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Would Eliminating Time Limits Reduce Test Anxiety?

Being a "good test taker" depends on a student's perception of time.

Key points

  • Some argue that standardized college admissions tests give an unfair advantage to "good test takers" who thrive under a time limit.
  • A study has found that students simply do better on tests that match their time management style, whether that is time-limited or not.
  • Because students have different time management styles, eliminating time limits on tests altogether might not be right for everyone.
Photo by Laura Stanley from Pexels
Source: Photo by Laura Stanley from Pexels

When the COVID pandemic was upon us, many schools went remote or closed altogether for lengthy periods of time. As a result, most universities decided to make the SAT/ACT optional or even waive it completely for fall 2021 applicants — a decision that might even be carried to fall 2022. This move opened again the discussion about whether standardized tests should even be a part of the admission process in higher education. For example, various education reform groups have argued that it gives wealthier students an advantage due to extra preps, but some even argued that it gives a disproportional advantage to “good test takers” while ignoring those who are academically apt but just do not do well on tests.

What Is a Good Test Taker?

A good test taker is defined as someone who has low test-taking anxiety, has a good time management ability, and as a result, usually does well on a test. On the other hand, someone who is not a good test taker is defined as someone that, despite knowing the material and studying, still buckles under the pressure which results in a low grade that does not necessarily reflect their knowledge.

Many suggest that the time constraint on a test is the source of the problem. Students feel they do not have enough time to take the test and complete it, which results in increased anxiety, which we all agree hinders cognitive performance. In addition to this natural tendency of having test anxiety versus not, some students are diagnosed with learning issues which increases their need for extra time when taking a test or completing assignments.

Currently, then, it seems that the most important tests in our lives, such as SAT, ACT, LSAT, GED, LSAT, GMAT, and so on, are not testing how well we know the material and solve problems, but how well we can do these things, quickly.

Should Timed Testing Be Eliminated?

By now we all might think that time constraint on a test is the source of all evil, don’t we? Then why not just create tests without the pressure of the clock, reduce test anxiety, and make everyone happy? Turns out it is not that simple. In addition to the logistics of how to run a test with no time limit, there is actually a legit reason as to why eliminating time constraints on tests might not solve the problem, but actually create new ones.

In my post from June 4th, “Why Keeping Time Might Prevent You From Being Happy,” I introduced the concept of scheduling style, where I discuss how people naturally tend to be either clock timers or event timers. There I explain how clock timers rely on an external cue, the clock, to dictate their activities, while event timers rely on an internal cue, their own sense of readiness, to dictate the transition of their activities.

Based on this theory, it seems that people who adopt a clock scheduling style will do better on these kinds of tests compared to people who adopt an event scheduling style. Why? Because the clock timers are used to relying on the clock to move forward and hence are not stressed by the fact they need to complete all questions within a certain time frame. Event timers, on the other hand, are not used to relying on the clock to move forward, and hence having a clock dictate when the test is over instead of letting them move at their own pace creates what we call test anxiety.

In order to examine this idea, my colleague and I ran a study where we divided students into two groups where both received the same test, which had 10 GMAT type of questions. One group was told that they had 20 minutes to complete the test, while the other group was told they should complete the test, but had no time limit. We also measured the natural tendency of the scheduling style of the students, identifying who is more of a clock timer and who is more of an event timer.

Two interesting and surprising results came out of this study. First, those who were told that there was no time limit on their test still completed it within about 20 minutes, meaning that both groups took about the same time to complete the test. Second. those who were identified as event timers indeed did better on the no-limit test compared to the time-limit test. However, surprisingly, clock timers did worse on the no-time-limit test compared to the time limit test.

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels
Source: Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile from Pexels

The Fit Between Scheduling Style and Testing Methods

What does this tell us? That it is not about whether there is a time constraint on a test that causes anxiety, but it is about the fit between the natural tendency of students’ scheduling style and the method of the test that is important. Clock timers prefer having a time limit, as it helps them move forward from question to question, while event timers prefer no time limit, as they need to move forward from question to question based on when they feel ready. The fact they both completed it around the same time suggests that it is not about not having enough time to complete the questions, or the need to take longer, but about the psychological effect it has on the students’ perception of time (note, this was tested only among students who do not need extra time due to learning issues).

The bottom line is that eliminating the standardized tests altogether is probably not the right way to solve this issue of a “good test taker," as it still is quite a good indicator of hard work and knowledge. However, we might be able to be more flexible as to how we implement the time limit concept when it comes to testing. After all, in life, we usually do not have a ticking clock at our heels, unless of course we are a clock timer and then we welcome this clock with open arms.


Avnet, Tamar and Anne-Laure Sellier (2011). “Clock Time versus Event Time: Temporal Culture or Self-Regulation?” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 47, (3) May, 665-667.

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