Getting Rid of Time Limits on Math Assessments
In my journey to make my assessments better, my most recent change has been to eliminate the time restrictions I have imposed on my assessments. Looking back over the last couple of years I now see that I was slowly shifting away from giving students time limits as my classroom became more student-centered.
For a little over 13 years, I gave one class period to take an assessment. At the end of class, it was typical that I would collect and grade the assessments. I expected students to be done by the end of class. I wasn’t consciously or purposely causing kids to have anxiety over my tests but it was what I’ve always done and what I thought worked. At the time, I did what I thought was best but was it best for my students’ learning?
A little over two years ago, I put a lot more emphasis in creating tests that were not only aligned to my math standards but also assessed students on in-depth learning of content. As always, I created tests that I thought students would be able to finish in a class period. However, what I found out was that as I improved the quality of questions I asked of students, the tests that I created were too long and students needed more than one day to complete them. I remember how I felt on these days. I would hand out the test and as the end of class neared, no one was turning them in. I panicked. How can they possibly take this long? How can I start the next unit tomorrow if they aren’t done with the test? The rational side of me kicked in and I remember saying to myself, “Who cares?” I collected the tests at the end of class and gave them one more day. The day went on everything was fine. I made notes to myself to make the tests shorter for the next year.
Last school year, I tweaked my assessments while also changing the way I assessed students. None of the assessments I gave last year had time limits. Some students would be finished in 30 minutes while some make take 3 days. I began to let students choose when they were ready to assess and in doing so, also gave them the choice in how long it took them to complete the assessment. What happened was remarkable. The stress that was put on students to complete the test in a certain time limit was gone. The anxiety had subsided and students spent way more time and energy in producing amazing work to show their learning rather than how fast they can do it in. I wasn’t without my doubts. There was always a part of me that thought if a student wasn’t done with a test, they could go home, look up an answer and study some more. I worried that they would use this time to cheat. What would be the point of studying for an assessment if you could just get the assessment, then go home and study what was on the test? Let’s be honest though. If my students could go home after viewing my test to look up an answer or method to only write it on the test the next day the problem isn’t with the student. The problem is with the quality of tests I am writing. If I do write a quality test and my students go home to study and prepare more after they’ve seen the test, why is this a bad thing? Don’t we want them to study? Don’t we want them to problem solve? Isn’t this what we do as adults on a daily basis? We use the resources around us to make us better at what we do.
I have given unlimited time on assessments for over a year. The quality of work has improved. Students now check their work making sure their answers are reasonable. A lot of students now use multiple ways to solve a problem. Some students make their own examples to prove or disprove items. Students are making fewer and fewer math errors that would be considered minor errors. At the end of the year, my students took a final exam that align to the high school standards. This final is identical to the final given at our local high school as my students are taking the same course in junior high. There was a time limit. I informed them of this time limit early on. I told them to not worry about the time limit and to focus on the content. Even though I told them not to worry, I was worried about it. I hoped they would have enough time. In hindsight, what did I do? I sparked the fuel of anxiety once again.
Research has shown that anxiety actually causes a brain to almost shut down when doing math. Jo Boaler, a mathematics professor at Stanford University, has done significant brain research on what anxiety does to a math brain. Take a moment to watch this video on research on the brain in relation to math. One of Jo Boaler’s four math points is, “Speed is not important.”Boosting Math is a great video highlighting four points with teaching math.
While students were taking the final, it was apparent that they wouldn’t finish with the given time limit and it wouldn’t even be close. I made the decision that knowing the content and proving to me their learning was far more important than deciding how fast they should do it in. I interrupted them and told them the time limit was gone. The sighs of relief could be heard and for the rest of the class period and a whole other class period the work students produced for their final was some of the best work I have ever seen in 15 years of teaching. Students were producing arguments, proofs, reasons, counterexamples and pages upon pages of extra work that showed their learning.
For more information on Jo Boaler, the growth mindset and her work on Inspiring all math learners check out YouCubed through Stanford University.