A homeschooling mom gives her son timed math tests, but they cause him some anxiety. Should she stop?
Is there any merit to timed math tests? After getting this call, I did some research and got opinions from lots of elementary math teachers to find out whether timed math tests are an instructionally sound practice. (The short answer: Not really.)
Listen Now (or read the transcript):
Resources in this Episode
Research Suggests Timed Tests Cause Math Anxiety, Jo Boaler, from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ Teaching Children Mathematics, Vol. 20, No. 8, April 2014
Using Backward Timing to Work on Math Fluency, Heather LeBlanc from All Things Upper Elementary, October 2013
Web-based Math Fluency Game Sites:
And Coming Soon:
YouCubed (launching in 2015): A brand-new website whose focus is on helping math teachers learn the most effective ways to teach math.
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Great topic! My son is in second grade and they are doing timed math tests this year. He was motivated to be able to finish in the 5 minutes so he did well.
I appreciated hearing the research and different points of view regarding these tests. I understand test anxiety and why that is a concern (even more so after hearing about the physiologic effects). I don’t have a problem with a decision to do away with them since they cause anxiety, but I do wonder about two things. First, the ability to quickly add, subtract, multiply and divide those 0-9 numerals is such an important skill. How is this impacted by doing away with timed tests? And secondly, how are preparing students to deal with anxiety? It may be over a timed math test this season, but as students age and mature, there are going to be far greater issues that they will face that can cause them anxiety. And as much as I would wish smooth sailing through life for my son, it is an unrealistic wish. I won’t be able to “do away with” certain things (standardized testing, peer pressure, driving test, etc).
So for me, I guess the question isn’t what to do about timed math tests — but how do we deal with anxiety that our students face?
Wow. I wish I had an answer for you on this one. What I can say is that I agree that students do need skills to cope with anxiety, and it’s not like anxiety-producing situations are going away anytime soon. Off the top of my head, I think a few things can help: (1) Teaching our kids the words for the emotions we experience — to help them recognize times when they are anxious and name it, rather than getting pushed around by the emotion. (2) Help them identify strategies that work for them personally, whether it’s to pay attention to their breathing, engaging in positive or calming or reality-based self-talk. (3) Give them “practice runs” or situations that are like the anxiety-producing ones, without the consequences. So with a child who gets stressed by timed tests, have them do a “pretend” test that’s much shorter, and put the focus on their feelings before, during, and after, rather than on whether they got a lot of answers right.
As for developing the fast math facts, there are a few suggestions in this podcast that offer alternatives for developing math fluency without having to use the traditional timed tests — even changing the focus of the timing from trying to finish in a set amount of time to measuring how long it takes to complete a set number of problems can ease the tension while still practicing that fluency. If you’re not able to listen to it, click on the link for the transcript and you can read it instead.
Thanks for taking the time to comment. If anyone with a child psychology background wants to chime in about the anxiety here, I would love to hear more perspectives!
I am a high school math teacher, so I have experience teaching math but not elementary level mathematics. I think the research discussed in this article applies more to formal math assessments used to test student learning than the timed math facts pages which are used to develop fluency.
I don’t have timed formal assessments (tests and quizzes), but I think it is very important for elementary students to know their basic math facts correctly and quickly; they are fundamental to future success in mathematics. I think the ideas of backward timing and computer games are great alternatives to developing fluency, but it must be developed.
I agree, Ben, and thanks for contributing that — I find that most of my posts start off with a good question, but they really get fleshed out when readers add what they know.
I appreciate your short answer because my internet is limited, so podcasts aren’t possible for me right now. 🙂
I just discovered your blog, and look forward to exploring it. I’m a former middle school language arts teachers and current homeschooling mom with 4 school-aged children. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around finding the “best” way to educate.
Hi Jody! My podcast is also on iTunes, which is where I pull all of the other podcasts I listen to. I put them on my iPod and listen while I’m washing dishes, exercising, etc.
I hope you find lots of great stuff on the site — glad you’re here!
I teach 4th grade math and give timed tests in multiplication the first grading period every Friday. In our math program, students cannot move through chapters 5-12 well without knowing their facts. They can’t find prime/ composite numbers, factors of a number, do multi-digit multiplication or division, find equivalent fractions, find common denominators, multiply fractions, and on, and on, and on without figuring out the basic fact first. Often, they don’t even see the patterns in math that come so easily to their peers that know their facts. Therefore, the gap begins and gets wider and wider until they have fluency in math facts. It’s the basic building block that makes math fun and easy to the ones that know their facts. The reason I stop at the end of the first grading period is because I need to start intervention with these students. There is no sense frustrating them to point of disliking math. Next year, I will continue this process, but maybe change to shorter lists that put the zeros through twos together, then threes through fives, or something similar. This way, I’d think everyone would feel some success and be motivated to buckle down and practice. I have realized the kids with test anxiety usually have anxious parents. Everyone should keep calm and multiply on….at their own pace, and not worry about not making a goal that week if their best effort was made! It takes TIME and is developmental.
Thanks for sharing this — it’s valuable to hear the perspective of a teacher who deals directly with the long-term effects of inadequate math fluency. I hope this article conveys the importance of building fluency in students. Based on what I’ve learned in researching this article and through reader comments, traditional timed tests work fine with some students, but for those whose anxiety impacts their performance, the alternatives listed above could be the solution. I appreciate that you stop the timed testing after the first marking period — your process makes a lot of sense to me. I’m curious to hear how your planned change to shorter lists goes — come back and update us so we can all learn!
See my comment below about making it more like a video game by advancing levels. My level A has 0-2 facts, level B 0-3, and so on.
Before I share my own personal experience, I will provide that I am what is considered among temperament sorters and personality assessments as a rational. I am also introverted. My MBTI type is INTP. VALS type Innovator/Achiever. Clifton Strengths are Intellection, Ideation, Strategic, Maximizer, and Input. People like myself tend to love conceptualizing and logic. Many of us become scientists and engineers.
When I was in third grade, I had a teacher who would give us timed multiplication drills. I was never any good at doing math in my head, or doing it quickly, so this caused me a great deal of anxiety. In fact, from then on, my math anxiety persisted such that I hated math in grade school, and it showed.
I loved science in high school, but I was not able to get very farm in mathematical physics, because, well, I had been math-avoidant all along since those multiplication drill days, and I suppose I may have missed an important window of skill acquisition. When I was a biology major in college, I struggled in chemistry and in physics. I ended up changing majors.
I am now 48 years old, with a bachelors degree in Restaurant and Food Service Management.
This is my own highly andecdotal account. It may all depend upon multiple factors, including the temperament of the child. Timed math, for me, proved disastrous, and I didn’t even have any learning issues like ADD, at the time.
Fortunately, now at schools they have 504 plans, so my daughter, who has ADHD, is allowed brain breaks and more time to complete assignments. She has improved immensely as a result. She also shut down even on simple problems that we all knew she could do, when they were timed by a tutor, so I insisted that timed nonsense end immediately. You know your child best. Do not be afraid to staunchly advocate for their special needs.
… I was not able to get very *far in mathematical physics…
+1 for the addition of the ability to correct any silly auto-corrects. LOL
I would say the anxiety is not coming from the test but from the parent administering the test and the way it is presented. I give timed test to my fourth graders and tell them it is just like a video game and challenge them to move to the next level and get excited with them when they advance, I present it as a challenge. They are excited when they see the tests come out. Seriously. It is all in the attitude and climate that the teacher creates.
I agree that there are some students that have anxiety when it comes to timed tests, especially in math. From what I have seen, a lot of students have used it as an excuse to waste time. I am a high school math teacher and we are trying to train our students to take the ACT test which is a timed test. I feel that the biggest obstacle for the students on the math portion of the test is time management. By not giving timed test we are not preparing them to use their time wisely and efficiently. I agree with not having timed tst when teaching the basics of any subject, but at some point they need to experience timed tests in order to prepare them for secondary and post secondary education.
Since when did anxiety become such an evil word? My point is, that children need to learn how to cope with stress and anxiety because it will prepare them for adulthood. It’s a disservice to our youth to expect anything less from them or ourselves. As a child, I wanted to be timed, I wanted to challenge myself, and if we fail we should be reminded that failure IS a part of life, and that we need to learn how to get back up from that failure. Competition, certain types of stress, hard work – all these things are necessary and a very important part of life.
Thomas, it sounds like you were a lot like I was as a student–I thrived on that “good stress” and competition. Being that type of person makes it harder to understand what it’s like for someone who responds the opposite way to certain conditions.
What I’ve come to understand from people who struggle with anxiety is that it can be debilitating. In the case of timed math tests, that dynamic can make a child believe they are not good at math, when just the opposite may be true. That belief, in turn, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The student can actually start making more mistakes and finding themselves with mental blocks, or they may be less and less willing to take the risks that are necessary to grow as a learner.
I agree that pressure and failure are part of life, and putting a bubble around our kids doesn’t necessarily help them cope with those things. I do, however, think there may be better ways of preparing them. When in real life do people have to do a set amount of math problems in a certain amount of time? That really isn’t a reflection of real life, and if creating those conditions is going to take a potentially strong math student and turn them away from math forever, it’s not an effective strategy. For the kids like you and me who love that kind of challenge, let them at it, but if a student knows the timing is going to actually make their skills plummet, why not let them do an untimed test, and measure their growth with some other metric?
If I had to list the top three reasons why I hated elementary school it would be:
1. Being kept inside for most of my recesses to finish worksheets
2. Accelerated Reading
3. Mad Minute Math
I’m glad to hear that these practices all seem to be losing favor. Hopefully my kids can actually enjoy school. I thought for so long that I was just bad at math. But when I got to algebra and geometry I finally started to like it and did pretty well. I went on to get a computer science degree (requires about 3 fewer math classes than an actually math major). I effeminately agree that these tests give kids the wrong impression about what math actually is. Some of my classmates who did well on these memory exercises in elementary school had a hard time adjusting to math classes that actually required mathematical reasoning.
* definitely agree
The blog link in the resources said that I didn’t have permission to view it. So I did a google search and found this link https://www.brainyapples.com/2015/01/13/improving-math-fluency-using-backward/
Thanks so much for letting us know – much appreciated!
I teach in a multi level classroom. I see the struggle with timed math tests, or drills. I also see the struggle with doing higher level math when they do not know their math facts. Fractions, long division, ratios, and more are so difficult when they are still trying to use one of the (too)many strategies we have taught them to multiply. Some times teaching a new topic or process is difficult enough without them trying to skip count to find a common multiple. I don’t put any pressure on any students when they don’t finish before the clock, they circle and just keep going until they finish. They keep track of it in their own in a folder, I don’t display it publicly and I conference with them weekly. I use it for intervention and to let parents known what to work on at home. I realize it is a trendy topic and I can certainly respect all sides but for me it helps if they know their facts by 4th and 5th grade.
I have been using a must do/may do strategy for 5th grade math assessments recently, which has been successful in reducing anxiety, helping my rushers slow down and reduce inaccuracies, and also giving my more competitive students the challenge/sense of urgency they crave. I choose and circle ‘must do’ questions on an assessment. All students must attempt those questions in the time allowed. All students must work for the whole time, and attempt as many of the ‘may do’ questions as they have time for in addition. Each score is a percentage of questions attempted, so there is no penalty for answering fewer questions and no one else needs to know how many questions each student answered. This seems to work better than allowing extra time. It’s hard to keep track of those assessments and the slower workers often end up missing other things, which doesn’t help their stress levels!
Thanks for sharing this strategy!
Hi! I’m an elementary school teacher, and I use timed math tests but it always depends on the content area and types of questions. I found that when it comes to simple calculation, topics as estimation, or simple word/graph/image problems – where you value efficiency (do it fast and correctly) then timed tests makes sense, and usually children reacts very well to it! They want to do better every time, and they generate better strategies or are interested how other students calculated faster (and then we talk about those strategies)***, for all this I think it serves them well. But if it is something more difficult, where you value thinking, ideas, mathematical reasoning, more elegant strategy/solution, then it is wrong to give timed test, as you have mentioned in the podcast. It is also important to mention, that I don’t use timed test as part of grading.
***Parent can do the same, talk about his/her own strategies, or something similar.
As an elementary math teacher and as a child that had math anxiety over timed tests, I have struggled with this topic. I personally never felt that giving timed tests was a great solution to teaching fluency. On the other hand, students must be fluent in addition and subtraction within 10 and with their multiplication facts. One of the best solutions I have found is allowing opportunities for students to play math fluency games online. Another fun way to increase fluency is to allow the class to solve facts together and to see if they can beat their class times. Zearn has great options for this activity within each lesson. I have seen students improve their fluency while also allowing their anxiety to decrease.