ETS Says Students Should NOT Trust Their First Instincts on the GRE

ETS logoAs you should all know, the GRE was revised in August 2011. Among the many changes introduced by the ETS was a “mark and review” feature. This feature allows students to bookmark questions and return to them before moving onto a new section of the exam. According to the ETS, the past year’s testing data shows that this new feature has helped students excel on the GRE in a surprisingly significant way.

After reviewing a survey comprised of about 8,000 instances in which students returned to bookmarked questions and changed their answers, the ETS found that students who changed their answers on bookmarked questions increased their GRE scores more than 70% percent of the time.

This information has led the ETS to release a press statement saying, “The results of this study disprove the fallacy that the first instinct is always correct when answering multiple-choice questions.”

This is a bold, yet fairly safe, statement on part of the ETS. What does it really mean?

It seems a bit disingenuous to assume that this information proves that we shouldn’t trust our instincts when it comes to standardized tests. Really, the results of this survey could be taken to indicate that test takers should trust their instincts more than ever; after all, your instincts must be at least tangentially responsible for causing you to mark a question down for review in the first place. Specifically, they name your “First Instinct” as the boogeyman behind bad scores, which really just seems to be a codeword for students who pause only to answer a question, not solve it. The bookmark feature is the Computerized Adaptive Test (CAT) equivalent of drawing a star next to questions you were uncertain about on a paper-and-pencil exam in high school and undergrad. The fact of the matter is that uncertain students have been changing their multiple choice answers and receiving better scores as a result, most of the time, for generations.

Does this mean that a student’s instinct is always right? Of course not. However, just because your instincts can be wrong doesn’t mean you should totally disregard them. One of the purposes of preparing for an exam like the GRE is to hone your instincts and thus minimize the number of mistakes you are likely to make on test day. With proper preparation, including practice and a familiarity of the exam, our advice remains when in doubt you should rely on your first instinct.

Revisiting questions has always been a frequent staple of standardized test-taking, and that tradition continues today with the redesign of the GRE. In the article linked above, a Senior Researcher for ETS is quoted as saying, “It is important that students know that the research supports response changing when there is a good reason for doing so.” This sort of conspicuous couching essentially phrases the statement to mean if you have a good reason to change your answer, you should probably change your answer.  This is not ground-breaking or paradigm-shifting information, and you should not let it influence how you approach the exam.

This is not to say that the success of the New GRE’s bookmark feature is not astounding; however, the headline should not be about the success of the feature, rather it should be about the fact that the GRE now has this feature (which was probably the point of ETS’ Press Release all along). Our take on this article is trust your instincts, but be willing to change your answer if “there is a good reason for doing so,” with the semi-exasperated (because people should really know this already) side note that it is neat that the GRE now allows you to do so.

If you have any questions about the GRE, we encourage you to comment or ask!

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