Timed Tests and Math Anxiety

When I was in the sixth grade, we had timed tests every Friday. We would fold a paper so it had sixteen squares front and back, and our teacher would call out problems, sometimes with several operations in one, and we had to respond quickly. Just as I started to solve a problem, she would move onto the next. Afterwards, we would exchange papers with the person next to us, and I would always cringe knowing I’d be lucky to get half of them right. That began my math phobia, and my belief that I would always struggle with it.

This changed a few years ago, when I was asked to support students in math at the middle and high school level. I was a bit apprehensive, but told myself I would have fun with it. Granted, I’m an adult now and utilizing an adult brain (most of the time), so I figured math should come more easily. I was also liberated from no longer having to worry about being timed, tests, or grades. I did have to perform well enough to teach others, and teaching helped me absorb more. I also had the luxury of enjoying the intrinsic pleasure of math, especially this year in geometry. The logic applied to theorems and proofs is like a brain awakening. I can see those patterns in life, and it makes math relevant and exciting.

I recently spoke to a good friend who had been in France for two years while her husband was employed there, and her two children attended a French school. She remarked that her children loved the French math program, because they were learning how to apply math concepts to the real world. There were no timed tests, students often collaborated in groups, and were given adequate time to complete tests. They could also ask for help on tests. Fluency wasn’t as much of an issue as appreciation and understanding. They emerged not only loving math but being proficient in it. When they returned to the states, ahead of their grade in math, they found that American schools emphasized fluency or speed to help prepare students for state testing. The irony was that their French teacher said the idea of exploring math concepts for their relevance and real life application came from America. And we Americans are often distracted by high test scores, so math efficiency and speed become a priority.

While efficiency comes with a lot of practice, getting there can be difficult for more nervous learners. There are things you can do if your child is wary of timed tests. First, figure out how your child best learns math. Is he or she a visual learner? Can your child see the logic more clearly by working a problem backwards? If a student’s anxiety is high, and you suspect other factors may be hindering their learning, you may want to have them assessed. One of my students had severe anxiety about math tests, and psychological testing revealed both high anxiety and dyslexia. She qualified for accommodations, which allowed her to have more time for tests, plus take them in a quiet setting. Eventually, she realized that it was anxiety and not the math that was holding her back.

I recently had to re-experience my old math anxiety when the geometry class I assist in broke into six groups that competed in a timed test. My initial response was brain freeze. However, as time went on, I got into the math and stopped thinking about time or how other teams were doing. I appreciated how students must feel that don’t have my adult perspective. Attitude and self-confidence are an important part of math success.

Fluency and timed tests are a part of our educational culture, and they have their place. However, it’s important to recognize in students and in our own children the need to learn a skill without that added pressure. Over time, they will appreciate not only their own ability to excel, but the beauty, intricacy, and real life application of math. Maybe then the speed will come because they are enjoying the process.