The secret of smart guesswork

15 Apr 2017


Illustration by Ahmed Amin
Illustration by Ahmed Amin

An amazing amount of research is going on in the world and on everything under the sun and beyond. While much of it is related to science, technology and environment, there is also much that people are doing to make life easy for others, such as making studies and exams less stressful.

Yes, there have been lots of research and studies focused on the best methods to study, memorise, write, draw, focus, and a lot more. The more you ‘research’ about the research that has taken place, the more amazed and excited you get — just like I was amazed on coming across the findings of a guy called William Poundstone.  

An American columnist and author, Poundstone claims in his book Rock Breaks Scissors: A Practical Guide to Outguessing and Outwitting Almost Everybody, that he has found several “common patterns in multiple-choice tests,” and offers tips on how to attempt such questions. But these tips are for those tough times when we don’t know the answer and have to resort to guessing and choosing the answer from the multiple choices given by playing “Akkar bakkar, bambay boo.”

and have to resort to guessing and choosing the answer from the multiple choices given by playing “Akkar bakkar, bambay boo.”

It is at times like these that I feel I was born during the wrong decade, why didn’t someone do this kind of research when I was in school? How many countless souls have failed when the “choor nikal kay bhaga” (“the thief ran away”) fell on the wrong option!

But better now than never, and at least you guys can make use of the insights Poundstone has to offer from his data analysis of “100 tests — 2,456 questions in total — from varied sources, including middle school, high school, college, and professional school exams; driver’s tests; licensing exams for fire-fighters and radio operators; and even newspaper quizzes.”

He claims that he found statistical patterns across all these sources and he has come up with some strategies to help in ‘guessing’ correctly in any exam. But mind you, he is not saying you will be ‘getting’ the correct answer here and he stresses that the only way to get the answer correct in a multiple choice test is to ‘know’ the correct answer by having studied and gained knowledge of the subject.

The guessing strategies he has suggested, and which we shall soon discuss are according to this guy, “useful to the extent that it beats random guessing.”

He also suggests that “one should always guess when they are unsure because when you guess smartly, your chances of being correct will improve.”

So let’s see how we can guess smartly to improve our chances of being correct when we don’t know the answer.

Trust truth

Poundstone found that when the choice was between “true” and “false”, the correct answer was “true’ 56 percent of the time while “false” was the correct answer 44 percent of the time.

There is no substitute for hard work and learning. Your knowledge of your subjects is the only way to score good grades in any exam.

The explanation he gives for this is that “True statements come more easily to mind and recalling a fact is quicker than inventing a falsehood. So test — makers follow the path of least resistance and produce tests with more answers being ‘true’.”

All for none

When answers include the options “all of the above” or “none of the above”, choosing one of these answers give a “90 percent improvement over random guessing,” Poundstone says.

“In ‘All of the above’ and ‘None of the above’ choices, if you are certain one of the statements is true, don’t choose ‘None of the above’ or if one of the statements is false don’t choose ‘All of the above’.

In a question with an ‘All of the above’ choice, if you see at least two correct statements, then ‘All of the above’ is probably the answer,” Poundstone reasons.

Look at the surrounding answers

Poundstone’s analysis showed that correct answer choices hardly repeated consecutively. So when you are stuck on a question, look at the questions before and after it. Chances are that the correct option will be different than what was before and after it.

In the options of the answers in the question you are stuck at, first cross out mentally the ones you are sure are the wrong options based on facts then see what are the answers to the questions before and after that one. Eliminate those choices and you will have a narrow choice of one or two options left to choose from, making your guesswork easier.

Now read the remaining answers carefully and decide what seems to be the correct one, based on what you do know about the topic.

Illustration by Ahmed Amin
Illustration by Ahmed Amin

Poundstone observes: “For the three-choice tests in my sample (A,B,C), the correct choice repeated its predecessor only 25 percent of the time (versus the expected 33 percent for a random sequence). This means that a test-taker could gain an easy advantage when guessing just by avoiding the previous question’s answer.

“With five options, the last answer (E) was the most commonly correct one (23%). The middle choice (C) was the least favoured (17%).

So to recap, pick the second answer (B) on four-choice tests and the fifth answer (E) on five-choice tests.”

He also found that in many short tests, no correct choice ever repeated twice in a row. 

Choose the longest answer

Poundstone found during his research that the longest answers were usually the correct ones. To avoid ambiguity and error, examiners have to make sure when giving the options to a question that the correct answer is very clearly correct. So they will use enough words and proper sentence structure in the right answer to clearly convey the meaning. This can often end up making the answer the longest one.

“Test makers have to make sure that right answers are indisputably right,” Poundstone says. “Often this demands some qualifying language. They may not try so hard with wrong answers.”

If one choice is noticeably longer than its counterparts, it’s likely the correct answer.

Always trust your instinct

Our first instinct is usually right so we must trust it. It is our sixth sense telling us what to do.

This is because, according to Poundstone, “Correct answers are more likely to ring familiar. It may be that you were exposed to the answer once and have forgotten it. But if your hard work seems to have been in vain, you could do a lot worse than relying on your gut instincts and smarter guesses.”

In the end, I would like to add that all these points are just observations of someone who went through some tests. This shouldn’t be your guide to passing a multiple choice test — only your knowledge is your real saviour.

There is no substitute for hard work and learning. Your knowledge of your subjects is the only way to score good grades in any exam. Working and studying hard is the only secret of success.

Published in Dawn, Young World April 15th, 2017