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Why timed math tests don't work - and what we should do instead

I would like to invite you into a core memory that I have of third grade. On a certain day each week we would all sit down at our desks while the teacher passed out sheets filled with multiplication facts placed face down. She would stand at the front of the room and start her timer triggering us to all frantically flip over our papers and start filling in answers. As soon as that timer started I began to SWEAT. I never filled in the whole sheet no matter how much I studied or how fast I tried to go. The timer ticked away as I struggled through as much as I could. At the end we would grade our sheets and kids who had “mastered” facts put up a scoop on their paper ice cream cone displayed at the front of the room. My cone only ever had a few scoops on it.

Why am I telling you this? Because I suspect that many of you had similar experiences…or your child might be experiencing the same thing now. Over the years research has found that timed math tests and drills aren’t as beneficial to students as we once thought they were, but they still occur in classrooms every day. If your child struggles with math, timed math tests are probably doing more harm than good.

So…why don’t they work? And what should we be doing instead?

Why timed math tests don't work:

A focus on speed over understanding and accuracy - Have you ever tried to get something done in a rush? Of course you have - especially if you’re a parent. If you’ve been in this situation, you probably know that when you do something in a hurry you’re more likely to forget a step, drop something, or screw up in your flustered state. The same goes for timed math tests. Kids can get flustered as they try to go as quickly as possible. Kids who get easily overwhelmed may even shut down as they try to rush through the test. Practicing speed but getting the wrong answers or constantly losing your place isn’t beneficial long term.

The stress on the brain - The brain can go into fight or flight mode in these stressful situations. The part of your brain that is responsible for working memory can then be affected. This means that if your body feels like it’s in danger, your brain can start going into survival mode. A brain that’s in survival mode will prioritize what it needs to to stay safe…which is not conducive to remembering math facts. You may have experienced this yourself when taking a big exam and feeling like you “blanked” on all the questions. You studied hard and knew the material but when it came time to take the test all the information wasn’t available in your brain. This could be because you were in fight or flight mode.

How it affects already anxious kids - Kids who are already anxious can often feel extra anxious when it comes to timed math tests. In addition to all the reasons above, the tests can feel like a public display of their knowledge. Anxious students often tell me they worry that their peers are finishing faster than them, are getting more answers than them, or that other students notice them going slower and getting less answers. These students sometimes also rush through at the expense of putting down incorrect answers just to appear like they know their stuff. Find out more about math anxiety and the signs here.

Can encourage a fixed mindset - Kids who struggle with timed math tests may start to view themselves as not a “math person”. These tests often focus on raw scores over improvement therefore a student who got one problem right on the first try but gets five right on the second can still feel like they’re failing even though they’ve made a big improvement. Timed assessments also emphasize getting answers instead of problem solving or thinking critically, therefore students can begin to view themselves as bad at math simply because they cant produce math fact answers in the allotted time. Instead of viewing math as a subject where they can use their creativity and thinking skills to be successful, timed tests can narrow a student’s view of what math achievement is.

Deemphasizes problem solving skills - Mathematics is all about problem solving and the act of finding solutions through trial and error. Timed tests are by nature very black and white and leave no room for problem solving or trial and error when it comes to remembering math facts. Students who can’t remember a certain fact have no time to creatively come up with a way to figure it out.

What can we do instead?

Untimed practice - Letting kids use flash cards or their choice of practice in an untimed manner with a partner, parent, or teacher where they have the space and capability to use strategies or take time to think is a great way to make sure students are retaining math facts. For students who struggle, the availability of manipulatives may also be helpful as they practice the skills they need to remember facts.

Work on facts through games - Who doesn’t love a good game? Games are a hit with most kids and can keep students motivated to get faster at their facts. Any game with dice is a great game for practicing addition - which then strengthens subtraction.

Real world problem solving opportunities - Not only do kids need to remember math facts, but they need to understand how they relate to real-world problems and experiences. Point out when you’re using basic math facts in everyday life. Or make up stories about different situations that require a math fact. Let your child act out, draw, or build the situation with manipulatives. This experience will solidify not only the fact, but the types of contexts it’s used in.

Focus on strategies - I was never a kid who could straight memorize math facts. Instead, I had to rely on strategies to remember facts - and I still do. Students who are taught strategies to remember math facts do better when it comes to recalling facts and answering with accuracy when presented with new facts. When your child doesn’t know a fact, instead of telling them to just practice it more, encourage them to think of a strategy to remember it. Strategies often build on facts your child already knows. (ex. I can figure out 6+7 because I know 6+6 and I add one more).