Time limits and test anxiety


When the clock is going TICK TICK TICK, it can be hard to think clearly, because you’re anxious about the clock.

Math anxiety is well understood, and no small part of this comes from the pressure of timed tests. Ultimately, some people take tests faster than other people. I would hope that you want your tests to measure how much students have learned, not their ability to take tests under pressure. If this is the case, then everybody taking the test needs to feel that they have adequate time.

Time anxiety isn’t just about math, but can happen in any test when students don’t feel they have enough time to do the work expected of them. In the long run, the pressure of timed assessments takes the joy away from learning, and also hinders the ability to learn effectively by affecting how a perceives their ow ability. The anxiety of testing is amplified when the stakes of the exam are higher, when the cost of not doing well is steep.

I can think of two substantial ways we can design our assessments to cut back on test anxiety.

First, we can work to avoid high-stakes exams. Research has shown that having more assessments, each worth a smaller fraction of the grade, results in more learning. (I’m interested in running a class with no midterms, just 20-minute mini-tests every week, or 30-minute mini-tests every two weeks. But I haven’t done this yet.) By letting students drop the lowest test score, this also can decrease the stakes that are felt for any individual exam.

Second, we can write our tests so that all of our students have enough time to take them. Just because we think a test isn’t too long doesn’t mean it isn’t too long. It’s the students who get to decide this, and it’s the clock that decides this. Keep in mind that if you feel like you have to cram a ton of things into your test, maybe you’re expecting students to learn too much material rather than learn in depth?

Regardless, there is always going to be a small fraction of students who will want to milk out the greatest possible amount of time for an exam. They’ll be just about finished, but sit around hoping for inspiration for a particular question or two. (We don’t need to wait for these folks to finish, as this might take all day.) But if students are actively working on their exams or quizzes when we collect them, then either not enough time was budgeted for the exam, or it was too long.

Students who have a diagnosed need for extra time can request this service through the campus disability office. But there are a lot of students have not been diagnosed, and others who are not comfortable with making such a request. Ideally, we should make our exams accessible from the start. Which might mean that a lot of students will be done rather early. That’s not so horrible, is it?

9 thoughts on “Time limits and test anxiety

  1. This semester I am trying this (i.e. more, but lower stakes, assessments). We have five classes, then the sixth is an assessment, and so on, six times (six assessments, and a final assessment at the end). Each one is cumulative and they build in point value gradually. The first two are 30 points, then two at 40 points, then two at 50 points. (Final is 100 points, and with other forms of assessment the course total comes to 500 points). The build-up of points means that early on, when students are still getting used to my “style”, they get some wiggle room to figure things out. I’m still working out some of the kinks but so far I like it.

  2. I’ve tried the mini tests multiple times with little success. My thought process was that they would help grades by encouraging students to study on a regular basis and by covering smaller amounts of material at a time. But my gut feeling is that that approach actually reduces their grades. Why? Because only a small handfull of students study sufficiently for the mini tests and do well, whereas a much larger group of doesn’t and actually ends up bombing them. Although I go back and forth on whether to take the approach or not, this semester I went with the ‘not’.

  3. I totally recommend the mini tests! I used 45 minute tests every other week. I also give them a slightly shorter, very low-stakes test the second day of class (in my situation, I have a block schedule of 17 days of classes, M-F… on a semester plan I’d do the third or 4th class…) so they can see what the format is and not have nebulous fear about that.

    As for students not being comfortable asking for a letter for accomodations, although it is uncomfortable, I really encourage it if they are pre-med (I teach Organic Chemistry) because if they want it on one of the big standardized tests (e.g., MCAT) they need documentation anyhow, and generally need it documented way before they ask for it on the MCAT itself. I know most students aren’t pre-meds! But for me it seems like my responsibility to inform them.

  4. Agreed on the timing! My final is run by the university. I set it on the timetable as 2 or 3 hours, and the university requires students to sign out if they leave less than an hour after it starts. Nearly everyone did! I tell the students in class that it won’t take them anywhere near the full time scheduled, because I don’t want to test them on how quickly they think but how well they think!

  5. I have done the mini tests before in my Intro course (15 minute quizzes every Wednesday, drop the lowest). I think it takes a few quizzes for the student to realize that these are in fact serious assessments, but it also gives them wiggle room if they had a bad day. I think they work out really well in that setting. I don’t give tests in my current course (a design course), but I’m seriously thinking about using mini tests in my spring elective, which tends to be information-dense and difficult for students concept-wise.

  6. This is a really well-timed post. I just gave an exam a couple weeks ago in a 400 level comparative vertebrate anatomy course. There were 25 structure/function matching questions, 6 compare/contrast (5 pts each) and 3 essays worth 15 pts each (answered in 3-5 sentences. I’ve been making and using exams with this format for 5 years, however in physiology and at a different school. But in the past, there have usually only been 3-4 students finishing up at the end of the 50 min period.

    This time, I let the students use their notes and the textbook (for reasons that are pedagogically sound, but not important here). I cautioned them many times about relying too much on notes because it will eat into their time, yet only 1 out of 20 students finished on time, the rest stayed 10-15 min longer.

    I had them do a reflection afterwards and nearly 100% of them said that they spent too much time looking/checking for answers and relied too much on notes.

    I’m not sure whether to let them use notes or not for the next one. I do feel like they’ve maybe learned how to use their time wisely and I should allow this again. Any thoughts?

  7. The first university I studied was a high ranking university in France, where I never finished a single exam, and would not manage to go more than two third of a given exam most of the time. I then studied in Sweden, where we had exams of six or seven hours, but where most students took three to four hours to complete. I took longer, but had the time to re-read, change my mind, suddenly remember something that of course I knew. My grades were pretty good in that kind of settings, where I was graded on my capacity to understand and provide an elaborate response, rather than speed.

  8. I am at a new (CSU) University in a new Dept after 4 years on the TT elsewhere. I’ve always been a fan of smaller, low stakes tests, but am I getting student pushback here! So many complaints that there is too much more work a 4 credit class. Those biweekly quizzes aren’t for my health- nor are the scientific writing assignments. I’d get more sleep with one midterm, one final, and one term paper; each worth a lot. It’s been interesting to see the student response to my evidence-based methods. I am not a neophyte- I have 4 years of full time teaching under my belt. It makes me wonder, how much of this is because I’m a pregnant woman? I’ve also had multiple students tell me “we didn’t cover that in class”, at which point I go through the notes I posted for them, and sure enough, I did cover it! So, I suppose what I’m struggling with is student buy-in/Student expectations from how other courses are taught. I always try to explain why I structure my course the way I do, but maybe I can do a better job at this. It will also be interesting to see if my reception changes once I am no longer pregnant (which, for the record- I have not mentioned as an “excuse” for anything to my students. In fact, I haven’t made mention of it at all).

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