Processing Speed

Processing speed is the ability to perform simple or complex cognitive tasks quickly.

Processing speed is the time lapse from when you receive information until you understand it and begin to do something with it. This skill also measures the ability of the brain to work quickly and accurately while ignoring distracting stimuli. Slow processing speed makes every task more difficult.

Symptoms of slow processing speed include homework taking a long time, forgetting parts of assignments, not getting the steps in a lesson, and being unable to follow multi-step directions. A person with slow processing speed may have difficulty with planning, setting goals, making decisions, paying attention, or those things commonly known as executive function. Slow processing speed can make students anxious, creating feelings of anxiety and concern.


Slow or poor processing speed is not related to intelligence. However, slow processing speed can interfere with some determined tasks making them more difficult than others. The higher the processing speed the more efficient you are able to learn and think. Processing speed is related to working memory so that those who process information quickly don’t have to keep as much information in working memory.

A recent article bemoans the perils of speed tests for math facts and the supposedly long-lasting negative effects on kids. This article was hard for me to rationalize (“Research Suggests That Timed Tests Cause Math Anxiety” by Jo Boaler in Teaching Children Mathematics, April 2014 – Vol. 20, #8, p. 469-474). Boaler (Stanford University) is highly critical of giving students timed tests of math facts and fluency. She says at least one-quarter of students in first-grade expressed negative feelings, and there was no correlation with math proficiency – as many high-achieving as low-achieving students said they felt stressed. These students also get the idea that speedy work is crucial in math and slower performance means you are not “smart.” This leads many slower, deeper thinkers to avoid and eventually turn away from mathematics.

I think that there will always be timed tests in school and perhaps even in life. I feel that it is critically important to have quick and accurate recall of basic math facts. If one does not have these basic skills then all further math calculations in higher level math problems will be for naught – especially if the very first step of 8X7 is answered as 58!

The better approach is training processing speed and memory skills so that math fact speed tests are just another demonstration of highly efficient learning. It is easy to do and more important to teach all age levels how to control and work with the clock! There are a few sports analogies – where swimmers and runners are always working the clock to improve their time. Working comfortably with a timer will help with fact tests, all standardized tests, and basically all assignments including homework and even long-range projects – very little associated with school allows for endless time for completion!

Knowles, Liz. “DIY Cognitive Fitness.” 2019.