Over the years, we’ve observed thousands of students work their way through SAT reading passages, and the presence of one very common syndrome that impairs students’ performance has become clear to us: Students have an incorrect perception of who the speaker is behind the passages, the questions, and the answer choices, and this faulty perception introduces biases that push students towards erroneous answers. Let’s break this down by explaining our view of who is behind the various parts of a reading passage and its accompanying questions, and what the implications are of recognizing those speakers.

The Three (Sometimes, Four) Speakers:

  1. The author(s) of the passage(s):
    1. The passages are selected from existing materials, not written by the test-makers, so it must be acknowledged that they are completely free of any intent with regard to trying to trick or confuse readers.
    2. The passages were written (or spoken, in the case of speeches) with the single goal of communicating with the reader. They are also well-written, notwithstanding a modern reader’s possible difficulties with understanding older styles of expression. The writer/speaker is on the reader’s side, because the purpose of the writing is for the reader to understand the writer and to fully absorb the story, events, or argument presented. It is absolutely essential to understand and accept that the writer and the reader both want exactly the same result.
  2. The assessor:
    1. The questions are posed by the crafters of the test. This speaker represents a party whose sole aim is to determine how well you, the reader, understood the passage. It is vital to understand this one and only purpose while accepting that the questions demand a careful reading to ensure that you understand exactly what you are being asked to assess about the candidate answer choices. There is no deception in the questions; for the speaker of the questions to achieve their aim of assessing your reading skills fairly and effectively, those questions must be clearly and unambiguously phrased, and they are. The questions are neutral; they can’t give away the answer, but they also cannot coerce you into choosing a wrong answer if you thoroughly comprehended the passage and you approach the questions with care and exactitude, as that would run directly counter to the sole purpose of the test.
  3. You:
    1. Wait, what? You didn’t participate in creating this test. We already know you didn’t write the passages or the questions, and you certainly didn’t create the answer choices.

      Or did you?

      Consider that for the test to be most effective, each question must present one answer choice — the correct one — that would likely only be selected by a reader who thoroughly understood the passage. Put another way, if the question were asked of such a reader, that reader’s response (or one of their responses) would make an excellent correct answer. So, looked at from this perspective, it is a (modeled) excellent student who provides the correct answer; the speaker of the right answer is a student with mastery of reading.

      This principle is in much sharper focus, however, when it comes to the wrong answers. What process would produce a set of wrong answer choices most likely to be selected by students who did not fully understand the passage? The answer is obvious: Asking students who did not fully understand the passage to answer the question, or modeling such students to predict such answers.

What are the implications of understanding the idea that, in effect, the speaker of the wrong answers is a student who didn’t really understand the passage (or who isn’t reading the question carefully)? This conceptualization should result in a completely new mindset when reading the answer choices.

Let’s elaborate on that. When we receive a communication in any form — written or spoken — our default response is to accept and believe it if there are not clear signs that trust is unwarranted. This is particularly true when we are not in a situation where someone is trying to get something from us, so our guard is down; when a statement appears to be just passing along information with no obvious agenda, our natural tendency is to accept it.

On the test, even though we know there are three wrong answers to each question, students’ first reaction nonetheless is to subconsciously accept and believe every answer choice. This is due to the syndrome described above, coupled with the lurking knowledge that one of the choices is, in fact, correct. This mindset starts us on the path of trying to find ways to make each statement be correct, because there’s an inherent psychological impediment to switching from acceptance to rejection of a statement; just as it makes us uncomfortable to confront someone about what we think is a false or incorrect statement, we tend to avoid the feeling of discomfort associated with judging a confidently-expressed, well-written statement as being false, especially if our first reaction was to accept and rationalize it.

How do you make this mindset adjustment? First, you must accept the correctness of what is articulated above, so that you cease accepting the answer choices as authoritative statements from a source whose reliability you have no reason to suspect. Next, and most powerfully, view every answer choice as though you are being presented with answers that students of varying abilities wrote down after reading the question. This completely shifts your relationship with these statements, as you no longer will feel the need to invest trust in their correctness; you recognize from the outset that they are mere best efforts from possibly flawed readers who are your peers. Your mindset, then, should become that of a benevolent checker of these ethereal students’ reading comprehension and reasoning; you’re like a teacher grading a test, if you will. This inverts the usual frame of mind that students have, wherein they feel that the (evil, mocking, whatever) test-writers are intimidating them through the cleverly-worded answer choices.

The next time you assess yourself with a reading passage, look at the answer choices for the questions and think to yourself, “one great student wrote one of these, and three students who are decent writers but who didn’t really get what the passage was saying wrote the other three; all I need to do is grade them.” If you try this technique, let us know in the comments below whether you find success with this new approach.