Time’s Up!: Why We Should Stop Assigning Timed Essays

Time's up! A red alarm clock is ready to sound

Time’s Up!: Why We Should Stop Assigning Timed Essays

Photo courtesy of Mostafa Mahmoudiand and Unsplash.

July 26, 2022

By Olivia Henderson

When it came to timed essays, Alexander* always felt that he could never study enough.

“No matter how fast I wrote or how I prepared, I would run out of time,” said Alexander. “I was rarely able to finish an in-class essay, and I felt like a failure.”

Things changed when a professor allowed Alexander to finish a timed essay in his office.

“Those extra 20 minutes made such a big difference in my confidence and GPA.”

After that experience, Alexander went to a doctor and was diagnosed with ADHD. He was able to secure an extended time accommodation and finish all of his essays for the first time in his collegiate career.

Although accommodations are effective, the road to getting them is not easy. Applying for accommodations at a collegiate level often requires time and money. To receive extended time, students need to see a psychologist, undergo testing, and provide written documentation to a regulating body on campus (e.g., the Disabled Students Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara).

Navigating this bureaucratic process can prove difficult, and if students do not have access to adequate health care or money, they may not get the accommodations that they need. Scholastic success will become less accessible to them.

As an educator, I wonder if the benefits of timed essays outweigh their potential inaccessibility.

In theory, timed essays examine students’ comprehension of the material and their ability to write. In practice, timed essays reward the ability to write and think quickly rather than write and think well. Most people, regardless of their ability status, write better papers when they have more time to think about them.

For many students, timed essays are not an accurate reflection of the knowledge that they develop in a course. ADHD students, like Alexander, often take more time to organize their thoughts in preparation for writing, which leaves them with less time to write during a timed essay, but not necessarily incomplete understanding of a subject.

Accommodations will not make timed essays accessible enough for all students. Accessibility is not about modifying systems on an individual basis, usually after lengthy documentation, but about changing the system itself so that people do not have to ask. Modifying syllabi to exclude timed essays makes higher-education more accessible.

In addition to accessibility concerns, when designing courses, it is important to consider how assignments reflect what the instructor hopes students will get out of a particular class.

Assigning a timed essay emphasizes efficiency over thought, pushing students to develop the ability to write quickly. This is certainly a useful talent, which will serve students well in many careers. Getting through emails, swiftly writing reports – these are skills demanded by the modern job market.

However, prioritizing speed positions the university as a center for training productive workers at the expense of its potential to develop insightful, nuanced thinkers.

As a scholar of the humanities, I see the university as a place where people learn to think, which will help students prepare for any path in life. I want my students to be strong writers and deep thinkers, equipped to do more than regurgitate information on demand. Taking the time to think about the nuances of a text and craft a meaningful argument — a necessity in any English literature course – is a more difficult, but rewarding and critical, skill than writing quickly.

Moreover, in the digital age, where so much useful data is readily available, many students struggle with information overload and sorting through what is “fake” and what is “real.” Timed essays do not allow students to conduct any research while writing and do not evaluate students’ ability to gather information, digest it, and form their own thoughts about it.

Timed essays develop students’ ability to recall information and write quickly, which, while useful skills, are not the most important for career or personal success. Giving students the time and space to process information critically, instead, will greatly benefit them in any field or life.

It can be difficult to teach writing, but emphasizing thoughtful work over quick work will help classrooms be more accessible, forward-thinking, and educational. The era of timed essays should come to an end. It’s about time.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

Olivia Henderson is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English, where she studies 16th- and 17th-century English literature, disability studies (particularly neurodiversity), and ecocriticism.