Key to Scoring High on Exams. Learning to Distinguish a Fact From an Opinion

Your ability to distinguish a fact from an opinion is often tested in exams. Opinions in particular, often appear as distracters in international exams such as Cambridge IELTS, FCE and CAE. “Distracters” are the incorrect answers presented as a choice in multiple-choice questions. But what makes a distractor seem like the correct answer? We will find out about it shortly. But first, let’s examine a sample question. This will help you understand distractors better and learn to eliminate them so that you can score higher in your exams. 

Look at the following extract:

All the students sat an important English exam on Friday morning. Fernando found the exam very difficult. He didn’t have much time to prepare for it and he failed the exam.

Now decide which of the following statement(s) are true:

1- Fernando’s English is terrible.
2- Fernando knew some of the answers to the questions.
3- Fernando hoped to pass the exam.
4- Fernando had much difficulty with the exam.

Please take a few moments and choose your answers as if you were in a real exam.

Did you choose anything other than number 4? You would be surprised how so many learners tick the statement 1, 2 and 3 as true. But these are all distracters. Let’s find out why. 

Statement 1: “Fernando’s English is terrible”
When learners read the first statement, they usually think something along the lines of, “Of course his English is terrible! Look. He failed the exam. The reading already says he found the exam very difficult. That’s because his English is not good. Otherwise it would have been easy and he would have passed the exam.” Well, not quite. Let me explain.

Firstly, the reading passage only suggests that Fernando didn’t pass the exam. It doesn’t suggest in any way that his English is terrible. If you are like most people, you may think “failing an exam” equals “terrible English,” but this is not a fact. Your English could indeed be excellent. But maybe taking exams is not your cup of tea. Some people perform better under exam conditions whereas others don’t because they can’t cope with the pressure. Furthermore, ‘terrible’ is just an opinion. I might think Fernando’s English is great, whereas you might think it is terrible. These are just different opinions and they are always subjective.

Of course, sometimes an opinion could be the correct answer to a question. However, this is only when you are asked to identify the writer’s opinion. Otherwise, in a reading or listening exam, you will never be asked to choose an answer based on your own beliefs and opinions.

Statement 2: “Fernando knew some of the answers to the questions”
This is also incorrect, because the reading doesn’t mention anything about how many questions Fernando was able to answer. Maybe he handed in an empty paper. We don’t know. But of course, the temptation is to think something like, “Well, he must have answered some of the questions, because this is what students try to do.” However, this is again, just an assumption. It is a generalisation. In the extract, there is no information about whether Fernando knew any of the answers.

Statement 3: “Fernando hoped to pass the exam”
We have been given no information about whether Fernando hoped to pass this exam. If you think every person hopes to pass their exams, think again. It is a fact that some learners intentionally fail exams for various reasons. In some countries, military service is compulsory for men. Those who don’t want to fulfil this obligation sometimes fail their exams, so that they could continue to be a student and delay the process. Sometimes learners feel that handing in an empty paper is less embarrassing than submitting a paper with full of incorrect answers, so they deliberately don’t answer any questions. In addition, some learners simply don’t care about passing an exam, because it is not important for them. There are all kinds of scenarios possible. However, in the extract, there is no mentioning of Fernando’s hopes and intentions for this exam.

The only true statement here is number 4, “Fernando had much difficulty with the exam.” The supporting evidence is the second sentence in the extract, which is “Fernando found the exam very difficult.” These two statements are structured differently, but they convey the same message.

Now let’s go back to the question “What makes a distractor seem like the correct answer?” The answer is: It is the crafty wording of the questions and learners’ own beliefs and opinions. As Stephen Covey famously said, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are - or as we are conditioned to see it.” Material designers and examiners are aware of this fact. They know that many students treat opinions as facts. When you take an international exam, it becomes particularly important that you don’t mix the two.

An opinion is an expression of a person's feelings and thoughts that cannot be proven, whereas a fact is a statement which can be proven as true or false. For example, “Today is a sunny day,” is a fact. But you might associate sunny days with beautiful days and make the assumption that any sunny day is a beautiful day. But this would be an opinion. On the other hand, the statement “Jenny has a son called George,” is a fact. No opinion can change this. If we are not convinced, we can look at George’s birth certificate and see the evidence.

Sometimes you might choose the wrong answer not because of your skills and knowledge in English, but because of the assumptions that you make in a split second based on your own opinions and beliefs, which may have nothing to do with what the reading conveys. Sometimes you may also overlook the details. This is partly because of the time pressure and sometimes stress.

What is the solution?

Practice! Whenever you get these questions wrong, examine the answers carefully and read the explanations. Also practise noticing facts and opinions in your daily life. When you hear or read a statement, ask yourself if this is really a fact or an opinion.

Lastly, remember that passing an English exam has much to do with knowing what you are going to be tested on and being prepared for it. Research shows that even native English speakers don’t necessarily score high when they take the IELTS, especially if they are not very academic and not clear about what exactly they are being tested on. By the same token, if you don’t score well, don’t ever label yourself as “My English is not good,” like the sample question suggested. Practise more, improve your ability to analyse information objectively, and learn to distinguish facts from opinions.

Yesim Begen

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Posted in BLOG.