Good, not fast

It happened again this week. If I had to guess, I would say it was the 9,234th time. A teacher was talking about quizzes and tests with time limits. The exchange goes something like this:

Frustrated teacher: “Bo, there must be time limits. He could not finish the test in the 55 minutes. He is just going to miss those points of the questions he did not get to. He’ll learn to work faster.” [And here it comes…the dreaded statement for the 9,234th time…] “Do you want a doctor operating on you that could not complete the tests in a specified time?”

Me: “How will you know what the student really knows and understands? Will that grade really measure learning, or will it be confounded by too many other variables? Are your standards time standards or mastery standards? And, by the way, I want a good doctor, not a fast one.”

I challenge anyone to find the time-ranges data for typical operations and surgery. I bet there is a significant range of times for different docs performing appendectomies, bone sets, etc. May all my doctors have found mastery of their skills and concepts rather than beat-the-competition speed.

10 thoughts on “Good, not fast

  1. Clearly a provocative topic… good exchanges and multi-faceted points of view in the comments already. Bo, thanks for starting the dialogue. My quick reaction to the post was that, for so many areas of life, I am less interested in the speed with which something is done than in the depth of knowledge and understanding. And, your challenge could be applied to many things… I hope the engineers who designed the bridge I must cross to get to work each day focused on quality not speed; I hope my priest focuses on the meaning of our service, not how quickly we can clear the pews; I would rather my children’s teachers get through less material in a year if moving ahead means my child has a less than solid grasp of one critical element of the material. In settings where learners are given “timed tests” so that the value of speed is made clear, are they also given clear learning opportunities in which the value of proof-reading/ double-checking/ rethinking/ reconsidering/ and then cross-checking is also given a priority? I’m not necessarily against a timed test, but my [more limited] experience is that the pressure around timed tests can exceed the focus on other aspects of quality learning.

  2. Sorry Bo, I just don’t get it.

    We all know that no matter what aspect of our lives we examine that there are multiple times in any given day, week or month that time pressures and constraints have a bearing upon what we achieve. Dealing with those pressures, making compromises, managing time and having the ability to prioritize, are HUGELY important, (soft) life-skills that we as teachers can model in many ways. One such way is via timed tests.

    Even if you remove the philosophy for a second and concentrate on the pragmatic, if kids are going to take tests that matter (SAT’s, SAT subject tests, AP’s, MCAT’s, College Exams, ACT’s etc.), then we are doing them an enormous disservice by sheltering them from the ‘real world’ situation. Having a deep understanding of the material will help, but that’s not the whole picture – not by a LONG chalk.

    In life you WILL be ‘pulled off’ the course if you cannot finish in time, indeed in marathons and half-marathons eventually people pack up the finish line, water stations and medal presentations and go home! Those left on the course at that point (8 or 9 hours into the event) are left on their own, out in the cold and out of ‘the race’.

    ‘Mastery’ (whatever that means) cannot happen in a Utopian vacuum – it’s competitive out there and people that invent things the day after someone else has recorded the patent, are largely forgotten by history.

    Of course deeper understanding is a noble goal, but it cannot be achieved in an infinite time. If it does take ‘forever’ then what you have is an academic exercise which is great if you are independently wealthy, but less useful if you have to achieve something concrete; eventually you have to ‘prove it’!

    • ChemEd,
      I agree that in addition to helping students achieve mastery we also must prepare them for the “real life” scenarios that you mention. But to what extent? And to what extent must our need to simulate “life” supersede the the need to become proficient in the skills that make life productive and enjoyable?

      I suspect that most teachers do not time tests because they feel the weight of preparing students for the MCAT. I suspect that they do so because 50 minutes is the time they are allotted…and because that’s the way they’ve always done it…because that’s the way it was done to them. History (past practice) rather than future (student end-proficiency) is the main factor in that decision.

      I interpreted Bo’s comment not as “do away with timed tests,” rather that in the formative stages of the learning exercise, give the kid the time he or she needs to show what he or she can do. Also, keep in mind that Bo’s conversation likely involved Junior High kids, not college juniors.

      When doctors perform their incision technique, I imagine that they do so over LONG periods of time, with multiple, probably incalculable repetitions. Their first introduction to “Incision 101” probably does not involve a stopwatch and a benchmark time.

      • Some good points, but putting MCAT’s to one side, any 8th grader who has never experienced timed, pressurized testing is going to have a VERY hard time in any 10th grade chemistry class of mine!

        I’d also add that from my perspective, ‘student end-proficiency’ (if I’m interpreting that particular piece of language correctly), very much INCLUDES the ‘time factor’ as a central piece of the academic arsenal.

    • Thanks for the rich discussion! Ted is correct – I am NOT advocating for completely abolishing timed assessments. I think they have their time and place in particular contexts. However, I think we educators should really consider what we are testing when we give timed evaluations.

      When I see an “82” on a test paper, or in a final average, I make some assumptions that this number is a measure of student knowledge. However, we know that many teachers include effort, punctuality, etc. in a grade by way of what gets averaged. Also, time is part of that number. Does the “82” represent what the student knows…or how fast she can work? Or both? And it is not the “fault” of the teachers – our grade reporting practices need examination.

      I am merely asking us to consider our assessment practices. We need to get better in our professional practice of assessment. Do we realize what we are assessing? Isn’t there room for some assessments that are POWER assessments – KNOWLEDGE assessments – and not compounded by the complexity of 55 minutes and a teacher-made test?

      And as for the good-versus-fast doctor metaphor…I STAND BY THAT POST! I am tired of hearing that analogy. I have yet to have anyone show me the data on surgical time ranges. And I bet none of us look at those stats to choose our physicians.

      One more thing that struck me this week. I have 80 faculty in the JH. Our peer visits were due on April 30. I continue to receive notifications of peer visits – most notifications have come in May…of May peer visits. These great educators – and they truly are great – were taught in a system with timed tests. It certainly did not enhance our timeliness with an important professional responsibility that our school has decided we will practice.

      ChemEducator LLC, I truly appreciate the push back – I learn better and think better when we don’t all agree on a blog conversation. Just curious – do you meet ALL of your deadlines? Or do you sometimes need more time to show what you can do?

      • When you say;

        >I think we educators should really consider what we are testing when we give timed evaluations.

        I have a simple answer. I am testing the kids’ ability to accurately answer the questions in a given time! No more, no less.

        I guess it comes down to what one really values, and what one thinks is really worth assessing.

        In over 20 years of teaching I’ve never (not once) assigned a single piece of credit for effort, punctuality, participation or any other skill outside of ‘getting questions right’. For me, a basic and crucial skill is doing that under pressure, in time-constrained situations with something on the line – I think it’s worthwhile (and moreover a fundamental) ‘life-skill’. (I DO credit homework (non-time pressured) but that is ALWAYS ‘critically graded’, i.e. graded for accuracy and NEVER for ‘completeness’ or for ‘trying’).

        I admit that there is great value in taking other approaches too, but my concern is where teachers like me will fit in the brave new educational world.

  3. Ezra, thanks for your comment. Just for the record, I never mentioned “slow.” I simply implied that humans do things at different rates of speed. Most often, I think quality and mastery are just more important than being fast…most of the time. When someone reads a grade of 87, I think most interpret that as a sign of a particular proficiency on a topic. However, a student could have scored 100% on the questions he/she was able to work. A few were left blank. Is that mark a true representation of student knowledge? What if the teacher miscalculated how long the items would take? What if a student explores a different method of response?

    As a fellow runner, I appreciate your analogy. I have run in over 300 events. Not once have I been pulled off the course because I did not complete the course in less than 55 minutes. Finishing seems the constant and time the variable. Is this true in schools?

  4. This is exactly why I (and a few of my students) were late to the Easter Service yesterday. I willingly admit it, but I’m thankful my students had a chance to show all they knew. (I hope I’m not fired after this admission, and I pray for God’s forgiveness!)

  5. This is a dilemma. I would rather an ER doctor be right than wrong, but there are situations where right and slow may be just as wrong.

    The magic lies in identifying the importance of speed to the performance.

    In another application, accuracy remains a currency, but distinction lies in efficiency. My running form is quite good, but my cardiovascular efficiency is not sufficiently refined to qualify me for a trip to Boston.

  6. Bo,

    I am loving your thinking today! A little time and some java does wonders! I like the provocations to rethink our assumptions that are embedded in our school system and structure. Keep it up! (have another cup and let’s see what you perk up next!)

    Jamie Feild Baker

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