Whether you understand the meaning of a test question or not may depend on whether you’re the one who wrote the test, or are the one who’s taking it. As experienced teachers, we’ve seen this first hand.


We would write questions for tests that seemed perfectly fair. The material had been covered in class, so if the kids had studied, there should be no problem, right?


It didn’t always work that way. Occasionally an entire class would miss a question – even the diligent students who usually performed well on tests. It was baffling. Then, once in awhile, we would pull the test out much later, see the question with new eyes, and be confused ourselves.


So what changed?


When we had first written the questions, we knew the answer going in. If you know that, the answer is obvious. If you’re working from a blank slate, it’s a different story.


There is a story about Brunelleschi and the design of the great dome of the Florence Cathedral: There was a competition among architects to see who could build the enormous dome, which had to be large enough to cover the huge expanse of the cathedral, but strong enough that it wouldn’t collapse under its own weight.


When Brunelleschi said that he knew how to solve the problem, the other architects demanded to see the plan. Instead of showing them, Brunelleschi put an egg on a table and told the others to try to stand it on its end. They all tried, and failed. Thinking that no one could do it, they demanded that Brunelleschi try to do it. So he smacked the end of the egg down hard on the table, and the egg stood on its shattered, flattened end.


The other architects were outraged, and said that they could have done that.


“And you could build this dome too,” Brunelleschi said, “if you knew my design.”


He got the job.


To the people who write these tests, most – well, at least some – of the questions seem straightforward and logical. In part, this is because they know the answers when they write the questions.


There are other reasons too, but we’ll get into those in another blog.


When we tutor students now, we try to get the exact text that they’re working with. Why? Because even different texts present the same subject in wildly different ways. If a student is beginning to grasp a topic, watch the confusion rise if you try to present the same topic with the methods of a different book.


The methods might even be better. But they’re not the methods the student is familiar with.


It’s no different for us. When we get a new text to teach from, we have to learn how the text teaches a subject. It’s not quite like starting from scratch, but it’s not all that far from it either.


Well, a test works just about the same way. On lots of questions, students will know exactly what to do, and there will be nothing to worry about. But on others the question will seem so unfamiliar that a kid won’t even know how to start.


People who’ve heard a tiger roar in the wild say that the sound actually paralyzes them, like prey. That’s a fairly accurate model for conceptualizing the experience of facing some of the more puzzling test questions.


So what can kid do? Get familiar with the exact test he or she will be taking. A rare few, who are naturally good at taking tests, will find that they understand the problems easily.


But most of us should never try to take the test without becoming familiar with its language first. Most students who are given a chance to work with their test beforehand, find fewer surprises, and understand what questions mean far more easily.


It’s like entering a competition to stand an egg on its end, but with inside information.