Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya • ISSN 2075-7999
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Bolsinova M.A., Shmelyov A.G. The relationship of students’ individual personality traits and their success in examinations conducted in computerized and traditional forms [Full text]

Full text in Russian: Болсинова М.А., Шмелев А.Г. Взаимосвязь индивидуально-личностных особенностей студентов с успешностью прохождения экзамена в компьютеризированной и традиционной форме
The Lomonosov Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia

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The relationships of students’ individual personality traits (assessed with 16PF and MMPI) and examination anxiety and academic success in examinations conducted in innovative (computerized testing) and traditional (oral and written examination) forms are analyzed based on state examinations held by M.V.Lomonosov Moscow State University psychological faculty. Different assessment methods psychological particularity that creates favorable conditions for certain students and additional difficulties for the others is discussed. Computerized testing is shown to be a more relaxed examination form for those students who are less stress-resistant and self-confident while a traditional examination form is shown to give advantages to active, sociable and self-confident students. The trends identified are interpreted in terms of knowledge control and particularity of specific examinations conducting.

Keywords: psychodiagnostics, individual differences, personality traits, examination anxiety, academic success, knowledge control, computerized testing


[English translation is provided by the author of the article.]

In recent years in the educational area knowledge assessment system has been changed, new forms of examination are introduced. Along with traditional forms (oral and written exams) test format of assessment, including computer-based testing, is widely used. The problem of features, advantages and disadvantages of different assessment technologies is actively discussed in the psychological and educational professional society.

Despite the fact that at the level of common and speculative reasoning there is much talk on the topic of computer-based form of examination (including those based on fear and prejudice), there are virtually no experimental psychological data, concerning psychological properties and personality characteristics that are required in this assessment format, helping or hindering to get good results. At the same time, it is clear that in such an innovative form of examination students pass the exam in fundamentally different environment than in traditional forms of control, and it is logical to assume that successful completion of the examination in different forms of examination requires different psychological qualities and abilities. In addition, it turns out that in psychological literature there are very few empirical studies of factors of exam success in the traditional format of examination, although many authors recognized that a high ranking does not depend only on the knowledge and level of training, but also on other factors.

At the Faculty of Psychology, Moscow State University it is not the first year when state exams are conducted in both traditional and computer-based forms (the first experiments started in 2003). The introduction of computerized form of examination, as well as the introduction of any innovation, faces resistance – there is concern that the unfamiliar form of the exam is much more stressful, particularly for emotionally unstable students – and requires psychological support. The goal of our study is to conduct research clarifying the relationship between personality characteristics of students and exam success in different forms of examination.

The key concept of our study is the term “relative exam success” in the traditional and computer-based forms, defined as the difference between the grades (transferred into common traditional scale) of the same student in different forms of examination. The study tested the hypothesis corresponding to common point of view, that students with a higher level of anxiety and emotional instability have a greater relative success in the traditional exam, compared with computer-based testing. As an alternative hypothesis, we consider that a computer-based form is rather worrying on a subjective level (through the mechanism of fear of any innovation), and the actual relative success doesn’t depend on the level of anxiety of students.

Main forms of knowledge assessment and their psychological specificity

Assessment process is one of the most challenging and demanding operations in educational process, because it is related to acute psychological situations for both students and faculty [Smirnov, 1995]. And these situations are different with different forms of examination and, therefore, require the examinee to have certain psychological qualities and abilities.

In the present study three forms of examination are reviewed:
1. Oral exam, when the student gets an examination card with one or more questions, requiring more or less detailed presentation of the topic, and then answers these and additional questions to the examiner or examination committee.
2. Written exam, requiring more or less detailed answers to the stated questions.
3. Computer-based testing consisting of closed (multiple-choice) and open (with short or detailed answer) questions and carried out under time limit in the dialogue with computer.

Examination, as assessment process, is an important and often stressful situation for students, requiring great physical and mental health costs. Although many researchers noted that examination grade depends not only on the level of preparation of the student, but also on other factors (well-prepared student may under certain conditions obtain low grades, while poorly prepared student can compensate gaps in knowledge due to some factors), there are not so many studies, identifying factors of exam success. Research of these factors is not always carried out as an experiment, but sometimes consists of theoretical speculations. Let’s consider the main features of different forms of examination and how they are related to individual characteristics of examinees.

Specificity of oral exam includes the following:

1. Obligatoriness of direct communication with the examiner. This can cause certain difficulties for some students. Firstly, examination grade is affected not only by actual knowledge of the student, but also their ability to present their knowledge effectively. So, the examinees are required to have ability to correctly and logically express their thoughts in speech, as well as ability to do it confidently. But at the same time, the traditional oral exam has some advantage for those students, who have disposition for demonstrative behavior. They have slightly lower level of emotional stress and higher grades on the traditional exam opposed to testing. It appears that persons with disposition for demonstrative behavior need contact with other people in stressful situations, and in the communication process they gain confidence and can “submit themselves” in a rather favorable way to influence the final evaluation of their knowledge [Rotenberg, 1989].

Secondly, oral exam can be regarded as a social and interpersonal interaction [Kobtseva, 2001]. Exam success, in this case, depends on the level of assimilation of appropriate social roles, patterns of social and interpersonal interaction, as well as on communicative competence[1] – verbal and nonverbal skills of communication, understanding of the partner in communication, ability to predict his reaction and the outcome of the interaction.

Social intelligence may also influence success in the oral exam: the formal academic success of students with high social intelligence might be overestimated due to the skilled influence on examiner in order to obtain the desired higher grades [Smirnov, s.a.].

2. Obligatoriness of expressing own thoughts in spoken language.

3. Uncertainty of the situation: a random selection of examination card.

4. The need to react quickly and respond to unexpected additional questions from examiner. In this regard, an oral examination turns out to be less favorable (as compared to written exam and test) for students with a weak type of nervous system, since these students have additional difficulties working in the conditions when the examiner asks unexpected questions, which require an oral answer, as well as working after a response, estimated negatively [Smirnov, s.a.].

5. The possibility of preparing an answer during a considerable time. Some students need some time to start working effectively, and they are not able to answer immediately. For the amount of time a student can carefully consider the answers to the questions, make a plan of presentation, consider probable difficulties and possibilities to manage them. It is possible to prepare mentally for communication with the examiner. It can’t be ignored that during preparation there is enough time (with lack of control over the behavior of examinees) to use cribes or ask for help from other students (that, of course, depends on the position of the examiners themselves, their activity and responsibility). This reflects the lack of protection of the procedure of oral examination from falsification, so in terms of differential psychometrics we can talk about potentially low reliability of this diagnostic (evaluation) procedure.

The specificity of written examination includes the following:
1. Absence of direct communication with examiner. This is good for incommunicative, shy students who have problems in establishing social contacts. At the same time this form of control can be difficult for those students, who feel more comfortable in the situation of interaction with others, rather than individual work.
2. Enough time to consider and formulate answers to questions. Similarly to oral exam, there is time to calm down and feel the usual rhythm of work, but that also shows lack of protection from falsification (see paragraph 5 below). This raises the question of what kind of students have disposition to cheating, are not afraid to “risk” and even assured of impunity.
3. High requirements for writing skills.
4. Requirements for the skills to structure the material, pay attention to the main, not to get involved in details, to give arguments, supporting the thesis, highlight key points, indicate links to the names and facts.
5. Difficulty to control students to write their papers by themselves.

The specificity of computer-based testing includes the following:
1. No direct communication with the examiner. This is a positive moment for the students who have difficulties in communication, however, leaves no room to hope for a spectacular and confident presentation of material.
2. No need to explicate one’s knowledge fully. This feature of the exam is opportune to students with a high trait anxiety: trait anxiety of students has a greater influence on the results of such examinations, which require a detailed answer to the question than on the results of multiple-choice tests [Anastasi, Urbina, 2006].
3. Strict time limit. It can be seen as the main basis for the hypothesis: time limit is factor for reducing exam success of highly-anxious subjects in the computer test, as in any speed test. Computer-based testing can be difficult for students with an inert nervous system, because for them it is the difficult to get involved in the work, need to work quickly and actively with a variety of topics under the time constraints [Smirnov, s.a.]. It is also difficult to work under the shortage of time and the need to quickly switch from one topic to another for students with the weak type of nervous system. However, relatively short test duration and no need to wait for one’s turn can be positive factors for these same students. There is evidence that the test exam, in contrast to the traditional one, is accompanied by less strong and qualitatively different changes in the autonomic nervous system, indicating reaction of mobilization (productive emotional stress). Individuals with high trait anxiety experience less emotional stress during test exam and, consequently, have higher grades [Rotenberg, 1989].
4. Limited contacts with other examinees.
5. The need to quickly switch from one context to another, because the test questions cover all sections of the educational material. This requires certain flexibility of thinking and “semantic” attention (apperception activity to actualize materials from semantic memory).

Thus, the theoretical analysis leaves the question of which form of the exam is more difficult for the more anxious, less stress-resistant students debatable. On the one hand, computer-based form of control does not require interaction with the examiner, i.e., the person making the decision on the favorable or unfavorable outcome of the examination, as well as a detailed presentation of the material, and is determined by clear rules and regulations. On the other hand, concerns are raised that the test form of control is inappropriate and even traumatic for the emotionally unstable, anxious students because of its unfamiliarity and time limitations [Krinchik, 2009]. However, there is no reliable experimental psychological evidence supporting these concerns.

For our study it is important to consider not only anxiety, as a stable personality trait, but also the examination anxiety (test anxiety), as a special situational characteristics. Hembree R. conducted a meta-analytic study, which examined 562 studies on the causes, effects, and correlates of exam (test) anxiety [Hembree, 1988]. It is concluded that examination anxiety negatively correlates (moderately) with the results of a wide range of assessment procedures of academic achievements and abilities both on secondary and post-secondary education level. The correlation is stronger for the cognitive component of anxiety (worry), but not with autonomic responses (emotionality). According to Anastasi A., the relationship between exam anxiety and performance turns to be nonlinear [Anastasi, Urbina, 2006].

Various forms of control have features that can both help and hinder to successfully pass the exam. This influence is determined by individual psychological characteristics of examinees. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out empirical research to clarify the nature of the relationship between individual psychological characteristics, assessment format and exam success.


The study was conducted on the data of state examination in the Faculty of Psychology, Moscow State University in 2008–2010. Despite some differences in the examination scheme, examination procedures were similar as they combine traditional form of control (an oral examination in 2008 and 2009 and a written exam and oral interview in 2010) and computer-based form. Our study became possible because of specific tasks, сomleted by the students of the Faculty of Psychology as part of the workshop on the course “Fundamentals of psychodiagnostics”[2], during which each student was to complete several psychological tests in the position of the subject and make up their own “Psychodiagnostic self-portrait”. These results, obtained on the students of the third year (2 years before the final exam), served as the empirical data for the authors of the study.

Using results of state examinations in 2008 and 2009, the relationship between the so-called “relative exam success” in the traditional oral and computer-based test formats and certain psychological characteristics of students was analyzed. Important relations of relative success with certain factors of the diagnostic system MMPI[3] were identified, as well as with the results of “Circles task” of the well-known Torrance test of creative thinking. It turned out that:
1) students who are characterized by social introversion (high score on the scale Si), perform better in computer-based testing, while extroverts – in the oral exam;
2) students with low activity and optimism (scale Ma), as well as impulsivity (scale Pd) perform better in computer-based testing;
3) a positive relationship between level of such parameters of the cognitive style, as fluency and originality of thinking, exam success in a computer-based form was revealed.

The task of the main study in 2010 was to re-examine the stability of these results using data of the new graduating students, as well as to expand the range of diagnostic methods measuring individual characteristics of students.

In 2010 the state examination consisted of three parts:
1. Computer-based test in general psychology (60 questions from 6 themes during 48 minutes) – the exact same format and bank of questions as in 2009.
2. Written exam, including 2 questions: general psychology and specialization (measured by four examiners).
3. Oral examination in specialization: a response to a case-task before the commission from the professors of the department.

The following methods were used to measure individual psychological characteristics:
1. 16 Russian factors – a computer test, Russian analogue of the popular personality questionnaire Raymond Cattell’s 16PF [Shmelyov, 2002]. The results are given according to Cattell’s 16 factors to simplify interpretation and to ensure comparability with the international research results.
2. Moscow Multifunctional Psychological Questionnaire (MMPO) – a computerized questionnaire, which was already written about above.
3. Examination Anxiety Questionnaire – a computer test for measuring the level of exam anxiety, as well as the preference of test or traditional forms of examination, developed by us in this study.

Data collection on individual psychological characteristics was conducted in the following manner:

1. We used archival data on psychodiagnostic methods (16RF and MMPO), collected two years before the state examination within the course “Psychodiagnostics”, when students performed the task of making the “Psychological self-portrait”.

The study was planned to combine the results of examinations and diagnostic methods from previous years, but due to changes of the format of the state exam made by the administration of the Faculty and impossibility to find the part of archived data it was possible only for computer-based testing and personality characteristics within the MMPI system.

2. While preparing for state exams, the students had the opportunity to pass online demo version of the test in general psychology. “Examination Anxiety Questionnaire” was added to the demo version and was to be completed before the demo test.

Data collection was carried out in the system “HT-Line” on the web-site of the laboratory “Human Technologies” (URL:

Since the data was collected in several stages over a considerable time, not all subjects completed all the psychodiagnostic methods and the number of sample varies in different methods. But all the participants are students of the Faculty of Psychology, graduating in 2010 (as well as in 2008 and 2009 for MMPO), aged from 20 to 30 years (mean age is 22 years).
1. 16RF: 180 subjects (30 male, 150 female).
2. MMPO: 132 subjects (23 male, 109 female).
Combined results of three years: 357 subjects (79 male, 178 female).
3. Examination Anxiety Questionnaire: 171 subjects (23 male, 148 female).

Correlation analysis was used to verify the hypotheses of the study: correlations between personality characteristics and indicators of examination success (grades of each of the exams and relative success) were calculated. The index of relative exam success in the traditional and computer-based forms is measured as the difference between the grades for the written test (average score for the answer to the question in general psychology) and computer-based testing (on the standard 5-point scale). Pearson's correlation coefficient was used for the variables having normal distribution (normality of distributions was tested using Kolmogorov-Smirnov test), and Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient was used for the rest. Microsoft Excel and statistical packages SPSS 17.0 and PASW Statistics 18 were used.


Relative success in traditional (written exam) and computer-based forms of examination significantly possitevely correlates with the following characteristics (see Table 1):

  • affectothymia (16 RF: A+);
  • emotional stability (16 RF: С+);
  • dominance (16RF: E+);
  • social boldness (16RF: H+);
  • and negatively correlates with:
  • pessimism (MMPO: D);
  • social introversion (MMPO: Si).

Table 1
The relationship between personality characteristics and relative success in written exam and computer-based testing (correlation analyses)

Factor/Scale Correlation
level p <
А: affectothymia 0,26 0,01
С: emotional stability 0,16 0,05
E: dominance 0,18 0,05
Н: social boldness 0,17 0,05
D: pessimism –0,24 0,01
Si: social introversion –0,21 0,05

According to the combined results of three years sighificant correlation is revealed between computer test performance and the following MMPO scales (see Table 2):

  • D: pessimism,
  • Ma: optimism and activity (negative correlation),
  • Si: social introversion.

Table 2
The relationship between personality characteristics (MMPO scales) and computer-based test performance (N=357)

Optimism and activity
Social introversion
Correlation coefficient 0,12 –0,11 0,19
Significance level p < 0,05 0,05 0,01

Examination anxiety correlates negatively with computer test performance (correlation coefficient is –0,22, significance level is p < 0,01). There is no significant correlation with oral and written exam performance, as well as with relative success.

At the same time examination anxiety correlates with some personality traits (see Table 3).

Table 3
The relationship of examination anxiety with MMPO and 16RF indicators

Factor / scale Correlation
level p <
С: emotional stability –0,22 0,01
F: surgency –0,19 0,05
O: apprehension 0,38 0,01
Q1: openess to changes –0,20 0,05
Q3: high self-concept control 0,22 0,01
Q4: tension 0,26 0,01
D: pessimism 0,19 0,05
Pt: anxiety 0,31 0,01

To simplify interpretation we visualized main significant correlation on Figure 1.

Fig. 1. Correlation graph indicating revealed significant relations as edges.
Test – test score in computer-based testing; EA – examination anxiety; C – emotional stability (factor C 16RF); D – pessimism (scale D MMPO); green line – positive correlation; red line – negative correlation; single line – p ≤ 0,05; double line – p ≤ 0,01.


As a result of our study we obtained moderate, but significant correlations that can be considered paradoxical, if we base on the articulated expectations. As one can see, not even alternative hypothesis (no correlation), but the hypothesis opposite to the main one was confirmed. As shown above, students, characterized by social introversion (Si: MMPO), schizothymia (factor A-16RF) and social shyness (factor H-16RF) perform better in the computer-based exam in contrast with the traditional exam. These individuals have difficulties in establishing contacts with others (or they do not seek to do so), demonstrating their knowledge in speech or writing. Individual work is preferable for them. The test assessment format enables them to demonstrate their best knowledge, not requiring communication skills. On the other hand, extroverted, confident students do not have a chance to hide possibly not excellent knowledge with impressive of presentation. Furthermore, as social contacts are very important for them, a situation when one cannot expect emotional support from fellow students or examiners (communication is reduced to a dialogue with the computer) may adversely affect performance. Therefore, the situation of the traditional exam is more comfortable for them and they perform better in this case.

Also, a computer-based form of exam provides benefits for emotionally unstable (factor C-16RF), pessimistic (D: MMPO) students. They are not confident, tense, impulsive and unable to control their emotions. Perhaps, regimentation of computer-based testing is a positive moment for them. It is known beforehand how the exam will be held, how long it will take. There is no need to wait long for one’s turn to answer and listen to not quite successful responses of fellow students and not always friendly questions and comments of the examiners. On the other hand, active, self-confident students can underestimate the complexity of test items, respond too quickly, and consequently receive lower scores. At the same time, written exam was a new and unexpected format of the state examination, so students who do not get lost in a collision with unexpected circumstances (emotionally stable, courageous, not prone to pessimism) were in a better position.

It is important to note that correlation between test performance and pessimism, and social introversion was confirmed with the results of three years.

The results indicate that higher scores of computer-based testing were received by students, who are characterized by submissiveness (factor E-16RF). Following the instructions, obeying formalized rules, reproducing basic, universally accepted facts do not make difficulties for them and don’t cause rejection. On the contrary, striving for independence and dominance students fight for the right of the individual point of view, where this is not required. While, the problem of controlling students to write their paper by themselves has not been solved in the traditional exam, the dominant, bold, confident students can succeed, because they are more likely to risk, acting in accordance with their own laws and considerations and probably resorted to cheating.

Thus, in our study we obtained data which refute such a seemingly natural fear that unusual test assessment format is too stressful for emotionally unstable students. It turns out, on the contrary, that these students get better grades, so the results are contrary to hypothesis, based on speculative representations. Whereas, the traditional written form of the exam gives benefits to extraverted and self-confident students, which may be more inclined to violate rules of the examination (not only on the oral exam, but primarily on the written one).

As far as the relationship between exam success and examination anxiety is concerned, it would seem we have obtained data confirming the main hypothesis and contradicting the results obtained with personality questionnaires. But ... apparently, it should be noted that exam anxiety is not quite the same as trait anxiety and is a situational characteristic rather than a stable personality trait. Exam anxiety is determined not so much by dispositional factors as by situational factors – the student’s actual knowledge and estimation of probability of receiving a high grade with the certain level of preparation for a particular exam. Computer-based testing with its high objectivity of assessment causes a higher panic exactly for those who are generally not characterized by trait anxiety, but adequately reflect a low level of knowledge and quite adequately predict low results in the computer-based test.

We believe that in our work, we have identified the gap between the subjective estimation of the level of complexity of different forms of examinations and the actual exam results. Computer-based exam was subjectively more difficult for anxious students than it actually turned out to be for them according to their actual results. At Figure 2, we tried to express our hypothetical interpretation of this result by introducing a hypothetical factor “self-estimation of knowledge”.

Fig. 2. In contrast to Figure 1, in this case the hypothetical factor “Self-estimation of knowledge”, which in our experiment, unfortunately, was not measured directly, is added to the correlation graph.
Test – test score in computer-based testing; EA – examination anxiety; C – emotional stability (factor C 16RF); D – pessimism (scale D MMPO); green line – positive correlation; red line – negative correlation; single line – p ≤ 0,05; double line – p ≤ 0,01; dotted line – hypothetical correlation.

Testing turns out to be objectively more difficult examination (the proportion of excellent grades was 18% on the computer-based test, 36% – on the written exam, 72% – on the oral exam) and consequently causes greater concern about the outcome of the examination among the students, and this fact affects the result. To speak with confidence that the relationship between exam anxiety and exam success is determined precisely by a form of assessment rather than a factor of complexity, it is necessary to conduct a study on the material of exams in different forms, but equal in complexity and objectivity (for example, with more strict control of cheating[4], and unfamiliar examiners at the oral examination).

Thus, on the basis of these results we come to the following conclusions:
1. Computer-based testing is more gentle form in relation to less stress-resistant, less self-confident students. While, the traditional exam is preferable for active, sociable, self-confident students.
2. Examination anxiety is negatively associated with exam success in computer-based testing, which is probably due to the situational nature of exam anxiety.

Our results contradict the hypothesis, based on common and speculative ideas (that the computerized exam is more difficult for more anxious students), apparently due to the fact that traditional expectations themselves are based on a situational phenomenon of exam anxiety, rather than on objective psychodiagnostic data of actual level of trait anxiety[5].


Relations between personality characteristics of students, assessment format and exam success were revealed, using data of the state exams in the Faculty of Psychology, Lomonosov Moscow State University. It was shown that different forms of examination give certain benefits to some students and add difficulties for others. Herewith, non-trivial results that do not match, and even directly contradict conventional speculative expectations on the direction of relationships were obtained: exam showed not less but more anxious introverted subjects have the higher relative success in a computer-based form of examination. Revealed patterns are interpreted in terms of features of knowledge assessment formats and specificity of particular examinations.

The specificity of the sample – psychology students with a strong predominance of female contingent – imposes restrictions on the generalization of the results. The same can be said about the specificity of the examination. Obviously, these data cannot be applied to those educational institutions, where such facts, as cheating on the written exams and overestimation of “own students by own teachers” on the oral exam, are tightly controlled.

The study clarifies that assessment can not be limited to only one form, because it puts some student to a disadvantages. Confirmation of the need to combine various assessment technologies in the state exams is one of the practical effects of the study.

Translated by M.Bolsinova

Cyrillic letters are transliterated according to BSI standards.

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[1] By the way, we can assume that young people, who spend more time reading, are not so successful in direct communication, because they just devoted less time to it. This notion is the basis for the alternative hypothesis: the more prepared students worry more in the situation of the oral exam. – Authors’ note.

[2] Since 1980, these workshops at the Faculty of Psychology MSU are conducted by one of the authors of this article – professor A.G. Shmelyov. – Authors’ note.

[3] The questionnaire MMPO – developed in the laboratory “Human Technilogies” modification of SMIL test, kindly provided by Lyudmila Sobchik – was used to obtain scores on the scales of MMPI test. – Authors’ note.

[4] This scheme should be also extended to the studies beyond the Faculty of, Moscow State University, where in 2010 a number of examiners openly sided with the students that they are not ready for the written exam – such an unusual form of examination in the Faculty of psychology, so that they just “blind eye” to the facts of frank cheating. – Authors’ note.

[5] It should be also taken into account that the main hypothesis is usually formulated by aged professors, for whom the computer in the learning process is still a novelty, as well as a test form of control, which simply didn’t not exist in the educational system in Soviet times. – Authors’ note.

Received 20 June 2010. Date of publication: 29 August 2010.

About authors

Bolsinova Maria A. M.Sci., Department of Psychology of Work and Engineering Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, The Lomonosov Moscow State University, ul. Mokhovaya, 11/5, 125009 Moscow, Russia.
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Shmelyov Alexander G. Ph.D., Professor, Department of Psychology of Work and Engineering Psychology, Faculty of Psychology, The Lomonosov Moscow State University, ul. Mokhovaya, 11/5, 125009 Moscow, Russia.
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Suggested citation

Bolsinova M.A., Shmelyov A.G. The relationship of students’ individual personality traits and their success in examinations conducted in computerized and traditional forms. Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya, 2010, No. 4(12), p. 5. Retrieved from 0421000116/0035.

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