Is it fair some students get extra time on tests?

Why can't all learning feel like this?

Why can’t all learning feel like this?

If you are teaching in a class with tests, quizzes, or exams this semester in the USA, then you have told your class, probably on the syllabus, that you will follow the law and give students with documented issues over certain learning environments their required accommodation. I do not have a problem with this.

But don’t you always wonder about the other students that do not give you any such documentation? Might not some of them also benefit from extra time? Might not some of them actually have fairly serious learning issues that mean they do not shine in the traditional test taking setting?

Who does perform well when taking a test in a crowded classroom? The body order of fear increases. You worry about where you gaze, lest you be charged with cheating. You worry about time allocation. Did I spend too much time on that question? You worry about interpretation. Did I answer the right question, or did the teacher mean something really different?

Actually, I always loved tests. I liked the challenge of figuring out the questions and answering them. I liked it that I was doing something. Back when I took tests they were often mimeographed, fragrant with the ink of achievement. I am sure I also loved them because I generally did well on them. They were one of the few active parts of the school day. What I did not like was sitting still and listening. I wanted to be doing something.

It is far more common to hate tests. It is far more common to do less well in this environment. I am very aware that a person who learns normally doing worse in a test taking environment is very different from a person with a serious learning disability doing poorly in that environment. But how do we know all the students in the class were tested for disabilities in the same way? Is it fair to only give those with documentation the accommodation to excel?

What is wrong with giving everyone enough time to be satisfied? What is wrong with giving everyone the opportunity to leave the room and take the test somewhere they are more comfortable? Do we lose anything? Yes, we do if they take the opportunity of privacy to present work as their own that is not. But this is the only thing I see us losing.

There might be another problem. The easiest way to give all students the time they need on tests is to make them short, so they sample the material in a less thorough way. This will punish the student that did not study everything and will punish them in a non-uniform way. Those that happened to study the tested material will do better than those that chose differently. It won’t hurt the thorough students.

This is part of my solution to the testing conundrum. The other part is to use tests judiciously, as only a relatively small part of the entire package. This semester, in my “lecture course” where I don’t actually lecture much at all, the quizzes and tests make up only 37% of the total grade. I mostly use them to make sure the students do the weekly reading in advance. I want to know what they have read and what they got out of it, so I can keep the quizzes short.

I am glad to be part of the change teaching, learning, and universities are undergoing. Thinking about tests and the testing environment is an important part of this change, for students are very good at modifying their studying towards actions which get them points.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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9 Responses to Is it fair some students get extra time on tests?

  1. Jeremy Fox says:

    One thing I find with giving students a lot of time is that it encourages “brain dumps”. When answering a question, many just write down everything that seems like it might be vaguely relevant. They also repeat themselves. And they do this even if you advise against it, for instance by letting them know that they’ll lose marks if they include irrelevant or incorrect material in addition to the correct answer. And then when they’re still writing when time is called (which many of them are, no matter how short I make the exam), they complain that they didn’t have enough time, even though that wasn’t the root problem. Not having “enough time to write down a brain dump” is of course very different than not having “enough time to think about the question and write down a thoughtful answer”. One unfortunate side effect is that exams comprised of brain dumps are very time consuming to mark. And while some of it might just reflect being stressed by the experience of taking an exam, or some students in the class having undocumented needs for accommodations, I don’t think that’s the whole explanation.

    Any suggestions as to what to do about this? One thing I do for questions that only require a short answer (say, definitions) is to limit the length of the answer. The question ends with the phrase “answer in one sentence”, and I let the students know that I’ll ignore anything they write beyond that. But for longer essay questions, imposing a length limit isn’t really feasible. And of course, forbidding the students from wasting their time writing down over-long answers amounts to treating the symptoms rather than the underlying causes.

    Another thing I’ve done is to have part of the exam be take-home, open-note essays, on which I do impose a length limit because they’re typed and the students have time to redraft them as needed in order to adhere to the limit. The answers I get usually aren’t brain dumps, which is good. But I confess I feel like in-class exams have their place and I don’t think I could assess the students as well if I went exclusively to take home, open-note essay exams. But maybe that just indicates I’m too hidebound in my approach to evaluation?

    • I’m not a big fan of take home tests. They take too much time and I would rather they do real work for Wikipedia. I don’t get brain dumps here at Wash U or at Rice before. I’m basically for frequent quizzes, not exams.

  2. I try to design tests so that nobody is pressed for time, so the tests are limited in length. Ideally I can give them as much time as they need, but there are constraints with respect to the room, course schedules and such. I do what Jeremy does – I provide a limited amount of space for the reply and make it clear that answers outside the provided space will not be evaluated. I encourage students to consider their responses before putting them to paper.

  3. Arabella says:

    I believe that “giving everyone enough time” is a much better system than the one currently in place, where poor students’ marks are artificially boosted by an exam system that seems to encourage underachievement.

    Everyone should be given the same amount of time in which to answer the same questions. That is the only way exams can ever be fair, and ever truly reflect a student’s ability. Students should be judged on merit (whether that merit is the result of huge natural talent, a great work-ethic, or a combination of the two) and nothing else. Dyslexia is not a merit. It certainly doesn’t mean that a student is unintelligent, but it does unfortunately mean that in some areas, they are LESS naturally able. That lack of ability can be compensated for by putting in extra work. If a student breaks their writing hand days before a public exam, it’s fair to give them a scribe or a re-sit.

    We don’t allow slow runners to start ten minutes ahead of fast ones at the Olympics, because it would defeat the purpose of the competition. Exams are a competition, because demand for places at good universities exceeds supply.

    Special consideration defeats the purpose of exams, encourages excuse-making and whinging, and disadvantages genuinely talented students who have to do in two hours what second-rate students do in three.

    • I want to know how much a student knows, not how fast they can reproduce it, so I give enough time for all. Some have special permission we are required by law to honor to give extra time. I honor this of course. But I worry about the students who might have needed this and not received it. If everyone gets enough time, then time is no longer an element. But I generally give quizzes, not exams and save the main evaluation for written work they have to make their own decisions on time. I also have an honor code so they can leave the room to write their exams.

    • Anton says:

      It is not a very smart strategy simply because you test students on how fast they can produce results. So, if you have a student who understands concept but can produce result 5 min later than it will be graded lower (since he doesn’t have enough time), but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the concept nor does it mean he is lower in IQ. That means – he is slower.

      Are you testing knowledge or speed?
      Last time I checked – universities boast that their students have knowledge.

  4. WashU Student says:

    I’m an undergrad at WashU and I often leave exams wishing I had a little bit more time. This is especially so for the large lecture classes: general chemistry, organic chemistry, and biology 2970/2960 to a lesser extent. More time would allow students who don’t work particularly quickly and/or who experience test anxiety (me) to answer all questions to the best of their ability. Upon reviewing a graded exam, I often find mistakes that I would’ve caught had I been able to go over my exam before I turned it in. There are also questions that I sacrifice for the sake of time – I write a few points down, but I never get back to them. This is always a frustrating experience. Physics 197/198 exams offer students much more time than they need (max of 6 hours). This is a little extreme, but it leads to a much less frustrating experience. “giving everyone enough time” is better system than the one which is currently in place, where slower test takers’ grades are artificially brought down regardless of their understanding of the material.

    • I’m sorry you are struggling with this experience. I am not a believer in short time deadlines, especially since some students understand they have a disability and get extra time. I want that for everyone. Fight for more time!

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