Recently, I’ve gotten emails from several different students with the same problem. These students tell me they’re pretty good at giving correct answers and good responses. But they can’t seem to perform well within the TOEFL time limit. The first thing I tell them is that they shouldn’t be discouraged. Lots of students have this problem as they start to practice for the TOEFL and other standardized tests.
Next, I give them this advice: To learn how to perform well inside the time limits, first practice the TOEFL without a timer. This may sound like strange advice. How can you learn to answer exam questions more quickly if you don’t use a timer? Well, let me explain.
When you’re trying to give good answers and responses in the right amount of time, you’re really trying to master two different skills: answering well and working at a good pace. These skills are actually fairly different. And of the two skills, giving good answers is more important. If you are choosing incorrect answers and making poor responses, it doesn’t matter how fast you are.
To become great at both answer quality and pacing, you’ll want to take a two-step approach. First, get good at the most important skill— doing well on answers and tasks. Then in the next step, practice giving good TOEFL responses more quickly.
In the first step, practice without a timer— beating the clock isn’t important until you know how to get the answers right. In fact, in the beginning you shouldn’t be watching the clock at all. Instead keep an eye on what you’re doing right and wrong as you answer TOEFL questions and respond to TOEFL tasks. Keep a journal of your correct answers and successful approaches to tasks. Also track your mistakes, with notes on how to correct them in the future.
Continue to do this until you are performing well enough that you are at or near your target score. Now you’re ready to transition into the second step, where you focus on pacing. Don’t give yourself a firm time limit yet. But do start to time your work. In your journal, start to note how long it is taking you to give correct answers and good, complete task responses.
As you record your times, try to improve on them. Every day, try to get your pace closer and closer to the actual exam time limits, without becoming less accurate. Continue to make notes about test strategy, and start to write about your pacing strategies as well as your strategies for answers and responses. Identify good and bad approaches to pacing, and figure out what works for you.
Finally, once you’re able to answer questions almost as quickly as you need to, start giving your practice sessions the same time limits as the exam. You will probably start getting a few more answers wrong again. That’s OK— work to adjust to the real time limits, and you should get your accuracy back. Then you’ll be ready for the actual exam!
This can be a challenging process, but I’ve seen it work for many students. And it can work for you. Take a leap of faith and ditch that timer. Then go back to it when you’re ready. You’ll be glad you did.