The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Speed of processing and exams

Exams try to measure the ability of students but, they fail, in many respects. Today I will look at one way in which they fail.

Imagine you have two candidates both of whom have scored equally well in an exam. Are both candidates therefore equal in ability? A traditional view of exams would say so, but there is something which the exam conditions are not able to determine. That is: how fast do the candidates think?

Now, it is obvious that the speed with which someone thinks is very closely related to any true measure of their intelligence. An intelligent person thinks faster than a less intelligent person. In the real world, this will mean that they will solve problems faster than others, which in many roles in life, may have critical implications - as I have addressed before, in another post. So the speed of processing is of real world importance. Yet, it is not really captured by exams.

Exams make an attempt to capture the speed of processing of a candidate by setting a time limit. There is, traditionally, a fixed time allowed to complete the examination. Now, you might think this addresses the issue of speed of processing - but it does not. You see, all it does is set a lower limit of speed that must be met to complete the exam. In other words, it cuts off the lowest portion of ability level, but it does nothing to measure the upper strata of ability. You see a very bright student might finish the exam long before the time limit is up - yet the exam system will neither measure nor reward this speed of processing. The exam conditions will not be able to discriminate between the fast student and the average student.

Is this important? I think it is for, in the real world, the faster thinker, will often be more effective in many roles. Their speed of thinking may prove critical to many of life's endeavours - yet an examination, with a fixed time limit, will never allow you to decide who is the faster of two candidates. Faster implies more intelligent - so exams are not really the best measure of distinguishing between levels of intelligence of candidates.

Obviously, exams distinguish on the basis of the final mark - and that is used as a proxy for intelligence, implicitly, by the academic systems of the world - but it overlooks the vital fact that two candidates who get the same mark, may be very different, in truth. One may think fast, the other may think at an average speed. One may, in fact, be much more intelligent than the other - but the mark will never determine that.

I will give you an example from the real world. Ainan, my son, recently took two exam papers. One of them was one and a quarter hours long. Yet, Ainan completed this in forty-three minutes. After that time, he did not write anything more on the paper, having addressed all the questions. The other paper was one hour long. After thirty-five minutes, Ainan had completed this paper, too.

Now, imagine that another candidate gets the exact same resultant mark as Ainan - but that candidate took exactly one and a quarter hours for the one and a quarter hour paper and one hour for the one hour paper. In the eyes of the academic system, both candidates performed identically - but in actual fact, Ainan was about twice as fast as the other candidate. Implicitly, therefore, Ainan is more intelligent than the other candidate of the same mark, since he is able to solve twice as many problems in the same time, as the other candidate. Yet, no account is made of this in the examining system - and it will be overlooked.

So, don't imagine that all people of the same grade in an exam are the same in ability. They are not - for each would have taken a different time to reach that grade - and would, therefore, have differing levels of inherent processing speed and consequent intelligence.

Exams, with a fixed time limit, establish a lower threshold of performance - and indicate that performance could not have been lower than that threshold - but they do NOT indicate the true heights of which a candidate is capable.

There is one caveat to all of this. In many roles in life, the speed of processing does make a real world difference and is of great importance. I would like to see a policeman who thinks quickly, not slowly - and similarly for an air traffic controller, for instance. Sluggishness, in such roles, could lead to real world danger. There are many such examples that I could provide. However, there are also roles in life in which the speed of processing does not matter. These are roles in which time is not of particular importance and all that matters is that the right answer is eventually reached. The writing of a book might come into this category (though the writing of journalism rewards speed of processing) - or the performance of scientific research (though if you are slow you won't be first and may not succeed in building a reputation and career).

Thus, exams measure performance over a fixed time. They do not measure absolute performance, however, for people will differ in the time taken to achieve a particular level of performance - and therefore differ in true ability. This means that exams, as presently formulated, do not distinguish well between different levels of intelligence: they miss the upper ranges.

This observation is, of course, my thinking alone.

(If you would like to read of Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and six months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, three, and Tiarnan, sixteen months, please go to: I also write of gifted education, IQ, intelligence, child prodigy, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted children, and gifted adults in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:07 AM 


Blogger EbTech said...

Finishing early does have an advantage, as it gives students the chance to check their solutions and correct mistakes.

A shorter time limit might be good for fast thinkers. However, it would not accurately measure the abilities of those who do not finish the test, because they will not have a chance to demonstrate the full extent of their knowledge. What if they make the mistake of wasting time on a problem which they cannot solve, and therefore don't have time to show what they CAN solve? Thus, test-taking would become a game of chance, and of choosing the right problems to attempt.

I think it would be better to have a long test with more difficult problems rather than a short test filled with easy problems. Fast students would still benefit, because they would have more time to spare on the trickier problems.

Speed is useful, but real academic situations rarely demand the time pressure of an exam. Of much greater importance are the higher-order thinking skills required to solve more challenging problems.

At least, that's my view. It might be biased by the fact that I perform better on exams when they are difficult than when they are fast. For some reason, I tend to do worse on the easier problems!

7:28 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You might be doing badly on easy questions because your brain can't believe they are so easy...and looks for complications.

Best wishes

10:49 AM  

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