15 July 2013

Ask yourself what you’re missing

When I’m working through Critical Reading questions with a student, I regularly encounter the following scenario:

The student reads and understands the question without a problem.

The student goes back to the passage, re-reads and accurately summarizes the section in question, then formulates a general idea about what information the correct answer should contain.

The student looks at the answers but fails to see one that clearly fits.

The student’s eyes start to glaze over with panic as he stares at the page.

At this point, I usually interject nonchalantly, “So what are you going to do now?”

Student (looking sheepish): Uhhh… I don’t know?

Me: What happens when you work through the whole question carefully and then nothing seems to work?

Student: Is it (C)?

Me: Don’t guess. What do you do when you think you know what the right answer is going to say but none of the answers say it?

Student: No, wait, I think it might actually be (B).

Me: I said don’t guess. What’s the question you need to ask yourself when this happens?

Student: Uhh… I don’t remember

Me: I somehow feel that we’ve had this conversation already. Like, oh I don’t know, two or three or five hundred times. C’mon, this is probably going to happen when you take the test, and you need to know how to handle it.

Student stares blankly.

Me: What am I missing? What am I not seeing? That’s the question I always ask myself. If I’ve worked through the whole thing carefully but still don’t see the answer, that’s a sign that I’ve missed something. I’m either focusing on the wrong thing, or I’m just plain thinking in the wrong direction, and that means I need to go back and reconsider my original assumption. See how I’m turning it back on myself and taking responsibility for not knowing the answer? The people at ETS didn’t mess up; the answer is there, it’s just not something I’m not expecting. If I’m not getting it it means I’ve overlooked the necessary information.

Look, I did the exact same steps you did, and I wasn’t sure about the answer either. That happens to me too. But the difference is that I didn’t just decide to guess when I didn’t see the answer right away — I went back and tried to figure out where I went wrong. And if you seriously want to get every question right, you have to be willing to do that as well.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, I tend to have this conversation most frequently with students scoring 700+ — they’re so accustomed to spotting the answer immediately that they’re simply flummoxed when they don’t, and then go into all-out panicking/guessing mode. Needless to say, this is not a particularly helpful strategy for getting to 800.

So for the record, when you think you’ve figured everything out but actually haven’t, here’s what to do:

1) Assuming that you’ve correctly understood both the question and the passage, start by crossing out the answers that absolutely, clearly do not make sense. Make sure you cross out the whole answer, not just the letter; when your visual field isn’t being cluttered by extraneous information, it’s easier to focus on what’s left.

2) Now, carefully read the answers that remain. You might have simply misread something or overlooked a key word the first time around. If that’s the case, you’re done. But if not…

3) Go back to the passage and look for specific textual elements that usually indicate importance: if you have a colon or dashes or italics or strong language (e.g. “most”) or a major transition like “however” or “therefore,” the information around it is probably going to be key, and the correct answer will probably restate it in some form.

Make sure also that you have the necessary context for the lines in question; sometimes the right answer won’t make sense if you only consider the lines referenced. Remember that “function” or “purpose” questions regularly go either way: sometimes you need to focus on the lines given, and sometimes you need to focus on what comes before or after, and there’s absolutely no way to tell upfront which one it will be. If you haven’t read both places and can’t figure out the answer, chances are you’ve been focusing on the wrong place.

4) If you’re still stumped, start with the most specific (usually the longest) answers and pick a concrete aspect to check out. If an answer mentions that an author was criticized on “moral grounds” but the passage only indicates that she was criticized because her work was challenging aesthetically (i.e. it didn’t conform to traditional notions of beauty), you can eliminate that answer.

Remember that the correct answer might be phrased in much more neutral or general terms than the passage itself; if an answer accurately describes what’s going on in the passage but does so neutrally while the passage is fairly negative or positive, it’s probably the answer.

Remember also that you shouldn’t eliminate answers simply because you find them confusing; your understanding has no bearing on whether they’re wrong or right.

5) If you still truly have no idea, skip the question and come back to it if you have time. It’s not worth wasting five minutes on if there are other things you can answer more easily.

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