Many students ask the question, "When doing short Reading Comprehension passages on the GRE, should I read the question stem before reading the passage itself?" The answer is an emphatic "No." However, we would like to take a moment to explain the reasoning behind this recommendation:
- Understanding the passage is the key to answering any question, and reading the question stem first tends to undermine the ability of students to fully comprehend the information in the passage. On easy questions this distraction tends not to have a significant negative impact, but on more difficult questions the student often is forced to read the passage twice in order to get full comprehension, thus wasting valuable time. Literally, by reading the question stem first, students are forced to juggle two things at once: the question stem and the information in the passage. That is a difficult task when under time pressure.
The bottom line is that any viable strategy must be effective against questions at all difficulty levels, but when you read the question stem first you cannot perform optimally. True, the approach works with the easy questions, but those questions could very likely have been answered correctly regardless of the strategy used.
- Reading the question stem first often wastes valuable time since the typical student will read the stem, then read the passage, and then read the stem again. Unfortunately, there simply is not enough time to read every question stem twice.
- Some question stems refer to information given in the passage, or add new conditions onto the passage information. Thus, reading the stem first is of little value and often confuses or distracts the student when they go to read the passage.
- On passages with two questions, reading one stem biases the reader to look for that specific information, possibly causing problems while doing the second question, and reading both stems is essentially impossible since the 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--and there are others--is with Resolve the Paradox questions. Usually, when you read the passage that accompanies these questions, an obvious paradox or discrepancy is presented. Reading the question stem beforehand does not add anything to what you would have known just from reading the passage.
- Finally, it strikes us that one of the principles underlying the read-the-question-first approach is flawed. Many advocates of the approach 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 we feel that for the majority of students (and especially those trying to score at the highest levels) the approach is a hindrance, not a help. Solid performance in Reading Comprehension depends on your ability to quickly comprehend complex argumentation. Do not make it harder by reading the question stem first.