Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How to succeed in standardized tests without really trying

Inspired by my friend's blog post, I decided to take an online test of my reading speed. The test includes reading speed and comprehension. I scored 305 words per minute, just above the 200 wpm average. My comprehension, on the other hand, was at an astounding 91%.

I credit this, not to my awesome powers of recall, but rather to my carefully honed multiple-choice test taking skills. After all, about 2 months after reading most books (and watching most movies) I have close to zero memory of the main plot line, characters, and surprise reveals of who the bad guy really was. It's a new experience each time. In fact, I just finished re-reading the Harry Potter series, and I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. I tried to train myself to remember important details, though. Each night I went through a recitation of the Defense Against Dark Arts teachers in each volume (Quirrell, Lockheart, Lupin, Moody - I remembered that it wasn't actually Moody but I couldn't remember who had taken his place, Umbridge, Snape, Carrow).

Back to the carefully honed test-taking skills. I do pretty well on multiple choice tests, even if I don't know anything about the content. Here are a few rules that brought me through this latest test.

Rule 1: Always eliminate the odd man out.
If you run across a set of answers and one definitely doesn't belong, that's because it doesn't. Most likely the test writer couldn't think of a second good alternative to the correct answer, so they just filled it in to meet deadline. An example from the speed reading test:

Q7. The average speaking speed of a race driver is around?
A. 120 mph
B. 150 wpm
C. 200 wpm

It's okay. I had no idea what this question was asking when I read it, either. However, look carefully at the units of measurement. See the one that isn't like the others? Eliminate answer A.

Rule 2: In the "wow you" tests, always go for the extremes.
These are the tests that ask a series of questions to try to surprise you into really believing in the necessity of their cause. They want you to say that left-handedness isn't all that uncommon - 30 or 40%? - so they can spring it on you that only 7-10% of our population has a south paw. An example from our test:

Q5. A sprinter running as the average reader reads, runs 100m in?
A. 10 seconds (near record time)
B. 35 seconds (jogging)
C. 70 seconds (walking speed)

The most stunning comparison is a sprinter only at only the speed of walking. Ding, ding, ding! C is correct.

Rule 3: Know your audience.
The test maker has inherent biases that are difficult to completely remove from the test:

Q11. What is probably the best way to reach top level reading efficiency?
A. a speed reading book
B. a speed reading seminar
C. a speed reading software

If you viewed this speed reading website carefully, you would have noticed that it advertises ReadingSoft - a speed reading software. Answer? C.


Megan said...

When I used to work at the bank, we would have to take online compliance tests at least once a month. Many people would complain how hard the multiple choice questions were and would have to take the tests multiple times, but I always scored a 100% on my first try. I do not think it was my incredible knowledge about US Bank Secrecy act or other legal issues that lead me to this result.

Jen said...

I'll be honest, my reading and test taking skills are definitely lacking. It took me a while to read this post, but I'm now curious and want to take a multiple choice test just to see how I do under your guidance.

Dawn said...

Hmmm...might be fun to take the speed reading test! Too bad I'm completely finished with school, so the odds of me facing a multiple choice test in the future would be nil. Sigh.