Work Backwards

I was working with a student the other day and showing him how I would go through passages, annotating, predicting answers, process of elimination etc, and on one question, I went through the answers…backwards. That is, I started with answer D and then looked at C, B, and finally A.

Why?

Years of wrestling with the College Board’s tests have given me some unconscious strategies and one of them is the following.

If the answer choices are long (over 2 lines), work backwards.

Why?

Please remember that the test is not your friend. It doesn’t want you to get a high score, and it certainly doesn’t want you to have extra time to think about your answers. So some questions are time sinks. They provide long and complex answer choices that make you spend a lot of time to understand them. Weaker students will wade through A and B and then panic because of how much time it is taking and think they see nothing wrong with A and so pick it and move onto the next question. Unfortunately the answer is often D.

I tend to work backwards because I often (not always) find the correct answer in C or D and then can scan through A and B looking for reasons to eliminate them. I have not done an in-depth examination and counted the number of questions where this strategy works, it is just my habit.

Another reason to work backwards is Positional Response Bias. This type of bias can take a number of forms including a tendency to pick A because it was the first answer read and so your brain wants to link it to the question, picking B or C because middle answers seem less obvious, avoiding D because it seems too obvious. These are unconscious thought processes that test takers have, but can influence their decisions to choose or not choose a specific answer, especially when guessing. Or the conscious “there have already been 3 Cs, so this one can’t be a C.” Don’t do that! They could all be Cs…it isn’t likely, but it is possible. In fact if the College really wanted to mess with everybody all they would have to do is make all the answers the same letter except for 1.

By working through the choices backwards, you can trick your brain out of some of these patterns. Try it for a few questions and see if it works for you.

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