Study Tip: How to Find the Hidden Bias in a Test


Life isn’t fair. Why should tests be?

Virtually all tests have have hidden biases. These biases aren’t usually large and most instructors will do their best to minimize it. However, knowing the bias of a test can be an added tool for allocating study time.

What is a Testing Bias?

Testing bias is when a test favors students who understand particular concepts or have particular types of knowledge. An example would be a test that is all definitions. This obviously benefits students who understand the word associations and their meanings. Knowing how different concepts can be applied in real life wouldn’t be as relevant on such a test.

Sometimes testing bias is intentional. Test creators will format the test so it evaluates the knowledge they want you to have. This is the best type of bias to look out for because it will probably continue into the future. The examiner who wants you to know definitions above all else will continue placing that bias into future tests.

Sometimes the bias is a by-product of something else. Multiple-choice tests tend to evaluate certain types of understandings more strongly than essay-response tests. Information in a particular format may be difficult to test, so the test makers may bias the test towards concepts that are easier to evaluate.

What to Look Out For

Here are some things to keep in mind when try to find the bias of a test:

  1. Memorization Versus Understanding. Does the test value students who can recite specific definitions and facts? Or does it value a comprehensive understanding more than memorized elements?
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  3. Narrow Versus Broad. Does the test value students who can apply information within a narrow context or a broad one? The difference might mean emphasizing study time on specific, practical questions or spending more time thinking about different ways to use the information.
  4. Agreement Versus Quality. If the test has a subjective marking component, does the marker tend to value agreement with stated opinions or original thought? Some markers only want to hear reflections of their stated opinions. Others want you to write something thought provoking. Know the difference.
  5. Average Versus Extreme. What is the standard deviation of grades? Is virtually the same mark given for “showing effort” or are the mark differences high? When a lot of extra effort won’t yield better grades, save your time and invest it where time matters.
  6. Hinting Versus Tricking. Some tests will hint towards the correct answer in the question. Usually this isn’t obvious, but it can come from using words that might cause you to consider the correct choice. Other tests try to avoid this by doing the opposite – intentionally putting in leading words to throw you off-course. This bias can be helpful in evaluating your intuition.

Those are just a few of the many different biases a test can have. Keep in mind that these biases are usually mild. They should serve as a guide for where you can emphasize study time, but can’t be used as a blueprint to ace a test you know nothing about (in most cases, at least).


How to Find a Testing Bias

Now that you have a few ideas for what to look for, here are some places you can use to start devising a studying strategy:

  1. Past Tests. These are the goldmine of searching for testing bias. Scan through them and any answer keys provided. Not only can they give you generalized biases the test might have (as mentioned above) but also content biases. What specific information is tested repeatedly and what is rarely tested?
  2. Course Outlines. Usually the course will have a broad description of the purpose and evaluation methods of the course. This can be a starting point to uncover any potential biases.
  3. Talk to Past Students. Other students will have a good feel for what kind of biases a test demonstrated, even if they didn’t prepare for it themselves. Get a feel for what kind of questions were asked and where emphasis was placed. Warning: If you are going to use this approach, make sure you ask several students from different periods, otherwise you might be led to believe a test is biased when it was just randomness from that particular version or student.
  4. Ask Your Professor. I don’t find this to be as useful as asking past students. It can reveal any intentional biases, but often neglects the unintentional biases because of testing method. But asking professors can be useful for getting information about what is important and what is not.

Don’t Obsess About Testing Bias, But Don’t Ignore It


Trying to find the testing bias won’t help you if you don’t know anything. Simply use it as a tool to allocate study time. If you realize there is a heavy memorization bias, spend more time with memorization techniques than exploring background concepts. It can also be used in-test when making decisions between several options. If the test has a hinting bias, you can feel more comfortable using your intuition when you aren’t sure.

That warning said, testing bias does matter. Although I never intentionally go into a test without knowing the subject, I have done few extra-curricular exams that I wasn’t aware I needed to write before the test date. By searching for the testing bias I was able to score high despite not fully understanding many of the concepts covered.

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