Exam Lengths

I decided this semester to make a concerted effort to shorten my examinations. We typically have two hour exams, and this normally translates into 11-12 questions.

However, this creates a great time pressure on some students. I was concerned that exams designed to take 2 hours might not evaluate some students’ knowledge of material, as some students think a little more slowly or feel test anxiety. Since I am not concerned with the speed with which a student finishes the exam (we tend to test concepts much more than mechanical skills), I decided to shorten the exam to only 7 questions. After all – there is no rule that says we need to keep students working for the entire duration of the exam.

I was quite pleased with the result. The results were that students did slightly better than usual, but still within a normal range. I felt like I got a good assessment of my students’ knowledge, and the students were happier. The students were generally happy with the exam on our midterm evaluations.

There are two other advantages to shorter assessments besides (what I believe to be) more accurate evaluation of student knowledge. The first of which is that I was able to ask one or two harder exam questions. Students have more time to think on any one question, so I can choose a couple questions to be harder and still save time on the exam.

The second advantage is not a pedogagical one, but is pleasant nonetheless: there is less grading.

Ultimately, this stems from my philosophy that it is not important to do math quickly (there are a handful of exceptions to this). Mathematicians are never expected to start and finish a paper within the span of a day, and I don’t think that our students should feel such time pressures, either.


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