Should You Check Your Answers During Tests?

Should you allocate time for checking your answers during important tests? I will use AMC 10/12 as an example, but you can adjust the calculations for any other test.

AMC 10/12 is a math competition that asks 25 multiple-choice questions that you need to solve in 75 minutes. You get 6 points for a correct answer, 1.5 points for an unanswered question and 0 points for a wrong answer.

Whether or not to take time to check your answers depends on you and the situation. If you finished your test and have some time left over, then surely you should use the extra time for checking your answers. If you only have three minutes left and your next problems are too complex to be dealt with in that time, then it is logical to use these moments to check back.

Sometimes, though, it isn’t worth it to check your answers. If you haven’t finished the test, but are a super-accurate person and never make mistakes, then it is better to continue working on the next problem than to waste time checking your correct answers. Also, if you rarely catch your own mistakes anyway, it doesn’t make sense to check.

But things are not usually so clear. By the end of the test, most people need to make a decision: continue working through the problems or use the final moments to check the answers? How can you best decide if you should allocate time for checking and, if so, how much time?

The problems in AMC tests increase in difficulty. I suggest that each time you take the test or practice for AMC, take note of two things. How long did it take you to solve the test’s last problem and what is the level of your accuracy for it. Suppose you know that at the end of the AMC test you can solve a problem in about 10 minutes and it is correct about 90% of the time. That means that investing the last ten minutes in solving the next problem will give you on average 5.4 points. If you remember that a blank answer gives you 1.5 points, you should realize that solving the last problem increases your score by 3.9 points. If you are very accurate, your score can increase more, but not more than 4.5 points.

Try conducting the following experiment. Take an AMC test from a past year. Do it for 65 minutes — the time of the test minus the time you need for that last problem. Then spend the last 10 minutes checking and correcting your answers. Now let us calculate how profitable that would be. Compare the scores you would have gotten without your corrections and with your corrections. If checking increases your score by more than 3.9 points, it is more profitable to check than to solve the next problem. If you do not make errors when you’re trying to make corrections, the rule of thumb is that correcting one mistake is better than solving one problem. Indeed, your score increases by 6 points if you correct a mistake, and by not more than 4.5 points if you solve the next problem.

On all tests that punish wrong answers, correcting an error produces more points than solving a new question.

If you find that checking is profitable, but you can’t check all the problems in ten minutes, you should consider allocating more time. Keep in mind, though, that you should adjust the sample calculation above for the last two problems. Remember, the next to the last problem is generally easier than the last problem. So if it takes you ten minutes to solve the last problem in the test, it most probably will take you less than twenty minutes to solve the last two. Also, since the difficulty increases throughout the test, the accuracy of the second to last problem might be better than the accuracy of the last problem. In addition, the first ten minutes that you check may be more productive than the next ten minutes of checking. So if you wonder if you should forgo the last two problems in order to check your earlier work, you have to redo the experiment anew, measuring both how long it takes you to solve those two problems and the benefits of checking.

This discussion can potentially help you to increase your score. However, there are other strategic considerations to weigh when deciding whether or not to check your work. For example, if the number of mistakes in your tests varies and sometimes you are 100% accurate and you are one problem away from your goal to get to AIME, it is more profitable to go for the last problem and hope for the best. I will discuss the strategic considerations for AMC some other time.

2 Comments

  1. Jonathan:

    Fascinating. On a many-question test of MY skills, I almost never checked my answers. On a 1 or 2 question test, or when preparing a single number or small group of numbers for a superior or customer* (not really a customer, but same idea), then I checked.

    I always thought it was strange of me, but you easily convinced me that it’s just good strategy.

  2. mark p.s.2:

    As another guide to know when to stop checking for error, read this article. Where science of finding the correct answer endpoint meets creative art . “I have to decide that it’s finished. Read again: it isn’t actually finished, I have to decide it’s finished.”
    http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2009/12/how_to_create_motivation_for_2.html#more