Time pressure and exams

My wife teaches math at the public university in the area. I highly recommend marrying an academic, as dinner-time conversations can quickly turn into professional development opportunities.

Our dinner conversation on Tuesday centered around timed exams; that is, exams where you have to do many questions in a relatively short period of time. We debated their merit, and we came up with the following:

  1. Timed exams should only be used if they fit your goals and values. A discussion on goals and values will be the topic of an upcoming post; for now, I will just say that they are woefully neglected in education.
  2. Timed exams really only work if the students are only expected to either recall, or to do a very basic computation repeatedly.
  3. Timed exams are not appropriate if students are engaged in complex problem solving.

We reached these conclusions mainly by acknowledging that brilliant people can sometimes take a long time to figure things out – professors are never expected to start and finish a paper within a week. Deep thinking takes time. Therefore, adding time pressure to an exam can give a faulty assessment of one’s understanding (assuming this is the reason why the exam is being given).

On the other hand, there are other times when we do not want our students to think much, and here timed exams could give useful information. Examples of such topics include an elementary student demonstrating that they know their multiplication tables, or a calculus student demonstrating that they know how to quickly compute easy derivatives. In both cases, we want students not to have to think deeply about these questions (it is really difficult to get common denominators when both the concept of adding fractions AND multiplying integers require concentration; the cognitive load is just too much).

As I posted (years) before, I have started to give short midterms. This is because I mainly want to test problem solving and conceptual understanding, and I don’t include as much recall and computation (although they have to do computation in order to do other problems). I tend to test recall and computation in different parts of the course.


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