Thinking About Speed and Time

On first glance, the title of this post has me thinking about my Calculus classes, but that is not the speed and time angle that is on my mind this morning. Yesterday, I finished listening to the newest episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. The episode (found here) is called Puzzle Rush which is the name of a variant of chess. In the episode Gladwell raises some interesting questions regarding chess, the LSAT, and various places in our society where it seems that speed is valued more than deep thought. He keeps referring to the hare and the tortoise and wonders when the hares got to make the rules. This pod has me thinking about my assessment practice. As I often do, I am going to use this space to think out loud and I am going to hope for the usual outpouring of wisdom here and on twitter to help me work through my questions/concerns.

Earlier this year, some colleagues were having a grumpy conversation about the kids these days. You know, the usual grumpy late winter talk about what is wrong with kids. A totally natural conversation that happens at some point every year. Not a criticism here. However, I did push back a bit and I said that while my current Calc BC kids would be dismayed by my Calc BC tests from 20 years ago, my kids from 20 years ago would also be dismayed by my tests from today. I am pretty convinced that my students today are being asked for deeper analysis of why the math they have learned works the way it does and they are asked to make more predictions and asked to tie together information more deeply. I am also pretty convinced that they are slower in their calculations and in their algebraic manipulations. If my students from today tried to complete in 50 minutes a test I wrote more than a decade ago, many would flounder. If my students from ten years ago tried to complete a test I wrote this year, many would be flustered by the open nature of some of the questions. In general, I think that the thinking I am asking for now is more important. If I still thought that the old ways were more important, I would not have evolved in my assessment practice in the direction I have moved. Where Gladwell has me questioning myself is that there is still a distinct flavor of speed that comes into play. I have a number of students who are still furiously writing when I give them a three minute warning. They are still furiously writing when I give them a one minute warning. Heck, they are still writing as students are passing from class to class in the hallways and I have to bark at them a bit to give up their work. I am somewhat convinced that this might be true no matter how much I shorten the tests. I also admit, not proudly, that I am a little uncomfortable with the idea of a 50 minute class test only taking 20 minutes for some of my best students. I do not believe that speed is the best judge of talent, I know better. But I also suspect that speed is an ingredient in success in many endeavors. What I am wrestling with in the wake of Gladwell’s pod is how do I strike a balance here. I keep flashing back to an essay I read years ago by Dan Kennedy in which he advises ‘Value what you assess and assess what you value.’ I think that there is a very real part of me that values some level of automaticity. Maybe I am being shallow here, but it feels like my best students, the ones who have really mastered ideas, can do so quickly. Maybe I am just fooled into thinking that they are my best because they move quickly? I can keep rambling with this internal monologue, but I won’t bore you this way. I will just jump to some questions that I have for you, dear reader, and I hope to get a nice conversation going in the comments here or over on the twitters where I am still @mrdardy

  1. How do you estimate the time needed for your students to complete a task in class? I have 50 minute classes (mostly) for testing. I generally work on the idea that I should be able to carefully write out my solutions in about 15 minutes. No real science behind this, just accumulated experience.
  2. When writing a test where I am pretty sure that there is one especially challenging (I usually call them interesting!) question, I try to place that one near the front half of the test. Students can, of course, skip around but most just plow through. I want the problem requiring the most thought to be placed where there is still some time for that thought to occur.
  3. When students finish their test, they are dismissed. Is this smart? How do you approach this?
  4. Our schedule, like many of yours I would guess, does not really encourage flexibility with students who might want that simple two to three extra minutes to wrap up work. I have students coming in for their class and I want to respect their time. My students are on their way to their next class and I do not want to interfere with that time. I am uncomfortable, for a number of reasons, with the idea of having them just come back to wrap up later. Any comments/ideas/hacks that have worked within these pretty common scheduling restrictions?

As always, thanks in advance for any wisdom. I am looking forward to a good conversation that will benefit me and my students.

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