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Going With First Instinct Not Always Best Test Strategy, Research Finds

On multiple-choice tests, going with your initial gut reaction may not always be the best advice.

New research out from Educational Testing Service shows that test takers increased their scores, on average, when changing answers on multiple-choice questions on the GRE, the widely used graduate admissions test.

While this study focused on GRE test takers, ETS officials say the findings can apply to K-12 assessments and undergraduate ACT and SAT college-admissions tests. It is consistent with other research that has long documented benefits of revisiting answers.

"It could be generalized to other tests," says Lydia Liu, senior research scientist at ETS. "We want testing agencies and test takers to know if there is a good reason to change, make the change. Don't be afraid of doing so because of the notion of always sticking with your first instinct."

The ETS study analyzed the answers of 8,000 test takers from 37 countries and their response change patterns. It revealed that 71.7 percent of students improved their scores when going back and changing answers on the quantitative reasoning questions and 77.1 percent did better on the verbal reasoning questions when they altered their initial response.

The discovery busts the long-held belief by many that a test takers' first instinct is usually correct. ETS surveyed 2,000 test takers about this perception and 59 percent believed the original answer would most likely be correct, while 14 percent thought the changed answer had a better chance of being right.

Liu says there is a large body of research going back 80 years about the benefit of conscientious answer changing, but there has been a disconnect between the research community and educators about the findings. Teachers and test-prep companies have advised students to be careful about answer changing, yet the evidence shows it can work in their favor. There is a also a psychological phenomenon at play too: Students tend to regret more a mistake they made when they realize it was the result of changing an answer, adds Liu.

It is important for students to know that the research supports response changing and ETS officials says the company is embarking on a public relations campaign to get the word out to the education and testing community about the study findings.

To make the GRE more test-taker friendly and distinguish it from other graduate-admissions tests, ETS revised the format in 2011 to allow students the option of skipping questions and changing answers. Previously, performance on different sections of the computer-based test dictated the next question and students were not given the chance to review and modify their answers. With the new model, test takers can navigate on their own throughout the test and use their own strategies to make revisions.

"The idea was to try to help the test taker to enhance the experience," says Liu.

ETS officials say scores did not significantly improve after the first year the new test design was adopted, but that it is too early to tell what the impact might be long term.

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