17 March 2011

Skim the passage, not the questions

Just wanted to reiterate the point: while it’s ok to skim through a passage just to get the gist, at least during an initial read-through, you need to read the questions very, very carefully. If even one word of an answer choice is incorrect, the whole answer is automatically incorrect. It doesn’t matter how much the rest of the answer works; it’s just wrong.

A huge mistake that test-takers make is to read both questions and answer choices too quickly. This essentially creates two problems for them:

1) They don’t identify precisely what the question is asking, and

2) They don’t think carefully about what the answer choices are actually saying

Then they get the question wrong and blame the test for being “tricky.”

One of the things that initially surprises and then rapidly bores my students is the sheer amount of time I spend re-defining questions for myself. (And by “sheer amount of time,” I mean ten or fifteen seconds). I’ll often rephrase questions two or three times, “stripping them down” progressively into simpler and simpler wording to make sure that I’m totally, 100% clear about what they’re actually asking.

My students almost never do this. They just want to plow through the question and the answer choices, leaping at the first thing that seems like it could work. And when I try to make them slow down and actually think about what they’re doing, I can practically see the impatience steaming out of their ears.

Sometimes they even beg me to just let them have one more go at it. At which point they proceed to reject any semblance of methodical thinking, simply stare at the answer choices without working anything out, and then ask me hesitantly, is it (C)?

Usually I just shrug and tell them I haven’t finished working out the answer yet. As I remind them, no one gets bonus points for speed. I’m doing what I do to make sure I get the question right, speed be damned. It’s not that I can’t answer the question quickly – it’s that I’m deliberately choosing not to because I know that I would leave myself open to making careless errors that way, or to overlooking crucial pieces of information staring me right in the face.

Unfortunately, that’s a lesson that comes with experience; sometimes it takes a while to sink in.

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