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A Common Question Students Get Wrong on Tests and the Difference Between A and A+ Students

23-10-2008 by Joshua Liu

A Common Question Students Get Wrong on Tests and the Difference Between A and A+ Students
The following article is cross-posted from - a blog with entertainment and advice for budding physicians.

On Tuesday I took my first test for my Molecular Biology course. It was a pretty interesting format. There were 20 multiple choice questions, each with five choices (A to E). All of the questions were “Which of the following statements is correct” “ or “ “Which of the following statements is incorrect““, with only one correct answer for each question. The neat thing about this test was that Choice E was always“ “None of the above““. Now, last week, the professor told us that he was going to reduce the number of answer choices to 5 - which initially sounded great, because he used to have 8 or something in past years. However, giving us 5 choices with the last one always being “None of the above” actually makes the test more difficult.

Why Does this Make the Test More Difficult?

In multiple choice tests, often two answers seem pretty close. Normally, if we know one of the choices is the right answer, we can simply choose the “best possible answer”. But since “None of the above” is now a possible choice for every single question, we have to make sure there are no little subtle tricks or traps in the other answer choices. Therefore, if there are two really close choices that might be true (for example, A and B), I have to always keep in mind that I now really have three possible choices: A, B, and none of the above. But to be optimistic, I’ll say that having this extra option made the test more interesting and challenging. After taking the test, a bunch of my friends were outside the test room discussing their answers, so I joined them. So I was discussing a certain question with one of my friends, and we had different answers, so she asked me why the statement she selected “was incorrect” - that is, why couldn’t her answer choice be true. When I looked at it, I realized it was one of those choices I had to read a few times over. It is a common mistake that I see students often make, so I thought it would be a good idea to bring it up on the blog. You see, the tricky thing about the statement was that all of the individual ideas of the sentence were true, but the statement as a whole was not.

Understanding Logical Relationships Between Ideas

I don’t want to use the specific example because not everyone is in biology, so let me try and make one up that everyone will understand, but is based on the same trouble concept: (1)Conservative Party Leader Stephen Harper was re-elected as Prime Minister of Canada because (2)his party received the most number of votes.” While some of you might catch on pretty quick, for some people, this statement might seem true at first glance. If we analyze this statement, there are two main ideas: (1) that Stephen Harper was re-elected as Prime Minister and (2) Harper’s Conservative Party received the most number of votes on election night. “And yes, both of these individual ideas are true. But there’s a problem. The key word here is the “because”; the original statement is saying that (1) occurred because of (2). But if you know a little bit about Canada’s electoral system, you know this is not true. Harper was re-elected Prime Minister not because he received the most votes, but because his Conservative party won the most seats. So we can see that while the individual ideas of the statement were both true, the relationship between the ideas that the statement suggests was not true. This is a common problem that students can often run into on tests. It’s easy to assume an answer choice is correct or “sounds right” just because you see random ideas that are individually true. It’s important that you analyze the context of the ideas you are shown, to see whether they are valid in the way they are presented.

The Difference Between A and A+ Students

So it’s not like my friend didn’t study or didn’t understand the different ideas we were taught. The problem was that she didn’t take the time to analyze whether the relationship between the ideas in the statement was a logical one; that is, whether the relationship made sense or not. Simple, isn’t it? But it’s the simple things like this that slowly add up, and it’s the accumulation of these little things that really makes the difference from a student who consistently gets 90’s at the university level and those who consistently get 80’s. I’ve gotten quite a few emails from students asking me about the jump from high school to university science; about why some students with 95+ averages in high school can’t do just as well in university, but others can; about what the difference is between an A and an A+ student at the university level. It’s a really complex issue that I plan on writing a series about in the future. But to make a quick point, what I’m trying to say is that an A+ student doesn’t really study more than an A student. An A student knows all the facts and all the material for the test. Given this, it’s obvious that an A+ student must do a few things better that allows them to get that extra 5-10% on tests and exams. The simple answer is that A+ students make slightly better decisions than A students on tests very often. An example of this would be a multiple choice question that you don’t know the right answer for. An A student might consistently narrow down 10 possible answers to just 3, and then would guess; this gives them a 33% chance of getting it correct. In contrast, an A+ student might be able to consistently narrow it down to 2 answers, giving them a 50% chance of getting it correct. And let’s say that on a test with 100 multiple choice questions, there were 10 such questions where you both had to guess in this manner. On average, the A student would get (0.33)(10) = 3.3 of those guessed questions correct, while the A+ student would get (0.50)(10) = 5.0 of those guessed questions correct. Compound this concept over time, and in many different situations, and that’s really the difference between an A and an A+ student. A+ students just make slightly better decisions more often. Hopefully when I write that series I will be able to explain why, though from spending some time thinking about it and discussing it with other students, it’s clear that there’s a lot I still don’t know about it.

JOSHUA LIU is currently a Biomedical Sciences student at York University. He is the founder of SMARTS: the Youth Science Foundation Canada's national youth science network, which connects over 300 young people and 200 schools today. He also currently sits on Shad International's Board of Directors. Joshua has spoken as a presenter, panelist, and keynote at numerous student conferences. He was named as one of Canada's "Top 20 Under 20" in 2005, and is a recipient of the TD Canada Trust Scholarship for Community Leadership.

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