Some musings about timed tests

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I would be highly surprised if anyone reading this has never been given a timed test- whether it’s as simple as a math fact quiz or as intense as a final exam, I think we can safely say that we’ve all been there. I am currently enrolled in a six week semester at my local community college, and the midterm exam we took today got me thinking. It was 50 questions, multiple choice, and the professor set a timer for 30 minutes as soon as he walked in the door. Not exactly an unheard of amount of time for a 50 question test, but what was concerning is the fact that he didn’t wait for everyone to be ready, he just set the timer and let it run. Students were scrambling to their seats, looking for pencils, verifying directions or instructions- does this sound like an appropriate setting for a learning assessment? Even though I felt fairly confident about my knowledge of the subject matter, I felt anxious and uneasy given the fact that I was constrained by time. I found my eyes blurring over and more than once, I had to force myself to go through the motions of reading the question and filling in the answer. Had I not been restricted by the relentless tick, tick, tick of the timer, I probably would have finished in the same amount of time, but without the anxiety and blurry eyes.

After the exam, I did a quick Google search to see if I could find any research confirming the pros or cons of timed tests. Many of the studies I found did indicate that students do not perform to the best of their ability when a test is timed. In many ways, it goes against what I have been taught in my graduate classes about how to check for understanding and to assess students’ learning.

What do you think, Internet? Are timed tests okay in some situations? All situations? No situations?

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6 thoughts on “Some musings about timed tests

  1. Timed tests are very nerve-wracking for many people and the way your professor went about giving your midterm seems unduly stressful. It sounds more like a power trip for him than an honest way to find out what you know. It interests me how invested teachers are in tests – elementary school teachers seem to genuinely want students to pass and do well, but teachers like your professor seem to delight in making people feeling nervous and uncomfortable and possibly to trip up. Is he a jerk in other ways? Do you like him? What subject is he teaching?

    • Well, due to the short nature of the course (it’s a science class), his lectures are very fast-paced without a lot of room for clarification or elaboration. I am a bit of an obsessive note taker, so I have done an okay good job of keeping up. However, I also have about ten years of note-taking experience. I can say for sure that if I had taken this class as a first year or even second year undergrad, I would have been hopelessly lost. His enthusiasm for the subject is fantastic, and for the most part, I do like him. I just think there are a lot of other ways to handle teaching a lot of content in a very short amount of time, and I wish he would be a little more open to exploring those options.

  2. I have never understood the purpose behind timed tests, whether it’s a test on basic multiplication facts or a Praxis exam. The purpose is to assess knowledge,not how quickly you can complete a test. It’s not a game show!

  3. There was only one time when I thought a timed quiz was appropriate, and that is when I had a history prof give us 10 questions and 10 minutes to complete them, but we could use our book. When students can use their book, perhaps a timed assessment is ok. The situation you describe, K80, is horrendous, and it certainly is not a valid assessment of what any student knows, especially when the timer tickled audibly!

    • There was only one time when I thought a timed quiz was appropriate, and that was when I had a history prof give us 10 questions and 10 minutes to complete them, but we could use our book. When students can use their book, perhaps a timed assessment is ok. The situation you describe, K80, is horrendous, and it certainly is not a valid assessment of what any student knows, especially when the timer ticked audibly!

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