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CAT: The what and how of a computer-based test

July 15, 2009 12:21 IST

The stripes of CAT 2009 are now getting a little clearer. It has been some time since the IIMs made the announcement of making CAT a computer-based test (CBT) and here is an attempt to make meaning out of the various issues and put them in the correct perspective.

A few facts first: 
1) CAT - CBT is going to be conducted over a period of 10 days. This would mean that students appearing in different slots will get different papers. So Prometric, which has been awarded the contract to conduct the test, will have to create as many papers as the number of slots in the 10-day period of equal levels of difficulty. These tests must be "standardised" statistically so that the percentile performance of any students does not change, irrespective of the paper s/he gets.

2) The CBT is not an adaptive test like GRE and GMAT. The student can make a choice of the questions he/she wants to attempt, unlike an adaptive test where attempting every question is mandatory.

The implications of moving from a paper format to a computer-based format are manifold:

Environment change impacting performance
The first impact is the change in the testing environment affecting the performance in the test. The familiarity with the online medium is likely to enhance or hinder performance to a significant extent. Research has shown that 'reading speed' drops by as much as 20-30 per cent when shifting from reading from print to that from the computer screens.

Moreover, comprehension and manipulation of data become a lot more challenging in the new medium. So, sections that are likely to see the maximum impact are Reading Comprehension and Data Interpretation. The rest of the CAT sections are not going to be significantly impacted.

Test-taking strategy
The ability to choose questions to attempt could be "limited" by the format of the paper. For instance, if the test format allows one to scroll across the paper from the first question to the last, the ability to choose would be similar to the paper pattern. On the other hand, if questions can be seen one at a time, it completely changes the "paper scanning" process.

This format is definitely not the friendliest to a student, but most aptitude exams conducted on the computer are in this form.
There are many other formats that could be enforced.  A third one that could completely shake the strategy of a student is the "sectional time" limits. Most competitive exams have time limits for their various sections, this becomes difficult to administer because of the "logistical" problems in invigilation. With a CBT this might not pose much of a problem . 

Access to computers for "practice"
Access to computers becomes key to gaining an edge in test taking. It is likely to play a big role given the nature of the student community that appears for CAT.

Content change
Finally, though the conceptual learning does not change, the types of questions could. This is in keeping with the new environment.

All these converge into one question: how should a student prepare for CAT with so many 'uncertainties'? 

Essentially, a student should do the following:

1. Get adequate practice on computers. Some of the tests taken should be outside the comfortable confines of one's home. The performance in a computer lab outside home could be at least 15 per cent poorer than at home. Hence, it is important to test oneself in a simulated environment.

2. Focus on the basics. The subject does not change because the medium has. However, the types of questions could alter a bit. There is likely to be a flavour of GMAT, GRE this year. So stay away from very difficult DI sets and very long RC passages. Make sure that you do not ignore your vocabulary books.

3.  To take care of the eventuality of section-wise timing, it is important that you do not completely skip any section. For instance, do not decide, "I shall not do RC at all".

None of the above would be possible without sufficient time spent in practising the questions on the new medium. So, make sure that you spend enough time practicing before you appear for CAT 2009. Best of luck!

The author is Director (R&D and Academics), Career Launcher India Ltd.


R Shiva Kumar