The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast, Episode 7


Jennifer Gonzalez, Host

Jennifer Gonzalez: Welcome to Episode 7 of the Cult of Pedagogy Podcast. This is Jennifer Gonzalez and today we are talking about timed math tests.

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Gonzalez: Before we get started, I told you I would always give you a teaching tip at the beginning of each episode. So here’s my tip for you today: Always plan to end your class five minutes before the class is supposed to end. In other words, if you’re teaching a class and students are supposed to be released at 10:00 a.m., have it in your head right away that you’re going to be done at 9:55 a.m.. This seems kind of like a “no duh” tip, but for myself as a teacher, I would see 10:00 a.m. as the end point and I would try to squeeze as much as I possibly could into that class. And it caused a lot of stress. It caused a lot of rushing at the end, a lot of me sort of shouting out the last few bits of instruction, or whatever it was, as students were getting up and leaving the room. When I figured out that I should actually mentally plan to be done at 9:55 a.m., things always went much, much better because typically I wouldn’t be done at 9:55 a.m. I’d be done at 9:56 a.m. or 9:57 a.m. and there would still be that nice, relaxed buffer time for everybody to pack up and ask last-minute questions. And I wasn’t frantically trying to get everything done. So if this sounds typical to you or it sounds familiar to you, try to have that discipline of just always saying I am going to be done five minutes early, not that I hope I will. But, if it’s 9:50 a.m. or 9:53 a.m. and you’re not done yet, that’s the time to decide what to cut out, because you’re not going to make it. Don’t try to squeeze it in. Okay, so that’s my tip of the day.

Today’s going to be a shorter episode. I’m going to try now to answer one question per episode and just focus on that topic. I think it will make it easier for people to find the episodes that pertain to what they are most interested in. So this will be quicker. So here’s the question that I am going to answer today.

Caller: Hi Jenn, I’ve got a question about elementary school math. We’re using some homeschool curriculum that asks us to do timed math facts pages each day. And there are 100 questions on each sheet and it’s five minutes. My son can do them. However, he gets nervous when you put the timer into anything. And I remember back to when I was a kid and I hated those too. My homeschooling friends say, “Well, you know, if it feels like it’s too stressful, don’t do it. That’s why you homeschool.” My husband thinks that it’s a good idea to do it, because it teaches my son to work under stress and that there are times when there is some amount of drudgery involved with work. You know, it’s boring to do these tests, but work often can be boring. I don’t think I really agree with either of those ideas, but I’m not really sure what to do. I was wondering what math teachers think. Do they see any value in these timed tests? Are they still doing them? You know, what are the benefits? What could be the drawbacks? And do we really need to do that much every day? So any ideas that you have or that any math teachers out there have would be great.

Gonzalez: Thank you so much for asking this question. I have got three kids of my own who are in elementary school, but I know very little about the teaching of math in elementary school. So, this gave me a chance to do some studying and research and I found some really, really good stuff on this topic.

So, I am going to start by giving you what I found to be the very best resource on this subject. This is an article called Research Suggests Timed Tests Cause Math Anxiety and it is by a Stanford professor named Jo Boaler. I am going to put a link to it on the website. This article is from a publication called Teaching Children Mathematics and it’s put out by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. The gist of the article is this: Giving timed tests creates intense anxiety for certain kids. That anxiety actually impacts their working memory. It actually sort of blocks them from being able to access information that they have. In other words, this can cause kids who are good in math to not be good in math. And repeated application of this strategy can cause students who have a lot of potential in mathematics to turn away from the subject and decide that they are not good in math. So the research on timed math tests says, don’t do it. There are lots of other, better ways to assess math fluency and to build it.

The person who wrote this article, Jo Boaler, she actually has another point also, not just that the timed math tests cause anxiety, but that they are misguided. That the emphasis on speed really is sort of a distraction from higher quality math instruction and higher quality math thinking. She says what students need is something called number flexibility. They need to be able to pull apart problems and find alternative ways of solving problems. And they need to develop mathematical thinking. And that the emphasis on just getting an answer right quickly, it gives students the wrong perception, that speed is what makes a good mathematics student.

One of the strategies that she recommends is doing a strategy called Number Talks. The teacher presents a problem to the class, has all of the students think about that problem in their head, hold up what she’s calling a ‘quiet thumb’ – basically a thumb held to the chest where only a teacher can see it, meaning “I have the answer, I have a solution.” And then, and the reason the quiet thumb is because then there’s not a lot of pressure to be the fastest and to get it done. Because once one or two kids say “Hey I’ve got it,” a lot of the other kids will just give up. So, then, once the majority of the students have the quiet thumb up, then the teacher starts taking ideas. How did you solve it? How did you solve it? How did you solve it? And these go up on the board. And the students look at all of the different ways that it was possible to solve that problem. She says this is good for the advanced students and the lower level students. The lower level students are seeing the thinking behind what the advanced students are doing. The advanced students are seeing other ways of processing this math.

So, the short answer is, your instincts are correct. The timed math tests and the anxiety that you’re seeing in your son, your instinct to not give him these any more, from what I’m seeing, that sounds correct. I would like to hear from more people. Hopefully they can give more comments to this post, to see, get some more people to weigh in on this, but I am not seeing anything that is really in favor of it.

The only thing that I am seeing is that some teachers, and I belong to some networks of teachers, so I threw this out to them and a lot of elementary math teachers responded. A few of them said that they liked the tests just because they were efficient. They said that it’s a good way to assess a big group of students, quickly, which wouldn’t pertain to home schooling anyway. And some of them said that they motivated a certain type of student, that a lot of kids were sort of motivated to do better than they did last time and that the time pressure got them really focused and challenged. But they all acknowledged that there was this portion of students, and in this study that was in the other article — the NCTM article — it said it was about one-fourth of kids get intense anxiety. And they all acknowledged that those kids should not be assessed that way, they should be assessed in other ways. Some schools, in fact, have dropped the practice of timed tests at all. They have said to teachers, You are not allowed to give timed tests anymore. These are schools where the administration is clearly in touch with the research.

Other teachers offered an alternative way to do the timed tests, and you may want to try some of these. One teacher — and I’m actually going to link to her blog post about this — her name is Heather LeBlanc, and she wrote a blog post called Using Backwards Timing to Work on Math Fluency. Her blog is All Things Upper Elementary. And so, the process that she describes is using a timer, yes, but the timer doesn’t count down to zero. The timer starts at zero and just times how long the student takes. So, you give the students thirty problems, and set the timer. When a student is done, they raise their hand the teacher records how long it took that student. Then another student raises their hand when they are done, and the teacher records how long it took that student. Then they all have their time of how long it took. And then they try to beat that time the next time around, and the next time around. She says pretty clearly that if it takes a student longer than say 3 to 5 minutes, depending on what you’re timing them on, to complete those problems, then they have too many problems on their paper. And they should be given fewer next time. This is a real good way to differentiate. You may give one student only twenty and another thirty because of where they are. So, she says when she uses this — and she describes the whole process, and even how to chart it and everything — the students experience a lot less pressure and a lot less anxiety. So that is a way to use timing in a different way, without it being so high-pressure.

A couple of other strategies some other teachers shared with me, which I thought were great: One teacher says she gives them tests but doesn’t time them. And says that any time they can’t automatically answer a problem — that they have to sort of stop, and figure it out — that they should circle the problem. And then later on they can go back over those and note the ones that they don’t yet have an instant recognition of the answer yet. I thought that was good.

Another teacher just uses an observation sheet with her students, and I’m guessing this is with a smaller group of kids. So, this would be great with homeschooling. You just watch them. Watch them do the problems. And the ones that they don’t write an answer down for immediately, you just take note of which ones those were. And those are the ones that they need to study on more.

A couple of websites also were recommended. One is called Reflex, which has games that are built for building Math fluency. Another is called Both seem to be pretty similar. I’m familiar with SumDog because they use it at my kids’ school. It’s just games, basically. You know, you’ve got to shoot a bunch of balls that are in the air and the balls actually have a problem in them — 3 + 4 — and you have to be able to answer correctly to be able to shoot that ball. And so it’s really just basic math facts. And so if you haven’t plugged him into these and he enjoys those types of things, this is probably a much more low pressure way of having him practice those math facts, without the pressure of time. Although some of the games actually are timed. They end after a certain amount of time. So, if you notice that he’s still experiencing this anxiety, then I’d say stay away from those games.

One last thing, I mentioned this article from the NCTM, from the professor Jo Boaler. She is coming out with this website in January of 2015 that I am so excited about. If you’re listening and you’re a math teacher, it’s called And I will put it in the show notes also, because it’s already up, it’s just not populated yet. But it’s ready and it looks like they’re launching in January 2015. Jo Boaler, the article I mentioned at the beginning, it’s beautifully written. She can really write about math teaching. So, I would highly recommend that you read the article and that you go and take a look at I am going to try and get her as a guest on the podcast, because I really like listening to her talk about math and I think she is really on to something. is not an app for kids necessarily to play. It is for math teachers it looks like, to teach you better ways of teaching math. It looks like it’s going to be a great site, so I would recommend that you take a look at it.

Okay, that’s it. This is our podcast on timed math tests. If you have experiences with these or if you have other ideas that you’d like to contribute, please add comments to the post on this podcast, because I would really like to hear from more teachers about what your experiences have been and what you think about timed math tests. If you have a question about teaching, about learning as it relates to parenting, about administrative stuff, about tech stuff, go to and there is a voice recorder right there where you can record your question. Or you can write it in if you’d rather not use your voice. Come on over to the site too, and check out all the other stuff that we have. We’ve got book reviews and videos on instructional strategies, and lots of stuff to make your teaching better. That is all for today. Have a great day!


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