tablets. It helps students see the points or lines they are graphing without it being blocked by their finger.

Halo Image

The research shows that with the added halo, there is no difference in usability on a tablet versus a computer.

Standardization or Personalization?

Test makers are always looking for the fairest tests. In recent years, this has meant more standardization.

New technology—with tweaks like the halo functionality on tablets, not computers—means more personalization may be in the offing.

Laurie Davis says: “It can be fair to personalize the technology used to take the test so students can perform the best they can.”