Bad Information!

I just came across a review in the New York Post of a book by William Poundstone designed to help readers game any system, from the stock market, to the lottery, to taking multiple choice tests. According to this book:

  • True is most often correct in true/false questions.
  • “b” is most often correct if there are 4 answers.
  • “e” is most often correct if there are 5 answers.
  • “c” is most likely to be wrong if there are 5 answers.
  • The longest answer (it contains more “qualifying” words) is usually right.
  • Answers containing “all,” “always,” “none,” or “never” are usually wrong.
  • “All of the above” or “none of the above,” however, is usually right.

Sound useful, doesn’t it?


Come on! Does anyone honestly think it’s that simple? Could there really be a secret Cheat Code for test taking that will guarantee a pass on your Optical Boards? I wouldn’t bet your registration fees on it! This is Real Life, not a video game. There are no secret codes to give you “extra lives” or super powers. You have to succeed by hard work and knowledge. You can’t game this system!

Poundstone bases his findings on statistics, which, if you have ever studied statistics, you know how easily they can be manipulated. It’s all based on your DATA, whatever that data is, and if your data is biased or faulty, your results won’t be good. Think of all the political poles these days. One day they report one thing, and the next it’s just the opposite.

Now here’s where we finally get the scoop. According to The New York Post, Poundstone used data from… “over 100 tests from high school, college, and other sources.” WOW! over… 100 tests! (cough, cough) Does that sound like a lot? And what are his “other sources?” Could he have incorporated data from any National Board exams or the SAT or GRE? How could he have?

In order for Poundstone’s research to be effective, he would have to have analyzed the answers to the tests he used as data. How many testing authorities would be likely to give him the answers to their exams? There probably were some high school or college teachers who contributed to his research, but I highly doubt any major national exam sources were consulted. Could he have possibly got the answers to the Bar exam or any of the major Medical certification exams? I doubt he got anywhere near the answers for the NOCE or the CLRE!

The authorities that run the National Boards for opticianry and contact lens fitting know that various testing “formulas” exist and they are likely to write their questions to frustrate these formulas. Think about it. The exams given by the ABO/NCLE are designed to award certification to qualifying candidates. The whole point is to weed out those who aren’t qualified, (and we’ve all met some of those people, haven’t we?) Basically, if you don’t know your diopters from your derriere, you’re not going to pass. They’ve made sure of it.

I can also tell you, truthfully, that Poundstone’s tips won’t help you at all when taking the practice exams we offer at Passyouroptical If there is a formula at all, it isn’t Poundstone’s.

Writing test questions isn’t easy. The aim is to make them difficult, but not impossible, answerable, but not obvious. And those of us who have been in the business for thirty years or more have heard all the test strategies out there.

  • Go with your first answer.
  • Go with THE first answer.
  • When in doubt answer “c”.
  • Go with the least likely answer.
  • Pick “Call the doctor.” It’s always right.
  • Close your eyes and pick.

Now, Poundstone would have us choose “e”, the longest answer, or “all/none of the above.” Let’s test it with a bogus question!

A patient on the phone reports that his glasses are slipping down his nose. What do you do?

      1. Call the doctor.
      2. Send him to the emergency room.
      3. Have him come in for adjustment.
      4. all of the above
      5. none of the above

Well, as you can see, following Poundstone’s advice wouldn’t help you here. The answer is obviously 3, or “c” (which would vindicate the “just answer c” theory!) not 5,or “e,” which it should be since there are 5 answers. Since “Call the doctor” and “Go to the emergency room” are both ridiculous, “all of the above” cannot be true, and because “come in for adjustment” is obviously true, the “e” answer which is: “none of the above” has to be false.

So you see, if you had followed Mr. Poundstone on this laughably easy question instead of using common sense, you would have failed, and if you had used your intelligence and your wealth of acquired optical knowledge you would have passed.

What we recommend, of course, is to steer clear of all the “sure fire” “quick and easy” test-taking strategies (as well as those for gambling too!) and just learn your stuff. You’ll be using this knowledge for the rest of your professional life.

Incidentally, the title of the book in question is Rock Beats Scissors, and the name says it all. Apparently there is a chapter devoted to the children’s game of rock paper scissors. Now think about it… considering how important certification is to you and how much time and effort you have spent in pursuit of your optical career, would you really take the test-taking advice of a grown man who still plays rock paper scissors?

I thought not.

Happy studying!