White space in assessment materials – 'space to think' or a 'waste of space'?
In this paper, we explore the significance of white space in test paper design in the context of high-stakes general qualifications in England. Exams should assess a student's ability in relation to a given construct (e.g. chemistry). However, the influence of text layout on performance may threaten the construct validity of assessments.
This research explored the effects of white space in question papers on cognitive processing – using eye-tracking methods – and respondent perceptions. The eye movements of 32 students (aged 15–16 years) were tracked as they completed two abridged AQA GCSE Chemistry papers: one with restricted spacing and one with enhanced white space.
Eye-tracking data showed that respondents took longer to complete questions with enhanced white space but also made more careful observations of the question content. Conversely, restricted white space was associated with shorter response times and more frequent rereading of item content. Interview data revealed that students preferred papers with enhanced white space, reporting that the additional space made them feel calmer and that the papers were easier to read.
These findings therefore suggest that the amount of white space in assessments not only impacts respondent preferences but also leads to measurable differences in assessment response processes. We discuss the implications of these findings for increasing validity in assessment design.