First published in The Hindu, 2 Dec 2023

Most high-stakes exams are a race against the clock. The rapidity with which you answer a series of challenging questions is often the differentiator between those who make the cut and those who don’t. Among those who don’t qualify are a fraction of students who can crack all the questions correctly, provided they have more time. Given that many, real-world decisions, especially consequential ones, aren’t made in split seconds but require days or even months of deliberation, are timed tests unnecessarily weeding out worthy candidates? Moreover, when it comes to crucial issues, we often prefer people who ponder over multiple sides of an argument and make a considered decision instead of responding on the fly. But competitive exams don’t tap or test the deliberative capacity of candidates.

In an article in The New York Times, psychologist, Adam Grant, argues that timed tests only gauge your ability to “reason under stress.” Though this is a vital skill, it doesn’t represent the different types of reasoning that humans engage in for various professions. In fact, highly intelligent people, who solve easy problems quickly, actually spend more time solving tough problems. While speed of thinking may be an asset in some situations, there are many instances when we prefer people to mull over a question.

However, standardized tests and many other assessments that decide who “gets in” to colleges and professional programs seem to favour those who “think fast and shallow” as opposed to those who are slower, deeper and more deliberate thinkers.

Variable factors 

The oft-observed gender disparity on spatial rotation tasks also diminishes considerably when girls are given more or even unlimited time. According to Grant, many girls suffer from math anxiety because of a pervasive cultural trope that girls are worse at Maths than boys. So, when they’re under time pressure, their anxiety increases, further depressing their performance.

Time pressure doesn’t only undercut the performance of girls in Maths, avers Grant, but can hamper the performance of anyone who is anxious about how they’ll fare. This could include students learning disabilities, ADHD, mental health issues or those from impoverished backgrounds who lack the resources to get coached on cracking tests.

Further, timed tests give students the message that smart and quick are synonymous. But as Grant sagely points out wisdom or deep knowledge doesn’t necessarily depend on “speed of thought” but on “complexity of thinking.” If tests place less emphasis on speed, students may be more motivated to deliberate on an issue, reflect on a problem or pose challenging questions themselves.

In a paper published in Psychological Science, Morton Ann Gernsbacher, Rachel N. Soicher and Kathryn A. Becker-Blease provide four reasons, based on empirical evidence, to do away with timed-tests. They argue that students’ speed of answering questions is not a valid index of their knowledge or understanding. Mastering a subject and showcasing your knowledge is not a sprint but more like a marathon where students need an adequate window of time to demonstrate their learning. Second, when students are working against the clock, their performance may vary based on factors unrelated to their mastery, thus making the tests less reliable. Further, students with disabilities are more at a disadvantage on timed-tests, which are typically not constructed with an inclusive framework in mind. The authors argue that timed tests are less equitable because they also put other disadvantaged groups like students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who cannot afford to get coached on acing them.

(The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know & blogs at