Given the premise of any form of testing is the evaluation of one's knowledge in comparison to the population (i.e. class) as a whole and a set body of knowledge (i.e. syllabus).

How does one approach the issue of answering conceptual questions that are completely groundless in a multiple choice format? I know that as an essay format, one can take positions and point out the flaws in the prompt. But in a format where there is (in theory) always a correct answer, what options does one have?

The following are poor examples, but it summarizes the question succinctly.

Vaccines cause autism. Studies have shown that Vaccine causes autism. When 100 people were surveyed by University X, 98% agreed that V = A.

Question: What causes Autism?

A: Vaccines

B: Genetics

C: Baseball

The world is flat. If one were to travel too far in any direction, they will fall off the earth.

Question: What will happen if you travel too far East?

A: You will end up on the other side

B: You will fall off

C: Nothing will Happen

Does one exclude the knowledge that they have gained from learning in the greater world and operate within the "confines" of the question, or do they reject the confines and operate on what is and proven at the present?

I asked a friend of mine this question, he/she responded that I had to approach the problem as a logic problem within 'closed system', meaning not to infer any additional knowledge outside the realm of the question.

If one were to approach the problem with the intent of seeking to maximize one's grade, i.e. the choice that will generate a point, then the answer is evident from the examples provided.

If one were to approach the problem with the intent of seeking to answer with the correct answer, i.e. the choice that most accurately reflects a person's belief (or that of society as a whole), then the answer is evident from the examples provided.

But what if the question is political or advocates a hateful rhetoric that is only believed by the question-maker (and therefore the grade-maker)?

If a personal belief is in opposition to the greater whole (i.e. An abolitionist in the South before the US Civil War, learning about social structure) what is the 'correct' answer?

Does the 'closed-system' extend to the class as a whole, irrespective of the outside world, and one's personal beliefs seconded to the beliefs of the grade-maker?

What is the overriding prerogative? Maximizing one's beliefs or grade?

  • A style of question that might be useful is the premise-conclusion type question, i.e. premise A describes this thing, thus conclusion B can be drawn from premise A. Then your multiple choice is 'B is a reasonable conclusion to draw from premise A', 'B is not a reasonable conclusion to draw from premise A', 'B is a reasonable conclusion but premise A is not a reasonable premise' and vice versa.
    – Eppicurt
    Oct 28, 2017 at 1:56
  • I understand your comment in full. When I think to myself "What is reasonable to you, might not be reasonable to me." I wonder if we reach the same conclusion (answer) but through different methods (you used calculus, I used trigonometry) are the answers really the same? Point-wise, they are equal. But conceptually and procedural, they are not.
    – Bluebird
    Oct 28, 2017 at 2:08
  • What is the context of the test? Are you being tested? Are you being asked to test another with someone else's test? What?
    – Marxos
    Oct 28, 2017 at 2:58
  • Studying for the GRE. One of the questions was "conceptual" question where the answers did not make sense once it was evaluated given modern-day standards. After a discussion, the notion was then applied to past instructors who implemented a similar question methodology of inserting (whether wrong, or personally-held) beliefs into the grading system
    – Bluebird
    Oct 28, 2017 at 3:16
  • 1
    'Given the premise of any form of testing is the evaluation of one's knowledge' That premise is incorrect for the GRE. The theoretical goal of the GRE and SAT tests is to measure "aptitude" for college and graduate school, independent of the test takers general knowledge, except for reading vocabulary and knowledge of high school algebra. In questions like your fictional example, they are trying to measure your ability to extract facts from short written passages and to reason with those facts. If a question says "The earth is flat", then for the purposes of that question, the earth is flat. Oct 28, 2017 at 3:47

2 Answers 2


Maximize your grade, but….

Generally speaking, giving the correct answer on an multiple-choice exam where you know you’re supposed to give the incorrect answer doesn’t accomplish much. It won’t give you a higher grade (obviously). But it also won’t convince anyone that they’re wrong. How could it? No one will look at a (theoretically correct, but to their mind wrong) answer on a multiple choice test and realize their error. In fact, most people won’t look at it at all, even if the tests are graded by hand.

In the comments, you indicate that you’re talking about the GRE. Specific issues here include the fact that the multiple-choice portions of the GRE are, I believe, graded by computer. In fact, sometimes even the essays are, to some extent. Even paper tests may be fed into a scanner. As such, it is even more certain that giving the correct answer on the GRE, as opposed to the expected answer, will accomplish nothing.

Report the error

That said, you need not be resigned to simply accepting errors in reasoning or fact on a test, even if it’s a multiple-choice test. You can report the error. If the test was created by your professor or someone at the university, talk to them or send them an email after the exam, explaining that there was a mistake on the test, and, if you can still recall, what the error was. I’ve occasionally caught a few mistakes in exams (not the multiple-choice sort), and the professor was always happy to send out a correction.

In the case of standardized tests, such the GRE (the case that inspired this question), you can formally report the error. People have reported errors in multiple-choice standardized tests for a long time, and such tests are still corrected when the mistake is noticed. Typically, everyone will receive credit for the incorrect question. ETS, which administers the GRE, notes this on their website:

If you think there is an error in a test question that affects your response, tell the test supervisor as soon as you finish the test, and immediately write to[…]

By giving the answer that ETS expects, and then immediately reporting the question (after finishing the test), you will maximize your chances of receiving the best score, and ensure that incorrect information does not continue to be shared.


Easy. Maximize your grade.

You'll have plenty of opportunities in life to influence people and try to reduce the total stupidity in the world.

This is not such an opportunity.

Maximize your grade, if for no other reason than as an interesting puzzle, where you put yourself in the shoes of the idiot who wrote the question, and try to reverse-engineer the question.

You may still not hit the "correct" answer, but you might as well try to solve the puzzle.... Why not?

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