Investigating Personal Space Invasion During Exams Using VR

Research Proposal


The concept for the following research proposal was inspired from collaborating with my lab supervisors on the ‘Looking at Images During Personal Space Invasion’ study.

I led a group of 3 other undergraduate students from multidisciplinary faculties (i.e. Linguistics, Computer Science, Psychology) for a Cognitive Systems 200 final group project. I single-handedly came up with the study design, wrote up the following report after collaborative brainstorming, and directed the group on division of labour for the final poster presentation. Our group ended up getting one of the highest marks in the class for this poster presentation, and this has also been one of my favourite group project experiences during my undergrad. The proposal combines some of the topics I am the most passionate about, and highlights my ability to get creative with research methodology design.

Research Question

Does the common exam environment of sitting in close proximity of other students negatively affect students’ test performance?

Introduction to Potential Problem

 In most educational institutions, exams are typically administered within the confined spaces of a classroom. This can negatively impact the comfort of students during exams, and consequently distract students from concentrating on their exams. For those who are predisposed to be sensitive to the reachable personal space around them, such as those who score higher on trait anxiety (Iachini et al., 2015), having others close in proximity could profoundly hinder their performance. On top of test anxiety and other potential factors that may interfere with the student’s performance, the uneasiness felt during exams can be accentuated partly due to the invasion of their personal space (Iachini, et al. 2015; Evans & Wener, 2007). Although students can apply to get exempt from having to take their exam in this crowded environment, it often requires them to go through paperwork and counselling that they may be opposed to for cultural or preexisting mental health reasons. This research proposal aims to determine whether the conventional exam environment of sitting in close proximity of others affects students significantly enough to consider a policy change.

Experiment Design

 The following proposal will be an experimental study using a 2×3 mixed factorial (within and between subjects) design, investigating whether the proximity of other students during exams will affect their overall performance, attention span, and cortisol levels. The within subjects design is chosen to be incorporated despite the controversy in this type of research design due to the high variability in individual factors influencing the dependent variables. The 2 independent variables (IV) include: personal space invasion and visual awareness of this invasion. The IV of personal space invasion will be manipulated through a confederate acting as another participant completing the same tasks while sitting next to each other. For the IV of personal space invasion awareness, it will be manipulated through the use of a VR headset to conceal the fact that there is a confederate researcher seated within their personal space. The participants will each complete 2 trials of a reading comprehension test (alone & with a confederate) in one of the following 3 conditions: no eye-tracker, with SMI eye-tracking glasses (Mele & Federici, 2012) or with a VR headset, which will also have eye-tracking software installed. The condition without an eye-tracker will act as the baseline for each group to see if the addition of a headset interfered with the results. In the SMI-eye tracking condition, participants will be fully aware of the personal space invasion, whereas the VR headset condition would visually conceal the fact that a confederate is within close proximity. In all of the conditions, the participants will be required to wear noise-cancelling headphones to eliminate any auditory distractions. The previously mentioned dependent variables (i.e. overall performance, attention span, stress levels) are then measured and quantified through eye movement data, cortisol levels from saliva samples, and reading comprehension test performance, respectively. Finally, participants will be asked to complete a set of questionnaires, which will consist of a general demographics questionnaire (e.g. gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, any factors present in their lives that could have impacted their test performance, etc), 60-item short form of the Big Five Questionnaire (BFQ; Caprara et al., 1993), State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI-T; as cited in Balsamo et al., 2013 & Iachini et al., 2015), self-report inventory assessing severity and presence of depressive symptoms (BDI-II; Balsamo et al., 2013), self-report inventory assessing subjective and somatic anxiety symptoms (BAI; Balsamo et al., 2013), and the Claustrophobia Questionnaire (CLQ; Radomsky et al., 2001); these will be used to assess participants’ predisposition to being sensitive to the reachable personal space around them.


The experiment will begin by randomly assigning participants to one of the 3 conditions. Before the first task, the researchers will take a cotton swab of saliva from the participant to measure their baseline cortisol levels. After this, the first reading comprehension task will begin, either alone or with a confederate sitting in close proximity (the order of which will be counterbalanced for each participant). Once the participant has completed the test, another saliva sample will be taken to measure cortisol levels after the task. Then, the participants will be asked to complete another similar reading comprehension test. This time, however, they will be completing it without a confederate (or with, depending on the order). A final saliva sample will be taken again to examine how the participant’s cortisol levels changed. Finally, the participants will complete the aforementioned validated questionnaires. For this specific study, we will be using the HTC Vive headset for its isolation properties, which prevent the subject from seeing anything other than the screen in front of them, as well as its compatibility with the SMI eye tracking system.

Potential Data Analysis

Attention span will be quantified through rapid eye movement data which is assessed using recurrence quantification analysis (RQA) to determine differences in patterns of the participants’ gaze fixations on the words of the reading comprehension test in both alone and together conditions (Anderson et al., 2013). This provides a way for us to determine whether the participants’ overt visual attention is disrupted with personal space invasion. Aside from this, their overall performance is measured by a reading comprehension test which will consist of the following: reading 2 passages that are similar in difficulty, length, and topic; and 2 corresponding tests asking questions that will be based on memory and comprehension of the details of each passage. Any significant differences in test performance between the groups could suggest an effect of personal space invasion on covert attention. Finally, stress levels will be examined through the cortisol levels from the 3 saliva samples.

To analyze the data, we will be using a two-factor mixed-design ANOVA, the two-way repeated-measures ANOVA, as well as other data analysis techniques (e.g. RQA). To first simplify and summarize the data, we would break up the mixed design into the within subjects and between subjects components. When comparing test completion time, we hypothesize that the duration of completing the reading comprehension test will be higher for the ‘together’ condition for some participants (especially those predisposed to anxiety). Since past research has found that people with certain traits are more susceptible to discomfort (e.g., those with trait-anxiety), we also expect to see higher test performance in the ‘alone’ condition for participants that have these traits (Iachini et al., 2015; Uziel, 2007). Due to the possibility that people can experience adverse reactions when they have to sit in close proximity to other people (Evens & Wegner, 2007), an increase in cortisol levels after the together trials will also be hypothesized. We expect that the alone condition will have a similar level of cortisol as the baseline cortisol sample. For eye movement data, it’s expected that gaze fixations will stay on words on the test more often and will deviate away from the test less during the alone conditions compared to the together condition. On the other hand, it is plausible that the saliva sample taken after the together trials will show cortisol levels that are statistically distinct overall in the VR condition from the No eye tracker / SMI eye tracker condition. In addition, test performance & attention span could also be distinct from the other two conditions when compared to the VR eye tracker together trials. We could also try to replicate previous relevant research findings, such as positive correlations with openness and visual attention to others (Wu et al., 2014), and the social facilitation effect (Uziel, 2007). These are just a few examples of the various ways in which we could analyze and interpret the data.

Goals & Future Directions

The main and long-term goal of this study is to contribute to the research on VR systems, as well as carefully consider the potential effect the current most common exam environment can have on students’ test performance all over the world. Since it has been shown in previous research that the effect of social presence on performance is task-dependent, other tasks involving a variety of difficulty would also need to be used if we see any results with this study. In contributing to Psychology research, the goal is to expand on past findings on test-anxiety, performance and interaction of the sensory system and human attention. These types of research that bring attention to potentially flawed school policies allows us to tailor a better learning experience for all. Furthermore, we can deepen our current knowledge on test-anxiety and come up with better solutions for those who are negatively impacted by the current environment during exams in classroom settings. Our findings could also lead to other applications in the workplace, such as using VR to limit distractions in work environments and enhance work productivity. Additionally, our study will open new opportunities for the applications of Virtual Reality headsets and eye-tracking software in test taking. Most of the current applications of VR involve gaming, so expanding its uses to the education system could have a positive lasting impact on the future. Developers could engineer programs that utilize the factors presented from the results of this study. These contributions can have a lasting impact on the younger generation, especially maximizing the capabilities of those students hindered by test anxiety. In addition, even with no support for the hypotheses, our findings could give insight on how humans interpret and experience virtual “personal space”, which could allow more realistic implementations of Virtual Reality programs. All of these contributions could be implemented to leave a lasting impact on both the field of psychology and the field of digital media technology. As with any new application of technology, these potential future directions of VR technology being used for educational settings and the workplace raises some ethical questions and concerns. Would this technology only become available to wealthy school districts, increasing the disparity between education standards? Would it only benefit certain students with anxiety while hindering others? Does it have any physical harm with excessive use (e.g. eyesight damage)? These are some questions that should be addressed in future research studies if we conclude relevant findings with this experiment.


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