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Ergonomics of Test Taking

For most people, taking tests is more stressful than other classroom activities. Taking a test requires one to sit for an extended period in a chair that usually does not fit well, and flex the neck and upper spine in order to read a paper placed flat on the desktop. The arms and hands are involved in handling the papers, and in handwriting. This pulls the upper body even more forward.

The body’s response depends on the fit of the desk and the chair. If the desk is too low, bending forward is more pronounced. If the desk is too high, shoulders may hike up and elbow position become more spread. If the chair is too low for the leg length, knees are either drawn up toward the chest or legs will be extended under the desk, placing stress on the knees.

I recently had the opportunity of proctoring a 7 hour exam. I congratulate everyone who was able to maintain good position for most of the time.

As the examinees entered the room and took their seats, it was interesting that only two of the eleven bothered to set themselves up so that they were in optimum position (at least as optimum as they could be in those chairs, at those tables without any adaptations).

As the exam started, more than ˝ of the participants showed marked asymmetry in their postures – one shoulder from 2 to 4 inches higher than the other. For some, this was made worse for some by their arm position, with one in the lap and one on the table. Additionally, one of the symmetrical persons had shoulders hunched up so that they were only 2 inches below her ears.

About ˝ hour in to the exam, people began to shift their weight and many postures improved. After one hour, one participant actively stretched his arms out to both sides.

When people returned to the exam after the lunch break, postures had improved again. As they took their seats, the participants sat more upright and more symmetrically. Healthy posture shifting was more frequent.

There was one more point of higher stress in each test section – when those who finished early began to leave. Those who were not finished with the test tensed and began to show the same postures they had when the exam started. This happed with each test session, but was most noticable in the first session.

My conclusion is that stress in exams contributes to poor posture and lack of attention to the body’s normal signals of discomfort. Additionally, stress dissipates with time. What this means is that short stressful tests are hardest on the body, especially if the environment is unknown.

So, how can we make things easier when we have to enter these situations?

If you know that standard table height (29 inches) is high for you, bring a seat cushion. A flat cushion will raise your height so the table is easily reachable and you can sit back in your chair. You may choose a wedge cushion. This will not only give you height, but assist you in maintaining a good, strong base for your posture.

Remember that if you raise your sitting height, you also lengthen the distance between your knees and the floor. You may need a small foot support to fix this. Sometimes a book or binder works well. Otherwise, there are small folding footrests that will do the trick.

If chairs are normally too tall for your legs (17 to 18 inches from floor to back of the knee), you will be sitting forward on the edge of your seat all the time. You could also benefit from a footrest. This should allow you to sit back in the chair and take advantage of the chair back. If you still cannot reach the chair back and the tabletop at the same time, chair depth is a problem.

If chair depth is a problem (your upper leg is short,), carrying a small backrest is a good idea. Otherwise, your choices are to depend on postural strength for the full time of the test (very difficult for more than 20 minutes), to slump in the chair, or to rest your body against the forward edge of the table. The most portable backrests are inflatable, such as those used in planes.

Is it worth using these adaptations for short tests? From the sample of people I observed, I would say YES! The first half hour was the most important. Taking time and effort to set yourself up correctly can pay big dividends.

I’ve attached a few links below as examples of some beneficial portable equipment.



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