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When I was a public high school teacher one of the courses I instructed was AP World History.  The AP World History Exam typically averages three out of nine as the median score on its extended responses.  One year, the median for a question was only around one and a half out of nine.  What happened?  The vast majority of students thought the question was asking about countries in “South-East Asia” (Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand etc.). In fact, the question asked only about countries in “South Asia” (India, Pakistan etc.).  If a student had simply answered the question discussing what little he or she knew about India, he or she would likely have received a score well above average.

This example illustrates the most important strategy for taking the SAT, ACT, GED, AP, and IB exams as well as any other major test:  you must understand the question!  If you rush through what they are asking you may very well misunderstand the question and you are definitely going to miss it.

This is such an issue because in school we often have questions that are quite simple in their wording:  “solve for x”, “who was the main character”, or “define mitosis.”  Quite frankly, we don’t even need to read the questions much of the time on school tests – if you look at the choices the answer is clear. The questions on standardized tests, however, are far more elaborately worded.  If you skim over them really quickly, you will have no idea what they are asking you to do.  Instead, make sure you read the questions very, very carefully so that you fully understand the task at hand.  Remember that a careless mistake is still a mistake, so don’t let yourself make them by misreading the question.

For any teachers reading this, know that you can help your students quite a bit by giving them questions with more difficult wording.  I was conducting a teacher professional development workshop about the ACT when a math teacher said, “My gosh!  We never have words in our problems – only numbers!”  After our meeting, he made sure to do more word problems on his math quizzes.  I know it takes more time to write questions like these, but even a couple of toughly worded questions on a test will really help your students become better prepared for major tests like the SAT, ACT, or AP exams.  If you feel you are only “teaching to the test” by doing this, know that you are teaching the very important life skill of reading instructions carefully.  I don’t know about you, but I definitely would want my accountant, lawyer, or doctor to be able to carefully read what they are supposed to do and not make careless errors.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, I would invite you to share it with your friends.  Thanks, Brian Stewart