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20 November 2010

The blessing and curse of an online timer

Whenever I give my classes a test or a quiz, I put a digital countdown of the time remaining up on the projector screen.  I found a nice web timer at

This timer is customizable as to the size and color of the digits, whether it counts up or down, even the sound or music that it plays at expiration. I like to set it for the hockey horn (HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONK!) but often my students change to something a bit wimpier, like Pachelbel.  Go figure.

Particularly in my AP class, in which managing time on tests is a major issue, the timer display is a great teaching tool -- my guys have a clear knoweldge of the time remaining all the, well, time.  They get a kinesthetic sense of just how fast 80-seconds-per-multiple-choice-item is.  If nothing else, the timer saves arguments.  No one EVER says, "Can I have just one more minute?"  or "I thought we still had two minutes left." 

Even on occasions when I've given a test or quiz with a substitute present, the students take it upon themselves to put the timer up on screen.  It giveth them comfort.  And forgetting that fact was where I screwed up today.

We took our first trimester exam, but in an unfamiliar setting -- all of my students can't fit in my classroom.  I couldn't project the online timer.  "So what," I thought.  These guys are used to taking timed tests, and most have watches.  I reminded them before the start that the multiple choice section was 30 minutes long, and that they should manage their time to get to every problem for sure.

When the 30 minutes were over, even some of my best students looked bewildered.  They explained that they had lost track of time, because the screen didn't count down.  Thing is, EVEN SOME OF THE STUDENTS WHO HAD BEEN LOOKING AT THEIR WATCHES said they were confused about the time.  I've trained these folks to expect a scoreboard-style timer; they did not function well with a different sort of scoreboard.

For the free response section, they quickly arranged for a reliable student with a watch to call out time in ten-minute intervals.  I think they still wanted the projected timer. I mean, I'm glad the cutesy little timer is so useful, but I had never expected how inseparably reliant my class had become upon it.


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