Why gifted people dread multiple-choice tests
Having completed my studies, there’s one thing I’m very happy about NOT having to do anymore: multiple-choice tests. It's been years since I last took one. But that changed a few weeks ago, when I had to take a test for my diving course. It totally reminded me of just how much I dislike them...
~ Quick intermezzo: Yes, a diving course! I am in Sulawesi as I write this article. Learning how to dive has been on my bucket list of ‘Things I Want to Do Someday’. As Sulawesi offers some of the best diving in the world, I figured this was the perfect opportunity to learn. ~
Back to the multiple-choice (MC) exams: I have always detested them. Because this mode of testing usually doesn't allow me to show my level of understanding about a topic. At school, and also at university, MC tests were always a disappointing experience.
Multiple-choice is mostly used to test your ability to reproduce information, which is an ability that has never really interested me. Having space to question and critique is more my cup of tea. As a deep, critical, and creative thinker, I have always preferred open questions and essay formats for testing.
Multiple-choice and giftedness
Multiple-choice tests are especially frustrating for gifted people, who naturally tend towards complexity rather than simplicity. Complex thinking in itself is a beautiful skill, and a wonderful talent to have, but it's not useful when we're given MC tests. Because we’re often 5 steps ahead of most others. The final conclusion for neurotypical thinkers can feel like only the starting point for gifted minds.
We ourselves often don’t realize when our thinking moves way beyond where the correct answers for MC tests are located. And when that happens, we're not 'overthinking' things. We're just thinking. Complexity is our default mode.
We quickly skip the basic stuff and dive into the area where things get more interesting, that is, complex. But MC tests aren’t usually designed for this type of thinking. They were designed for neurotypical thinking steps and speeds.
From complexity to simplicity
The test I had to take to pass the theory part of my diving course (issued by the PADI institution), illustrated this all so well. The exam at times even had me chuckling, because the gap between my thinking style and that of the exam makers was so evident.
The experience made me think back to one of my coachees, a medical student who constantly has to take MC tests for her studies. She is an incredibly quick and thorough thinker, who kept performing poorly at her exams, which of course really demotivated her. Her grades did not correspond to her level of insight at all. I taught her some specific techniques and exam strategies – often exactly the opposite of what her study advisor told her to do. A lot of the work we did revolved around learning how to go from complexity to simplicity, and how to slow down enough to catch the small thinking steps that her gifted mind typically tended to skip.
Basically, I taught her how to think more superficially (just for her exams, that is). It’s everything but ideal, of course, but changing the testing system doesn’t happen overnight. And our work paid off: thanks to coaching, we got her results from barely passing all the way up to well above average.
My diving exam
For my diving theory exam, I got to apply these techniques myself. There were some pretty nonsensical questions, that made me roll my eyes … Like this one:
The first step in using my dive computer is:
A. Setting the time and date
B. Reading the manufacturer’s instructions
C. Calibrating it for enriched air nitrox
D. Setting it for fresh of salt water
Now, when I read this question, my mind immediately goes to the type of gas I could be breathing (eg. air, or nitrox), because this impacts how much time you can spend at certain depths. One of the most important functions of a dive computer (a kind of wristwatch), is to tell you how deep you are and how long you’ve been there. For this in turn impacts the pace at which you can safely ascend back up, which is also what you use your dive computer for.
In sum, understanding how to operate a dive computer is of core importance when it comes to safety. So there should definitely be questions in the exams to test your knowledge about this.
But not questions like these… Which to me are pointless, and a lost opportunity. The correct answer? It was option B. Which is like, well duh, you read instructions when you use something for the very first time. Or at least we know we should read them, but actually reading a manual is something most of us (incl. myself) often skip. The question also didn’t clarify if this was the very first time using the computer, because surely, no one reads the same manual before every dive.
I got this one right though, because I realized I had to hugely simplify my thinking. Frustrating? Sure. Disappointing? Absolutely. But it’s necessary so I can at least get my diving certificate.
Am I a psychic?
When I finished, I handed my forms to the instructor and told him: “Here you go. Please check it, but I can already tell you that I’ve got 4 mistakes.” Then, I pointed out the questions which I suspected to have gotten wrong.
My instructor checked my answers. Then he came back, with surprise all over his face: “You were right. You have 4 mistakes, exactly the ones you pointed out. You have a total score of 92%, very high, you only needed 70% to pass”.
He looked at me as if I was some kind of psychic, that I was able to predict my score so accurately.
I simply laughed, considered explaining to him how I could know this (quite simple: I know what I know, and I know what I don't know). But I ended up leaving the air of mystery around me intact. It's more fun that way ;)