When Being Well-Read Can Hurt You on Reading Comprehension Questions

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When Being Well-Read Can Hurt You on Reading Comprehension Questions

One of the goals of a liberal arts education is for students to understand and appreciate a diverse range of academic subjects. Ideally, a student should grasp the fundamentals of physics as well as a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets. However, if you have particularly broad interests or at least a good memory for esoterica, you may get yourself into trouble on some reading comprehension questions.

Part of the reason for this is that you’re probably used to being rewarded for your ability to recall information. For example on so many of your tests throughout childhood, your grade depended on your ability to memorize facts. For a spelling test you had to memorize the correct spelling of words. For a history test, you had to memorize important names, dates, and consequences.

However, recalling previously memorized information is exactly what you must avoid on RC questions. No matter the subject of an RC passage, the questions that follow it are designed to test your critical thinking skills and not your ability to recall information about that subject.

Memorize this: Reading comprehension questions don’t test your memory

It’s tempting to use your own knowledge as a shortcut. A light bulb flicks on in your mind when you read an RC passage about a subject you know. “This will be easy,” you think, and before you know it, you’re selecting a false ‘correct’ answer because you’re applying your own knowledge to the question.

Often RC questions will have answer choices that according to your preexisting knowledge are true and logical, but according to the passage are incorrect. This isn’t necessarily because the passage will contain untrue information. It’s more likely the case that the information you know about the subject doesn’t fit into the scope of the passage. In other words, the information you already know about the subject is not what the question is looking for.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a RC passage talks about the consequences of Shay’s Rebellion and you just so happen to be an American history buff. You already know that the rebellion played a part in reversing the Articles of Confederation, and when you see an answer choice that states this, you confidently select it without carefully reading the passage. However, this answer is wrong because the passage is more concerned about the effects Shay’s Rebellion had on Vermont’s statehood than its effects on the Articles of Confederation.

How do you avoid this tempting mistake?

Simple: Always read RC passages carefully, especially when you already know something about the subject. Make sure that your answers align with what’s in the passage and not what’s in your memory. Sometimes you’ll be asked to infer new information from the passage. Again, make sure you base your inferences only on what the passage gives you. Focus on the passage as if it were the only information that ever existed on the subject, and you’ll avoid falling prey to your own smarts.

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