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The procoess of elimination
  • Calendar Jun 05, 2019
  • User Jared Wells
  • Category In Uncategorized
  • Comments 0 Comments

One of the most valuable tactics we emphasize in our SAT/ACT prep (on the non-math sections) is the process of elimination (POE). With finals coming up for many students, it’s worth thinking about what it is exactly, why it is so valuable, and how to apply it in a test situation.

What is the POE?

What is the goal on a multiple choice question? To find the correct answer, obviously!

The POE flips that thinking on its head: it says that the objective is to find all of the INCORRECT answers, leaving one answer remaining, which must necessarily be the correct answer. And it is not just “feeling” as though an answer choice is incorrect or “less correct”. It’s being able to articulate the reason that it is incorrect, using evidence or logic.

Students hear this, and their response is often, “What is the difference?” In their mind, the only difference between looking for one correct answer and four incorrect answers is that finding four answers takes more reading! But that is a feature, not a bug.

Why is the POE so valuable?

When discussing the process of elimination with students, I ask them to think about the test from the test-maker’s perspective. When test-makers write questions, their goal is to mislead students. That is, when they write incorrect answers, they aren’t going to write answers that are obviously incorrect. They will write answers that have an element or veneer of truth to them. A student who is looking for the correct answer will stop their investigation once they see an answer choice that seems correct “enough” The problem is that, if the answer choice didn’t stand up to scrutiny, it’s easier for a clever test-maker to slip an incorrect answer past the student.

The POE forces the student to consider every answer choice, which helps the student raise defenses against answer choices that are “mostly correct” but might have a word or idea that makes them incorrect (that a student might miss in an initial scan of the answer choices for the correct answer)

There is another reason the POE is valuable: sometimes a student will look at a question and say “I have no idea what the answer is...ugh” and will just skip the question. For a challenging or complex problem, going from 0 to 100 (having no idea to having the correct answer) can feel impossible. Same goes for any complex task or project. You can make a seemingly impossible task possible by breaking it up into smaller pieces, which is what the POE does. So, for a question that a student feels is impossible to answer correctly, what if they changed the task to finding a single incorrect answer? That seems more doable, doesn’t it? And once the student has the confidence to dive in and attempt the smaller, simpler task of finding one incorrect answer, they may find that they understand more about the problem and can make more progress on the problem than they thought. Even getting down to a 50-50 between two answer choices is a victory compared to the prospect of guessing blindly.

Finally, it’s a way to show your work on multiple choice problems. One of my mottos is “writing is doing” and I’m always uneasy when I see a student answer a question without having written anything down. The process of elimination is a way for a student to document and bring mindfulness and consciousness to their process.

In the next article, we’ll discuss how to use the POE.

Looking to sharpen your student's test taking skills? Check our our "Study Skills" workshop this summer.


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