How to Diagnose Timing Issues on a Standardized Test

How to Diagnose Timing Issues on a Standardized Test

In an earlier post, I wrote about using a lap timer to help you diagnose your pacing during the SAT.

In truth, you can use this exercise to help with your timing for any type of standardized test, so I wanted to return to this idea to give you more detailed instructions on how to use this technique, and then interpret and apply your results. First, some perspective.

Because time management needs to be so precise, and seeing as it can cause so much anxiety, it’s important to get a realistic sense of where your time is being spent before making any adjustments to your pacing on a standardized test.

You don’t want to start rushing through the reading section because it feels like you are wasting time; this could actually backfire and hurt your score. Instead, collect some data about how you usually spend time on the various sections of the test, and then review that data for patterns that can give you some useful insight about your testing habits. You might find that you are spending too much time on one type of question, or that you spend the same amount of time whether the question is easy or hard (not good!). Remember, on most standardized tests, every question is worth the same amount, so it’s better to ensure you get five easy or medium questions correct in the time you would have wasted on one hard question. Furthermore, analyzing how you spend your time might alert you to areas of content that you need to review.

Now, to get started, gather your materials. You’ll need a practice section for the part of the test you want to investigate, scrap paper, sharpened pencils, and a calculator (if relevant). You’ll also need a stopwatch with a lap timer. For this exercise, it’s best to use a lap timer that you can review after you’ve finished. I like the one built into the iPhone (one of the options of the Clock app). Android versions are available, too, and you can always use the web-based stopwatch on

Next, making sure that you have precluded any distractions (maybe with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door and switching your phone to airplane mode), start the test section and the timer at the same time. Each time you finish a question, hit the “lap” button. When you’re done with the section, you’ll have a detailed record of how long you spent on each question.

It might look something like this, if I were doing a six-question section:

Great data, you might say, but what does it really mean, and how would I use it to improve my timing? I’ll tell you what I see here after a quick analysis: question 1 was easy for me, and question 3 was easier than question 2, but there was a big shift in difficulty between questions 1 and 2. Question 4 suprised me for some reason (I should find out why!), and I can guess that I probably got question 6 wrong because I rushed it.

How do I know all of this? Well, I analyzed this data by looking for patterns and outliers, and then I sought out explanations for them. Although I have years of tutoring experience to draw on, you don’t have to be an expert to spot the important points.

Here’s how you can analyze your lap times:

  1. Look for changes in time spent, and see if they correlate to shifts in difficulty levels of the questions. You generally want to be spending more time on harder questions, and less time on easier ones. In the math sections of most standardized tests, the difficulty level increases as the section progresses, which means you’ll be spending less time at the beginning than at the end. However, other types of sections may not proceed in order of difficulty. Check the answer keys to see what difficulty levels are assigned to the questions.
  2. Look for places you spent very little time. What topics were these questions on? Did you get them correct consistently? If you are getting some or all of them wrong, then slow down on these topics or types of questions. If you’re getting almost all of them correct, then don’t change a thing.
  3. Look for places you spent a lot of time, especially more than you did on the surrounding questions (like my lap #4, above). What was the topic of this question? Was there something new or surprising about the way the question was asked? Did you get it right? Take stock of your answers to see if you need to review or relearn some material, and keep an eye out for this type of problem in the future.
  4. Look for questions that you skipped. How much time did you waste before you skipped it? This is an easy place to save time: get familiar with the types of questions you struggle with and tend to skip, and then next time around, you can skip those questions without spending any time whatsoever on them. Of course, mark them to return to later, in case you have extra time at the end of the section.

If you really want to do a detailed analysis, set up a spreadsheet in Excel or Google Docs, and make columns for the question number, time spent, topic, presentation, and result (correct, incorrect, or omitted). Then, enter the appropriate information for each question.

The more specific you can be about the topic (writing “transformations on the xy plane” rather than “graphs”) and presentation (whether the question was a diagram, passage, table, fill-in-the-blank, etc.), the better.

That way, you’ll be able to practice that particular type of question until you feel more comfortable with the material, presentation, and eventually, timing.

This whole procedure can be somewhat daunting, but once you get going, you’ll definitely start to get the hang of it. Even if you don’t go into the depth I’ve noted above, you can still learn a tremendous amount by just timing the questions. Give it a try and see if it helps!

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Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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