Making visible the invisible: Using eye-tracking technology to understand how students access task information

In this C4IE blog, Dr Callula Killingly, a postdoctoral fellow in C4IE’s Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage team, explains what eye tracking is, and why we are using this innovative technique with Grade 10 English students.

Eye tracking: what is it and what does it do?

The learning process is largely invisible. Knowing what helps or hinders students to read and comprehend a text is also hard to measure. While we can ask students about their reading process, their insights are limited to what they are consciously aware of and what they remember about the experience.

Also, what people tell us about their reading experiences does not necessarily provide information about the mental processes that are involved in processing information or the barriers to effective comprehension.

One effective way for understanding how students engage with text is a research method called eye-tracking. Eye-tracking allows us to record the movement and location of a person’s eyes while they are engaged in a task, using non-invasive technology.

Decades of research has demonstrated that what people are looking at can tell us a lot about what they are thinking about. Eye-tracking can therefore provide us with objective information about how people are accessing visual content, from which we can infer something of the underlying cognitive processes.

Eye-tracking can tell us about which content is being accessed and which is being missed. It can tell us how much time is being spent accessing the content and the sequence in which the person attends to different parts.

This information can be helpful for many reasons. For example, somebody who is designing an advertisement or website would be able to see which areas of the page are capturing people’s attention, which could help in the evaluation of what marketing techniques are effective.

In an educational context, we can discover what students are attending to when they are viewing content, and we can similarly use that to inform how we design educational resources or assessment task sheets.

Why are we using eye tracking in this study?

The Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project is looking at how secondary school assessment tasks and teaching practices can be made more accessible, for all students. This 3-year project was funded by the Australian Research Council and is led by Professor Linda Graham and Associate Professor Jill Willis, and partners with 3 participating schools—Benowa State High School, Kedron State High School and Macgregor State High School—with the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment AuthorityQueensland Secondary Principals Association, and Speech Pathology Australia.

A key part of the project involves using eye-tracking technology to capture and analyse students’ visual engagement while they read an English assessment task sheet. We will use this information with school teams to redesign English assessment task sheets, with the aim of making them easier for students to comprehend.

Barriers to accessibility can include visual, linguistic, and procedural complexities. Visual barriers include where information is placed on a page or the size of the text. Procedural barriers can include inconsistencies between the task instructions and the marking rubric. Linguistic barriers can include long, complex sentences or vocabulary that is not familiar to students.

When assessment task sheets are unnecessarily complex, this can result in barriers to optimal comprehension which all students need to do well in assessment. The stakes are even higher for students who experience common learning difficulties, including students with language and/or attentional difficulties.

Although they account for around 20% of the student population, students with language and attention difficulties often ‘fly under the radar’. However, by removing unnecessary barriers through the provision of accessible assessment resources and teaching practices, all students can be successful.

What will the project do and achieve?

The Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project team will use the eye-tracking data to improve task design and remove barriers for all students. Some of the eye-tracking data will include how much time a student spends in looking at a particular part of the task and how many times they view certain sections of the task.

These visual behaviours allow us to infer some of the cognitive processes which underlie how a student is engaging with their assessment, and whether they are engaging deeply with the task requirements or considering only surface level information (e.g., due dates, task length).

Some task sheet elements are presented in a particular order on a page, and this order is important for making overall meaning of the information. Eye-tracking helps us to understand the order in which students view information on the page. We can also look at how much they go back and forth to support their understanding of the task, and where unnecessary pictures or words may be distracting from important information.

We are also conducting short interviews with students, to see what they remember and understood from their task sheets, as well as investigating engagement and achievement data.

All of this information will ultimately help us support school teams to optimise the accessibility of their assessment task sheets. The eye tracking exercise will be repeated with students who are using the redesigned task sheet in 2022. This will help us see whether the changes to the task sheet result in improved student outcomes.

To achieve this we need big numbers of students: 900 across our three partner schools. We are recruiting students who are currently in Year 9 and who will be in Year 10 in 2022.

The Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project will work with their Year 10 English teachers to further refine their expert practice, ensuring that all students benefit from classroom practice. These English teachers will engage in rich Masters-level professional learning with QUT expert researchers, enabling them in 2023 to spread what they have learnt throughout their schools.

Together, these Queensland state school teachers are leading the way, engaging in inclusive practice that will ultimately benefit all school students—not just their own.

To follow our project updates, keep an eye on our website, follow @AAProject_QUT on Twitter or contact Dr Callula Killingly at

Dr Callula Killingly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT and a member of the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage Team (LP180100830). Her research interests include learning and memory processes, language and literacy development, and music cognition. Callula’s doctoral work examined the cognitive processes underpinning involuntary musical memories (‘earworms’). She is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and has teaching experience in the areas of cognitive psychology, research design, and statistical analysis.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *