General Question

AntJR's avatar

Why do exams have time limits?

Asked by AntJR (131points) December 19th, 2012

Why do exams, tests, quizzes etc. have time-limits placed on them? Is there any point, benefit, or reason to the time-limits? I honestly see no reason why they’re necessary.

You’re losing points you could potentially be earning, not because you didn’t comprehend the topic, or even answered incorrectly…but JUST because you weren’t quick enough. Are students being graded on their speed…or they’re actual comprehension of the subject(s)?

A common reason I hear is that “because its fair to everyone else, that they all receive the same mount of time to finish” but it seems like, by even including the time-limit in the first place, you’re creating sense of “fairness” that shouldn’t or doesn’t exist. Say, someone generally takes more time to finish things, they aren’t as quick as everyone else, it isn’t fair to them that they should be interrupted or rushed.
And if the time-limit is placed to prevent cheating…say, you’ve used up more time than other students, that doesn’t automatically suggest that you’re going to cheat, even if you’re the only one left in the testing area, the teacher(s) will still be monitoring you regardless. You could have cheated at any point during the test if you were going to, and if you did decide to cheat, you would’ve already been done well before the end of the time-limit placed.

Also, if the time-limit is created to see if the students are knowledgeable on a topic…taking up a lot of time doesn’t suggest the student doesn’t know the answers and isn’t knowledgeable on the topic.

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33 Answers

Seek's avatar

Well, for one, the test has moderators. Those moderators don’t want to sit around for 12 hours while you comprehend the meaning of the verb “to be” or try to remember what exactly a hypotenuse is. Ultimately, you either know it or you don’t, and the exam designers and moderators have allotted what they believe is a reasonable amount of time for completing the exam.

And your point about a false sense of fairness? No. Life isn’t fair – so yeah, there’s a time limit. Don’t like it? Tough. I hated being forced to sit and stare at my shoes for three hours because the “time limit” was so exaggerated I couldn’t fathom how it could take a orangutan that long to finish a simple test. But no one cared about that either. Why? Because life isn’t fair.

AntJR's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr Who said the moderators would have to wait around that long for everyone to finish? An amount of time which they believe everyone should finish, or a “reasonable” amount of time is very subjective, since not everyone in the world is as fast as them. They try to set the time-limit to be fair to everyone, but thats contradictory.

Seek's avatar

How is an unmoderated test fair to anyone? Oh, just take this home with you and bring it back… whenever. Tomorrow, next week… I’ll hold off my grading cycle until you feel like participating. No.

It’s a test. They give you the test, you take the test. You get stuff right you pass, if you don’t, you fail. Period. If it’s a timed test, they expect you to be able to finish in the time allotted. If you don’t, you don’t pass the test. It’s not an ice cream party, it’s education.

McCool's avatar

Well, it depends on the exam. If it’s online then they probably do it to keep people from using Google or other search engines to find answers for every question. In this way, a time limit forces them to either depend on their own knowledge or limits their cheating to a few questions. Another reason for having a time limit could be that there is a set schedule with deadlines for grades to be turned in (such as finals). Then, a time limit would make sense because there are many groups of people who need to take an exam and only an alotted amount of time to do it in. And much like @Seek_Kolinahr has said, I’m sure a time limit is there because they assume you either know the material, or you don’t, and they place a time limit to keep peple from lingering.

I don’t really care for time limits, but it’s usually not a problem for me. My problem is when the material taught is not on the test and, uh, well, I digress…

harple's avatar

Certainly in the UK, if pupils have a known condition that makes them slower at being able to complete a test then they are allotted a fixed amount of extra time. Examples of this are if someone has a broken(writing) arm and is having to do the test on a computer instead of with a pen, or if someone has a real diagnosis of dyslexia.

SavoirFaire's avatar

The pedagogical reason is really quite straightforward: written examinations, unlike paper assignments, are a test of how well you can recall and apply basic concepts when presented with a certain kind of problem or question. Speed is one indicator of skill in this area. If you asked me to name three ancient Greek philosophers and it took me over an hour to come up with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, that would tell you something important and relevant about my abilities. It wouldn’t tell you everything, of course, but that’s why most disciplines don’t use exams as their only method of assessment.

marinelife's avatar

because coming up with the correct answer within a defined period is something of a test in and of itself.

wundayatta's avatar

My son has a couple of disabilities. He can’t remember math facts. He can’t spell. There is probably something different about his brain to account for this, since he is gifted in math reasoning and reading comprehension. Like 98th percentile gifted. But below average in doing calculations and in writing down words.

So he gets extra time on tests and he gets to use a calculator. They figure that thinking is more important than rote memory. He will be allowed these accommodations through high school, it seems.

Testing is pretty much bullshit. It comes from a need for teachers to evaluate students quickly. In fact the only good way to evaluate is with narrative reports, or actual experience working with the student. But those take a long time and a lot of effort, and no one wants to read them anyway. People want As and Bs and scores and they are so used to them, they think they actually mean something useful. So tests are alive and well. Part of society. Everyone has bought into them, except for a few.

@AntJR I like the way you think. If I ever had positions I needed people in, I’d love your resume. If I had a few people like you, we could take on any problem and build a very profitable company. I like people who question the system when it smells bad. Keep on doing that.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@wundayatta “Testing is pretty much bullshit” is far too broad of a statement, as is most of your answer. Most standardized testing is bullshit, yes. But the question didn’t specify standardized tests only. Nor did it specify high school. I teach philosophy, a discipline in which evaluation is based much more on essays and discussion. Regardless, there are still good pedagogical reasons for me to give quizzes and final exams. Not a lot of them—I in no way disagree with the general sentiment that students are over tested and that most tests are meaningless. That does not mean, however, that there are not legitimate uses for exams (and even timed exams).

And as has already been mentioned, accommodations are made for those who have good reasons for not being able to be properly evaluated within the standard time limit. Thinking (and learning) is, as you say, quite important. But it is shortsighted to dismiss rote memorization. A space shuttle engineer with minutes to save a crew returning from space has no spare time to spend on multiplication tables. Nor is all memorization rote: if you ask me to name 15 ancient Greek philosophers today and then ask me again tomorrow, I will not give you the same list in the same order each time; yet I’ve certainly memorized their names and the distinctions between them.

gailcalled's avatar

I used to proctor untimed SAT’s and Achievement Tests for high schoolers who had medical diagnoses. They were also cut some slack in other areas of testing, within reason.

They did not take all day but an average of well-less than twice the normal time. Simply knowing that the clock was not ticking allowed them, I am guessing, to relax and focus on the subject matter.

They did, uniformly, very well.

AntJR's avatar

@SavoirFaire “But the question didn’t specify standardized tests only. Nor did it specify high school.” Yes it did, this question is about ANY form of test. And wundayatta’s answer is a good answer too.

AntJR's avatar

@Seek_Kolinahr You’re making quite a bit of assumptions, no-one said they’d be able to take the test home and take it back another day, they’d simply have enough time to relax and actually finish it!

Pandora's avatar

I agree that time tests can have its benefits however they should at least take what is considered the norm and then extend the time by two hours. I remember in school I had the best grades in comprehension but state exams made me so worried about beating the clock on the wall that I could not concentrate to save my life. Some people are just outstanding under pressure and some crumble. Doesn’t mean you don’t understand and know the material. It wasn’t until I decided that the tests results should not matter that I was finally able to ignore the clock and do well.
Occasionally I would run into things in an exam that I did not know because I wasn’t taught and I had to use reasoning to determine the correct answer. Missing a question and going on to the next one as I was told was also a bad idea. Sometimes I would mark a whole row incorrectly because I forgot to skip it on the paper and that would make me lose time. It is way to easy to get things incorrect when in a hurry.
Funny how we tell children tales of the tortoise and the hare and yet when we do exams we expect everyone to be a hare. Slow and steady does not seem to win this race. I remember teachers telling us to also mark as much as we can when we were running out of time because they said leaving is unmarked is worse. So if you were a lucky guesser you could
be brilliant. Just by going ” I pick this one”!
But there is also the over thinkers. Give them too much time and they will go back and second guess the answer wrong because they are over-thinking the question.

AntJR's avatar

@wundayatta Thanks, I find myself doing that often, actually :)

SavoirFaire's avatar

@AntJR I recommend looking up the word “specify” in a dictionary. You did not specify, which is why I warned against overgeneralization. And if you read my own response carefully, you will note that I do not disagree that @wundayatta has a point. I simply think it is important to make more explicit note of the limitations of that point.

AntJR's avatar

@SavoirFaire I know that you didnt, but this topic is for all testing and exams, not just one specific category.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@AntJR I understand that, which is why I’m saying that we need to be more careful when making overly general statements (e.g., “testing is pretty much bullshit”). Such statements do not apply to all categories, thus we must be careful to say which categories they do apply to rather than pretending that they apply across the board. The danger with discussing a broad topic is that you will get answers that make hasty generalizations.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

If you can’t finish a test in the allotted time, assuming the test has been well written, you don’t know the material well enough. If you don’t remember a fact quickly, or if you don’t immediately understand a concept, your knowledge of the topic is poor, and you don’t deserve the marks you may get by sitting around hoping it will come to you. Speed of recall is very important in the execution of knowledge and understanding, so it should be tested in the assessment of knowledge and understanding.

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wundayatta's avatar

@SavoirFaire You are right about my generalization being very wide. I agree, it is sometimes a mistake to make such a broad generalization.

However, I will question the usefulness of most tests. I’m sure you have good reasons to ask your students to memorize, or even take some tests. However, I am skeptical that the results of those tests are even closely correlated with any measure of success either within or outside the field later in life.

Tests are used for very short term goals—mostly so people can grade. Sometimes teachers use them to make mid-course corrections, or to get feedback about what students are learning. However, I have no idea what real learning is. You point out that memorization can be important at times. Then you use the example of some emergency situation and a pilot making calculations. I wonder what happens if the pilot misremembers things and gets the math facts wrong. Perhaps taking the time to use a calculator would have allowed a better result.

Knowledge is a slippery thing. Evaluating another person’s knowledge is more art than science. I’m not prepared to give in on my blanket denunciation of testing. This is actually something I’ve thought about for years. I don’t approve of the standard education way of evaluating students. In particular, I don’t approve of tests. I think few of them are valid. They exist because they are socially useful, not because they mean much. The real test is what can a person do when faced with a problem.

But I know that you, @SavoirFaire, know how you use your tests (and I don’t) and so you have convinced yourself they are useful. I can’t say. You have your work and your job and people you must satisfy, so I don’t blame you for using tests. People generally believe in them. You’re on safe ground. Whether your results mean anything in the long run, I don’t know, and you don’t know, and we will never know, because people never do this kind of follow-up.

2davidc8's avatar

In addition to the excellent reasons given above, I think that another reason to place time limits on tests is that it teaches students that time is a limited resource. It teaches the student to handle a limited resource and deadlines. In the “real world” you are not going to have an unlimited amount of time to do something. If you learn how to work as quickly as possible while still doing a good job, you will come out ahead. The carpenter who can make two cabinets in the same time that it takes another to make just one will make more money.

Placing time limits and deadlines teaches you this discipline.

LostInParadise's avatar

The problem with testing is that it is set up for the benefit of the teacher, who uses it to give a grade to the student. Suppose instead that testing was set up for the student’s benefit. The purpose of the test is to determine what the student has mastered. If the student shows understanding of all the material then the teacher can present the student with advanced material. Otherwise the teacher must target areas where the student has shown lack of understanding.

I believe that this approach is what is meant by objectives based education. Instead of giving a grade, a record is kept of the level of material that the student has completed. Now let’s look at the implications of doing things this way. It makes no sense to use time as a criterion for evaluating a student’s performance. The student either knows the material or does not, and if it takes extra time to demonstrate this then the time should be allotted. There is also no incentive for cheating. If the student fakes mastery then the result will be getting swamped with more advanced material. Best of all, there is no stigma of being branded with a certain grade. If it takes longer to get to the end then so be it.

2davidc8's avatar

Two more thoughts occurred to me. If you’re ever going to be in position where you have to take a test to enter a profession (the bar exam, medical boards, real estate agent, etc.), you’ll have to take tests with time limits. No one is going to give you an unlimited amount of time, so it’s good for the student to start learning how to take tests under a time constraint. Practice makes perfect. Plus, you begin to learn time management, which is a useful life stkill anyway.

And, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be operated upon by a doctor who passed a battery of rigorous tests (yes, with time limits) than one who went to a school with a laissez-faire attitude toward testing. Anesthesia doesn’t last forever, you know. The doctor must know how to operate quickly and efficiently.

So, @AntJR, don’t complain about the time limits. Learn to deal with them.

wundayatta's avatar

Surgery is quite a different item from testing. If someone is learning surgery, I want them to practice doing surgery. I do not want them taking timed paper tests. As @LostInParadise said, testing is for the benefit of the teacher for the most part. Not the student. If we want to teach people skills, we approach it in a very different way. We actually have them do it.

Shippy's avatar

Intelligence is often measured by ‘speed of task’

wundayatta's avatar

I don’t think “intelligence” is a useful concept. And even if it is, I really don’t think it means the same thing to most people. I much prefer a functional skill set demonstration as the best way of evaluating what someone can do for me. Fuck standardized tests of potential. Show me what you can do. And if I’m really interested in potential, I believe that can be better evaluated intuitively, because it is so dependent on situation—something that changes so dynamically and is so unpredictable.

2davidc8's avatar

@wundayatta “Surgery is quite a different item from testing.” No, it’s not that different, in the following respect: It requires that you have all that knowledge already crammed into your head, and that you can recall this knowledge on the spot under a time constraint. In the middle of surgery, you can’t be running off to the books and Internet and spend time figuring things out.

wundayatta's avatar

Yes, but the way you get that knowledge is through practicing on surgery dummies. It is not knowledge that can be gained through tests. You have to practice holding the scalpel in your hand, and make an incision and separate various tissues without cutting the wrong thing, etc etc. No amount of pen and paper testing can prepare you for this. You have to do it. You practice on cadavres and fake bodies, etc. You practice on computers.

Then you work with a skilled surgeon. You watch them. Then maybe they let you do a part of a surgery. It’s a while before you do an entire surgery on your own. And the training for it is real world and on the job.

2davidc8's avatar

@wundayatta I agree that hands-on practice is important, whether in medicine, or law, or whatever. I just disagree with your statement that all testing is bullshit.

AntJR's avatar

@2davidc8 Who was complaining!? I was asking for reasons WHY, those are two different things!

Gifted_With_Languages's avatar

I’m guessing it’s to see how they would do under pressure, how much they can do with a deadline. Many people would normally break down, but with the use of the time limit people have been able to work more calmly under stress, knowing that they have a time limit. It also shows the examiner how the student organizes his/her time, how he/she prioritizes the exercises.

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