Think Like the Test Writer

Question writers have a difficult task, especially if they are writing multiple choice questions. First, the questions they write must be related to what is being tested. You certainly expect to see biology questions on biology tests, not history questions. The ACT has to measure if you think like a college student, not like a hamburger cook! Second, the answers have to include wrong answers that are attractive enough that they will trick and trap students without being too close to right. For example, if the question was, “How far is it to Mars?” and the answers were: 5 miles, 10 miles, 15 miles, 20 miles, and 50 million miles, how many test takers would get the question wrong? On the other hand, if the answers were: 49.8 million miles, 49.9 million miles, 50.0 million miles, 50.1 million miles, and 50.2 million miles, how many would get it right? Wouldn’t this latter case boil down to random guessing?

So the dilemma faced by the test writer is to write a question that will discriminate among students based on whether they can do or know what the question is designed to determine.

You can think about each question as having three parts: the question part (or stem), a right answer, and some wrong answers. Experience indicates that in order of difficulty, writing the question/stem is of medium difficulty. Writing the right answer is the easiest. Writing wrong answers is by far the hardest part.

A good test writer can do the first two parts fairly easily. The difficult thing to do is to come up with wrong answers that will look attractive to test takers. You might call them tricks or traps. Well, good test writers understand how students think and what kinds of mistakes they are likely to make. They get paid to know this! So, based on what they know, they can usually write one to three good “tricky” wrong answers. Coming up with more is really difficult. So an “average” question has two “tricky” wrong answers.

The ACT questions have three or four wrong answers, causing a problem for test writers. So they just plug in a couple of nonsense answers to fill the gaps! This course is going to assist you with understanding the characteristics of wrong ACT answers. First, you are going to learn how to recognize nonsense answers for many of the question types. Second, you are going to learn what makes an attractive wrong answer. Test writers know the types of common mistakes students make on tests and what kinds of wrong answers look right. Well, I know too. So I’m going to teach you to recognize them!

Another issue is distinguishing between seemingly equally good answers. In the math portion of the test, this isn’t much of a problem. Right answers are right and there isn’t any subjective judgment that goes into distinguishing them from wrong answers. Two plus two is four and it isn’t debatable. On the other hand, the Reading questions and answers can be subjective. As a result, you are faced with distinguishing between “good,” “better,” and “best” answers. This can be difficult since it is the test writer who decides what is the “best” or “right” answer. It is often their subjective judgment that distinguishes between two very good answers. Therefore, you need to know what makes an answer “best” in the mind of the test writer. You’ve got to think like a test writer while you are taking the ACT. You don’t need to think this way all the time but, during the test, the more you think like the test writer, the higher your score will be. So during this course, you will learn to think that way.

The following is a typical question format. It is a stem followed by answers. Notice that this one has two “nonsense” answers and three “could be” answers. The “could be” answers are “good,” “better,” and “best.”

1. Question (sometimes called the “stem”)

(A) Nonsense Answer #1
(B) Nonsense Answer #2
(C) Good Answer
(D) Better Answer
(E) Best Answer

Now, I want you to look at the following question. Like many questions on the test, there is some information that precedes the stem. In this example, the diagram becomes part of the stem because it will give you information you need to answer the question. (Of course, this isn’t a real ACT question; it just demonstrates how a question is structured. Try to figure out what is the “best” answer.)

21. This recent picture of a teenager was taken on a Friday night. What is happening?

(A) George Washington’s father is scolding him about the cherry tree.
(B) A teenager is polishing Dad’s shoes.
(C) A teenager is requesting the keys to the family car.
(D) A dog is pretending to be a boy.
(E) A teenager is looking for a lost contact lens.

#21 Words of “Wiz-dom”

REVELATIONS: Demystifying the ACT is available for the exclusive use of students who have registered through or attend a school which is licensed to distribute it. Any distribution or use of these materials beyond these students or schools by any individual or organization and/or removal of this notice is a violation of federal copyright laws.