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Why not give some students extra time for exams?

We have an assessment system that is designed for our convenience as instructors and administrators, rather than for the learning needs of our students.


Currently, 41 percent of exam accommodation requests at the University of Alberta involve some form of extra time and are related to mental health. In an opinion piece last August in the National Post, as well as in an academic article in the Education and Law Journal in 2016, Queen’s University law professor Bruce Pardy argues that extra-time accommodations are not legitimate and should not be granted because they tilt the playing field against the best students. He compares tests and exams to sprint races, in which it would be absurd to allow extra time or give a head start to some competitors on the basis of disability. He identifies an important problem, but his solution is the wrong one. Extra time is not the only solution to accommodating mental illness in exams, but for reasons that are very different from those he quotes. In a very effective response published by the Huffington Post, Ontario Human Rights chief commissioner Renu Mandhane covers most of the essentials. Let me add an academic perspective.

In most assessments of student performance, including most tests and exams, the problem is not that some students are afforded extra time on the basis of disability. The problem is rather that, in many cases, students are put under artificial and unnecessary time limitations, thereby imposing barriers to participation on students who would otherwise fulfill the core competencies of a given field. That is the definition of illegitimate discrimination.

There certainly are fields and academic contexts in which making decisions under pressure and with limited time is a crucial attribute which must be tested. One can think of some aspects of nursing, for example. In most fields, speedy completion of a task is simply not a core competency that must be tested, and according to which students must be ranked.

The two- or three-hour block typically allotted for the completion of a final exam in university emerges from a combination of tradition, the format of semesters and the logistics of testing tens of thousands of students within a set time period. In most disciplines, the typical exam format imposes barriers to participation that are unnecessary because they result in tests that measure student attributes that are not at the core of the training. In most cases, the attribute of interest is not the speed with which a student can reach the finish line, but whether the student can reach it at all, and in what manner. In that sense, ski jumping, with its combination of raw performance (distance jumped) and judging (for form), is a much better analogy to exams than sprinting. The speed with which the ski jumper covers the distance is dictated by physics and is irrelevant to the scoring and ranking.

In their response to Professor Pardy, also in the National Post, York University’s Benjamin Berger and Lorne Sossin – respectively Osgoode Hall Law School’s associate dean of students and dean – point to the importance of universal design. This is the idea that barriers are not in the individual but rather in the environment, and that appropriately designed environments remove barriers that are unnecessary.

As Professor Pardy correctly argues, some discrimination is perfectly legitimate and, in the academic setting, focuses on the core competencies of a field. It follows that assessments, including tests and exams, must focus on core competencies and must avoid evaluating extraneous attributes, such as speed of completion (or the ability to sit in a large group, or to read 12-point print), when they are not core to the subject.

The solution to this problem is not to deny extra time to some students, but rather to only measure speed of completion when it is a core competency (and we should eventually be discussing the implications of this for all students, not just for accommodated students). Designing assessments that focus on core competencies will require, in most fields, a discussion that has not yet taken place. It will require instructors to get creative about exam design, and it will require administrators to be flexible about logistics and organization. Most of all, it will require academics in their own fields to agree on what core competencies need to be tested.

The extra-time accommodation exists because those conversations have largely been avoided. Are multiple choice tests in three-hour blocks in a gym the best way to evaluate student performance in most fields? They certainly are one of the most convenient for us. Faced with an avalanche of accommodation requests, we have tweaked an assessment system that is designed for our convenience as instructors, administrators and employers, rather than for the learning needs of our students. It’s time to start the discussion.

Andre Costopoulos is vice-provost and dean of students at the University of Alberta.

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  1. Stuart Chambers, Ph.D. / December 5, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    The author states: “The solution to this problem is not to deny extra time to some students, but rather to only measure speed of completion when it is a core competency.” And who decides whether speed is a core competency? Who decides exactly what extra time is required for an exam? Is it 25%, 50% or 100% more time? Speed is an essential component in every aspect of academics and life. One must make deadlines. If you cannot do this, then it costs others in terms of their money, time or resources, something employers quickly find out when employees get “stressed” too easily. In the private sector, many students would be fired if they failed to make deadlines. A law student often cannot ask for extra time from a judge just because a case was not prepared in time. A doctor does not have the luxury of “taking his/her time” to perform an operation. Food service providers have to move with speed, as do mechanics who have to repair vehicles promply. Hockey players have to pass with speed and precision. And yes, academics have to correct papers and essays on time to meet deadlines. Pretending that speed can be relegated to the margins is unrealistic the day one graduates. When you get hired for that first job, you soon realize that speed is an essential skill. You need to work well under pressure and execute accordingly. If not, there is a pink slip waiting for you. Trust me; someone will get the job done properly–and faster than you can.

    • Andre Costopoulos / December 6, 2017 at 3:09 pm

      “And who decides whether speed is a core competency?”

      As teachers, that is part of our job. We haven’t done so systematically enough. There are many cases in which speed of completion should, in fact, be a core competency. However, we shouldn’t simply assume that it is.

    • Ridha Ben-Rejeb / December 6, 2017 at 3:19 pm

      Reading the article and the responses made me feel overwhelmingly stressed. We tend to forget that students are learners in the first place and not employees. It is unfair and unrealistic to compare students ( novice learners in any given field) to employees ( the veterans in the field). Students need to take all the time in the world to learn the core competencies that lead to a set of achievement outcomes.Therefore, the comparison is misleading. Learners need time to learn according to their pace and preferred style.Do not we say each learner is different? Do not we talk about differentiated instruction in our classrooms? Who has acquired all the skills including speed time optimisation at the university level? I bet we all have developed up to 80% of our skills, we are proud of today including time management and efficiency in the post-study era and precisely during employment journey.
      Once students graduate (with or without internship) and find a job, rest assured they would navigate the new professional landscape and find ways to perform and achieve efficiently. This said the learning institutions mandate is to equip them with core competencies, grant them all the time needed ( not required) to process learning, develop critical thinking skills and know-how tools to become independent experts. I am certain, it is merely a quest of time until present issues will be resolved one way or another ( perhaps enhanced by technology) in the future and would be a thing of the past including time issues. Lastly, with reference to Ugursal saying”Competent people can answer a question quicker. Students are examined to demonstrate their competence.” I would respond with a counterargument quoted in Charles Yorkson statement ” The “extra” time allowed one to actually think.[…]All that deadline-meeting and efficiency stuff can wait until we get to the real world.[…]Much of the value of university lies in its distance from the real world.” In A NUTSHELL, let’s enjoy the learning in abundant time until the joy is abandoned with time and productivity.

      • Stuart Chambers, Ph.D. / December 6, 2017 at 9:15 pm

        Um, students are employed in part-time, stressful jobs, and they must perform under pressure to keep them. Try asking your boss for 50% more time to complete a task. The expectations for undergrads are not that tough. Let’s stop depicting these expectations as overwhelming. They are not.

        • Michael Shute / December 11, 2017 at 8:40 am

          Again, it depends on the subject you are teaching and the purpose of the course. Can we not make intelligent distinctions, or are all subjects and all students to be treated exactly the same?

  2. Charles Yorkson / December 6, 2017 at 1:20 pm

    One solution to this problem would be to reduce the number of exams given–or eliminate them entirely. As a professor who has given his share of exams, and who has recently returned to graduate school and suffered through a semester’s worth of pointless exams that hardly encourage the kind of “deep learning” or long-term retention of material, I have begun to question the point of exams. They are given as a kind of reflex quite often, because we don’t know what else to do or because that’s what we’ve always done.

    I did have one exam that was worth taking: it was designed to be completed in two hours if one wanted to do so in class, but the option of completing it at home was available, which I took. One of the questions was actually very interesting to answer, even enjoyable, and it demanded both significant knowledge from the semester as well as the ability to think with that knowledge. The “extra” time allowed one to actually think.

    As for deadlines and what not in the real world: who cares. My grad program is always harping on about this, and to its detriment. All that deadline-meeting and efficiency stuff can wait until we get to the real world. Learning to take a test in 3 hours will do nothing to help us learn to meet a work deadline. I wonder how much time we waste learning “real world” things at the expense of learning the things that will be harder to learn once we are in the “real world.” Much of the value of university lies in its distance from the real world.

  3. I. Ugursal / December 6, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    The discussion was started and concluded a long time ago. Many times. Adding flavour-of-the-day terminology such as “core competency” to the question doesn’t make it new.

    Given enough time, anybody can answer any question.

    Competent people can answer a question quicker. Students are examined to demonstrate their competence. Therefore, time limits are imposed on examinations.

    • Andre Costopoulos / December 6, 2017 at 4:08 pm

      “Given enough time, anybody can answer any question”

      Agreed. And given infinite time, some will still answer it better than others.

      • Stuart Chambers, Ph.D. / December 12, 2017 at 3:32 pm

        Not sure if this is true. Someone with no skill and no study habits can take five hours to do an exam. They could still score zero on every question because they have presented no relevant details. For those close in skill level, the time factor could make a difference, so that is why students should get the same time period in order to differentiate betwen A, B, C, etc. The problem with take-home exams is that they can, at times, invite cheating. Someone just gets another’s notes, copies the answers and hands it in. Without supervision, you invite problems.

  4. Michael Shute / December 7, 2017 at 8:32 am

    It really depends in the subject. In my field, – I’m in the Humanities- speed is no ally and for many many years I have preferred to have students take the exam home and take their time with the answers. The results are generally much better. Am I preparing Jeopardy finalists or scholars?

    The university system has been drifting towards job-training as its primary purpose. I expect that is what many want. I wonder though what happens to the critical and theoretic functions that universities have been tradition guardians? These functions require cultivation and given that we are humans that takes time.

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