Time Limits: Limitations and Lamentations

Yesterday, a parent asked me if we’re going to have time limits for solving math problems in Math Contest Prep.  She was concerned because her daughter does not like working under severe time constraints.

Well, I share this parent’s concerns about time limits and there won’t be any such time limits at Math Contest Prep.  Why, we won’t even tell girls to put their pencils down when the class time officially ends!

If the goal is to grow in knowledge and understanding of mathematics, then it really does not matter how long it takes to solve math problems and it is truly unfortunate that speed has become such an important factor in so many math competitions.

At MathCounts, for instance, there is a webcasted “fastest buzzer” head-to-head competition.  I suspect that nearly all the competitors would be able to solve nearly all the questions posed during this segment given sufficient time, and if my suspicion is true, then this segment is really not so much about the math as it is about speed.

People learn different things at different rates and different times.  A person might be particularly receptive to a certain concept and pick it up right away, while for another it could be years before the concept suddenly “clicks.”  And the same person who picked up concept A quickly might struggle for a long time to get concept B.  Growing in knowledge and understanding of mathematics is a personal journey.  There’s little value in comparing oneself to another to see who gets a certain solution or concept faster, which, unfortunately, is what so many math contests force people into doing.

Here’s another point: Many contest math problems can be resolved simply by applying a specific mathematical result, such as Ptolemy’s theorem.  If you know the result, you can “plug and chug” and out pops the answer in seconds.  But if you don’t, then you’ll have to invent a way to get it from whatever facts you do know, and that takes more time.  On a timed math contest, you’ll almost certainly be beaten by someone who does know the fact.  But now ask, who demonstrates more mathematical ability, the person who has memorized some fact and can apply it or the person who succeeds in deducing the answer from basic principles?

In fact, when learning math, it is very important to give yourself plenty of time and space to think.  That’s partly why in many situations a good mentor will speak very little and sometimes not at all.  If the goal is to learn and understand mathematics, then unlike timed math competitions, students should be given plenty of time and space to think.

So please know that Girls’ Angle’s Math Contest Prep is not a math contest!  It is a place where girls who like working on math problems can come together and work with mathematicians to learn and master a lot of cool mathematics that happens to be oft utilized on math contests.


About girlsangle

We're a math club for girls.
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