When approaching short Reading Comprehension passages on the GRE, you may ask yourself a very common question. “Should I read the question stem before reading the passage itself?” The answer is an emphatic, “no.” Let’s take a moment to explain the reasoning behind this recommendation.
Wasting Time on Passages
- Understanding the passage is the key to answering any question. Reading the question stem first tends to undermine your ability to fully comprehend the information in the passage. On easy questions, this distraction doesn’t tend to have a significant negative impact. On more difficult questions, however, students often have to read the passage twice in order to fully comprehend it. Thus, they waste valuable time. Literally, by reading the question stem first, you have to juggle two things at once! The question stem and the information in the passage. That’s a difficult task when under time constraints! The bottom line is that any viable strategy must be effective against questions at all difficulty levels. When you read the stem first, you cannot perform optimally. True, the approach works with the easy questions, but those could very likely be answered correctly regardless of the strategy you use.
- As we just went over, reading the question stem first often wastes valuable time! The typical student reads the stem, then the passage, and then the stem again. If you’re doing this for every single passage, you’re really taking up a lot you could utilize elsewhere! Unfortunately, there simply isn’t enough time to read every question stem twice.
Getting Ahead of Yourself
- Some stems refer to information the passage gives you or adds new conditions to it. So, reading the stem first is of little value if you’re not already aware of what it refers to. Often it can be confusing and distracting when you go to actually read the passage.
- On passages with two questions, reading one stem biases the reader to look for that specific information. This can possibly cause problems while doing the second question. Reading both stems is essentially impossible since questions are given one at a time.
- For truly knowledgeable test-takers, there are situations that arise where the question stem is fairly predictable. One easy example is with Resolve the Paradox questions. Usually, when you read the passage that accompanies these questions, they present an obvious paradox or discrepancy. Reading the question stem beforehand doesn’t add anything to what you would’ve known from just reading the passage.
The Question Stem Approach is Flawed
Finally, it strikes us that there is a flaw in one of the principles underlying the read-the-question-first approach. Many advocates claim that it helps the test-taker avoid the “harder” questions, such as Parallel Reasoning or Method of Reasoning. In our experience, and supported by test data, questions of any type can be hard or easy. Some Method of Reasoning questions are phenomenally easy whereas some Method of Reasoning questions are extremely difficult. In short, the question stem is a poor indicator of difficulty because question difficulty is more directly related to the complexity of the passage and the corresponding answer choices.
Understandably, reading the question stem before the passage sounds like a good idea at first, but for the majority of students, it’s a hindrance. Especially to those trying to score at the highest levels. Solid performance in Reading Comp depends on your ability to quickly comprehend complex argumentation. Don’t make it harder by reading the question stem first.