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Preparing for the Verbal Reasoning Measure


Video duration: 43:20

THOMAS PEARSON: Hello. My name is Tom Pearson, and I'm an Assessment Specialist at Educational Testing Service. I work on the Verbal Reasoning measure of the GRE® General Test, and I'll be helping you prepare for the Verbal Reasoning measure.

So, let's take a look at what we'll cover in this session. First, we'll take a big-picture look at the Verbal Reasoning measure in an introductory section. Then we'll look at some specific question types and strategies for answering those question types. Then we'll look at some general strategies as they relate to the Verbal Reasoning measure as a whole. And finally, we'll look at some GRE resources that are available to you in your preparation for the test.

Let's begin with an Introduction to the Verbal Reasoning measure. What is the verbal section of the test trying to measure? Well, it is a test of verbal reasoning, and as such, it's assessing your ability to analyze and evaluate written material and synthesize information from it, to analyze relationships among different parts of sentences, and to recognize relationships among words and among concepts. Now, that all sounds pretty abstract, but we'll dig deeper into all these skills as we go along.

So the Verbal Reasoning measure itself is a computer-delivered test, which contains two 30-minute sections, and each section has 20 questions. And there are three basic question types. There are reading comprehension sets, in which you have a reading passage and questions associated with that passage. There are text completion questions, in which you're presented with one or more sentences in which a word or phrase has been blanked, and you need to fill in the blank given the logic of the sentence. And then there are sentence equivalence questions-- a single sentence, in which a word is blank, and you are asked to complete the blank with two words that make sense in context and produce sentences that are alike in meaning.

So, we'll look at all these question types as we go through the session.

I want to talk a little bit about the content of the verbal test in terms of the actual reading material that you will encounter. So, we're not testing content knowledge as such, but the reading material we present to test takers has to be about something, obviously. It has to have content.

Now, our test specifications call for reading material from different content areas, given that our test takers have varied interests and backgrounds. And to accommodate the different interests and backgrounds of the test-taking population, there will be a balance of reading material across the natural sciences-- physical science, biology; across the social sciences-- history, politics, sociology; and across the humanities-- literature, philosophy, art. So, you'll encounter a range of material throughout the verbal measure, and no specific knowledge of any subject is required.

Let's look at how the Verbal Reasoning measure of the computer-delivered test is scored. The Verbal Reasoning measure of the computer-delivered test is a section-level adaptive test. Now, what do we mean by that? Well, the computer selects the second section of your test based upon your performance on the first section. Remember now, there are two sections. The first section for all test takers in a given administration is the same. We think of that as a routing section.

And depending on your performance on that first section, you're routed to either a harder or easier second section. Now, within each section, all questions contribute equally to the final score. So, it's important to do your very best on both sections and on every question within each section. Both sections are important, since the final score of your verbal measure will be based upon the total number of correct answers and the difficulty level of the questions.

Now, your score on the Verbal Reasoning measure is based on both sections of the measure. And it considers the number of right answers, as well as the difficulty level of the questions that you encountered. First, a raw score is computed, and that raw score is simply the number of questions that you answered correctly.

Then the raw score is converted to a scaled score through a process known as equating. So, the equating process accounts for slight variations in difficulty among different test editions, as well as differences in difficulty among individuals' tests, because of the section-level adaptation that we discussed in the previous screen. So, a given scaled score reflects the same level of performance, regardless of which section was selected, and regardless of when you take your test.

So that's a brief introduction to the verbal measure. Let's now turn to specific question types and strategies for answering those question types. So, as I mentioned in an earlier slide, there are three basic question types in the Verbal Reasoning measure. There are reading comprehension sets, text completion questions, and sentence equivalence questions. And we're going to work our way through all three of these types.

Now, as a rule of thumb, about half of your questions will be reading comprehension questions, questions that are associated with the reading passage of some kind. And about half will be a combination of text completion questions and sentence equivalence questions.

Let's begin by looking at reading comprehension sets. Now, most of you are probably at least somewhat familiar with reading comprehension sets of questions. These consist of a passage, a reading passage of some kind, and one or more questions based upon the passage. These require you to read and to understand what is being read. That's pretty fundamental in a verbal reasoning test.

And the questions are geared toward assessing your ability to recognize the primary purpose or main idea of a passage, sort of big-picture questions. There are also questions asking about specific points that are being made in the passage, questions that could ask you about assumptions that the author of the passage is making based upon what's presented to you, questions about inferences and implications based on the passage. There also can be questions that ask you to evaluate the purpose and the structure of the passage. What is the author doing in the second paragraph, or why does the author organize the passage in such and such a way?

So as this list of skills implies, the reading comprehension questions require the reader to actively engage with the text, to read actively, critically, analytically. These are all skills that would be essential for you in a graduate program. And as a final point, remember that each reading passage contains all the information you need to answer the questions that follow. So, if you encounter a reading passage in an unfamiliar subject area, don't panic. Just hang in there, read carefully, and you can work out the answers to the questions.

Now, reading comprehension passages come in three basic formats. There are multiple-choice questions, in which you select one answer choice. You're presented with five options, five possible answer choices. And your task is to choose the correct one and only one. There are also multiple-choice questions in which you select one or more answer choices.

With these, you're presented with three possible answer choices. And you choose all that apply. It could be one. It could be two. It could be all three. And there's also what we call a select in passage question format, in which you choose the sentence in the passage that fits a particular description.

So, we'll look at examples of each of these in the next few slides. So here is a reading comprehension passage with a question, a multiple choice, select one answer choice question. Let's look a little at the passage itself. It's fairly short, one paragraph-- so on the shorter side for a passage in the GRE verbal measure. Passages are typically one paragraph, maybe two or more.

This passage is about an American composer by the name of Philip Glass. Again, if you've never heard of Philip Glass and you don't know a thing about 20th-century American classical music, don't worry. Don't panic. Everything you need to know to answer the questions will be provided in the passage.

That doesn't mean, however, that it's light reading or easy reading. It's a pretty dense and sophisticated piece of writing if you look at the passage as a whole. I'm not going to read it word for word, but it presents a pretty strong claim about Philip Glass in the first sentence. It's about Glass and his relationship to popular music.

It then goes on to provide some evidence to develop the argument, to qualify the argument, to refine the argument as the author makes his case regarding Philip Glass and his relationship to popular music. So, it's short, but it's sophisticated, dense, argumentative prose. It's the kind of writing that you would typically encounter in a graduate school experience.

So, there's the passage on the left. And now let's look at the question over in the right-hand side of the screen. So, this is a multiple choice, single selection question type. There's a question based on the passage and five different answer choices. And your task is to choose the single response that is the correct answer.

So here is the question with the answer choice selected. It's the fifth answer choice. Pretty straightforward. Notice on the right-hand pane towards the bottom, we tell you to select one answer choice. We try to give you as much instruction as we can, telling you how to respond to these various question types.

So here we have the second question format, the multiple choice, select one or more answer choice question. So here you're asked to consider each of the choices separately and select all that apply. So in other words, you have to evaluate each answer choice independently on its own terms and decide if that choice answers the question correctly. It could be one of the choices. It could be two out of three. It could be all three. You'd have to evaluate each one on its own terms.

So we give you very clear instructions at the top. Consider each of the choices separately and select all that apply. Again, at the bottom, we tell you to select one or more answer choices. Also notice that the answer choices are marked with a square box rather than an oval. So, there's a little visual clue for you indicating that you're in this multiple choice, multiple selection item format.

So here is the question with the correct answer choices selected. In this case, it's the first and the third answer choice. One thing to bear in mind-- there's no partial credit with this question type. If the correct response is the first and the third answer choice, as it is here, you have to pick those two and only those two to have the question scored as a correct response.

And now for something a little different, here we have an example of the select in passage question format. So here the task is to select a sentence in the passage that fits a certain description. So over on the right-hand side, you're told to select the sentence that distinguishes two ways of integrating rock and classical music.

And then at the bottom, you are told to select a sentence in the passage. And in between here is a lot of white space. There are no answer choices on the right-hand side of the pane. That's because the answer choices are the sentences in the passage itself. So, you have to select the sentence in the passage that fits the description you're presented with.

Select the sentence that distinguishes two ways of integrating rock and classical music. So here is the same question with the correct answer choice selected. It's the final sentence of the passage.

So, these are pretty straightforward once you're familiar with the item format. But you do want to become familiar with the item format before you take the test. We get a lot of inquiries from test takers about this item format, in which the test taker will complain that, hey, there's something wrong with the question. There are no answer choices being presented to me.

Well, if you look at the right-hand side of the screen, there are no answer choices there. That's because the answer choices are the sentences in the passage itself. So, once you understand how these work, pretty straightforward. But you do want to become familiar with this item format before you take the test.

Now, you want to remember that all the information that you need to answer the questions is in the passage. We're not testing subject matter knowledge. So even with unfamiliar material-- again, Philip Glass-- maybe you've never heard of Philip Glass. Don't worry about it. Just take a deep breath. With some work and some careful reading, the questions can be answered. The information necessary to answer the questions is all there in the passage.

Now, when you're practicing for the test, try to work out a practice method and approach that works for you-- whether to read the passage thoroughly first before engaging with the questions, whether to skim the passage, give it a quick read and then take a look at the questions. And of course, the test is delivered in such a way that you can look at the questions themselves and then go back and read the passage again and take a second look at the questions. You can go forward and backwards within a particular section of the test. So, it's perfectly reasonable for you to skim the passage, then take a look at all the questions to get a sense of really what you need to focus in on, and then go back and answer the questions individually and in order-- so whatever method works for you as you're practicing.

Now, when answering reading comprehension questions, you should make sure that you understand what the question is asking. Now, that may seem blindingly obvious. But in the pressurized situation of a timed exam, it may not necessarily be the case. You need to slow down, take a deep breath, carefully read the question, and make sure you understand what you're being asked to do. Make sure you understand what the task at hand actually is.

Answer on the basis of what the passage says, and don't rely on outside knowledge. Sometimes your own views or opinions or ideas may not be in agreement with those presented in the passage. And if that is the case, be careful always to work within the context of the passage and what the passage is saying. And we always try to be very careful in our phrasing of the questions, so as to say, according to the passage, or it can be inferred from the passage. We're always trying to steer you towards the passage and not towards your own outside knowledge, whatever that may be.

Be sure not to select an answer simply because it is a true statement. And don't select an answer that may be only partially correct. For instance, we ask questions about the main idea of the passage. What's the main idea of the passage? Well, there may be an answer choice that does present an idea that's discussed in the passage, but it may not be the main idea of the passage as a whole. It may be a secondary idea or a secondary point of some kind.

So, you want to read through all the option choices. Make sure you're considering each one. Don't select an answer that is only partially true or partially correct, based upon the passage.

Let's continue with strategies for answering reading comprehension questions. The first bullet point has to do with answering main idea questions. I addressed this on the previous slide. I got a little bit ahead of myself. But the advice hasn't changed any. When answering main idea questions, make sure that you're selecting an answer choice that identifies the main idea rather than a subsidiary or secondary one.

When identifying what the passage says explicitly, you should be able to pick out a specific portion of the passage that supports your answer choice. A question might ask, according to the passage, which of the following is a true statement about X? So, you should be able to go into the passage and find a relevant statement that supports your answer choice.

We also have questions that get at inferences and implications, what the passage says implicitly. So here you should not be limited by what is stated explicitly but be open to inferences and implications based upon the argument. However, you should not substitute your own ideas or interpretations. You should stick reasonably close to what the author is committed to, based upon the passage.

Let's turn from reading comprehension questions to another question type, that being the text completion question. So, what are these all about? The text completion questions consist of one or more sentences with one to three blanks. Something has been omitted from the sentence. The answer choices consist of alternatives for filling the blanks.

The answer choices are independent, in the sense that you make a choice for blank one, another choice for blank two, another choice for blank three. Each is a separate choice. You have to get all of them correct to get credit. There's no partial credit with this question type.

And basically, these questions require you to understand the meaning of the sentences as a whole, and by analyzing what's there, what you're presented with, and by looking at the relationships among the various part of these sentences, to select the most appropriate word or words to fill in the blanks. So what word or words fits logically in each of the blanks?

So here is an example of a text completion question. This is a fairly long example. It's a three-blank text completion question. And the little passage consists of two fairly long, complex sentences.

I'm not going to read the whole thing for you, but it has to do with a book. And the book is about how human activities affect the planet. So, you've got some information here that is blanked. And your task is to select the word or phrase for each blank that fits logically in the sentence as a whole and creates a coherent and meaningful piece of writing.

So here's that same question with the correct answer choices selected-- one selection for blank one, another for blank two, and another for blank three. Notice we give you clear and explicit instructions toward the top of the screen in the gray box and again at the bottom of the screen in the gray box, telling you clearly and explicitly how to make your selections for each blank. Now, as you're tackling these things logically, keep in mind that you don't have to make a selection for the blanks in order. You don't have to select an answer for blank one and then proceed to blank two and then proceed to blank three. You can attack these in any order that makes sense for you, in any order that works.

So, let's look at the first blank of this three-blank text completion. It is refreshing to read a book about our planet by an author who does not allow facts to be blank by politics. And the answer choices are overshadowed, invalidated, and illuminated. Now, these are all at least somewhat plausible responses. And you may not be able to really decide on what the correct choice is for that blank.

So, you're perfectly free to move to blank two and try to answer that, or to move on to blank three and try to answer that, and then work your way back and fill in the earlier blanks based upon what you've already determined to be the correct response for blank three. So, in other words, the blanks logically are interdependent with one another. And once you get one blank answered, the other blanks should start to fall in line a little more easily.

Some general strategies for answering text completion questions. You should by all means read the passage, get an overall sense of it, make a mental map of what is going on and what is being said. You should identify words or phrases that seem particularly significant, especially words or phrases that reveal the logic of the sentences. You might want to fill in the blanks with your own words and then find answer choices that match.

Next bullet point-- this is very important, and we looked at an example on the previous screen-- focus on whichever blank seems easiest to complete. You don't have to fill in the first blank first off. If the second blank or the third blank is your way into the text completion task, then by all means, start with that blank and work your way out from there. Once you've made an answer choice for each of the blanks, reread the whole passage. Make sure it makes sense. Make sure it's a logical, coherent whole.

When filling in the blanks, you should ask yourself, should the word be similar to or contrasted with a nearby word in the passage? Is it continuing logically with what's gone on before? Or is it pivoting in a different direction, providing some kind of a contrast with what's preceding the blank? Similarly, should the word have a positive or negative character?

Now we're going to turn to the sentence equivalence question type and see what these are all about. The sentence equivalence question consists of a single sentence with one blank and six answer choices. And your job as a test taker is to find two answer choices that complete the sentence coherently, logically, and also produce sentences that are alike in meaning. So, your task has two parts.

So here is a sample sentence equivalence question, a single sentence. And there's a blank, one blank, at the end of the sentence and six answer choices here consisting of a single word. Sometimes the answer choices could consist of phrases. More often than not, though, it's a single word. We try to give you very clear and explicit directions, both at the top of the screen in the gray box and at the bottom of the screen, telling you to select the two answer choices that, when used to complete the sentence, fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole and produce completed sentences that are alike in meaning.

So, there is your two-part task with the sentence equivalence questions. There's nothing stopping you from selecting six answer choices or three answer choices or only one answer choice. There's no alarm bell that's going to sound off if you do. But you have to select the two and only two correct choices in the sentence equivalence question type.

So here is our sample sentence equivalence question with the correct answer choices selected. This sentence is pretty short, so I can read it for you. “The macro molecule RNA is common to all living beings. And DNA, which is found in all organisms except some bacteria, is almost as blank.” So, to fill the blank, you're looking for something similar in meaning to common to all, which is how RNA is described. And the correct answer choices are universal and ubiquitous.

Again, notice that the answer choices are marked with a square box, indicating that you're selecting more than one answer choice. And there's no partial credit with these. You have to select the two correct answer choices and only those two choices to get this scored as a right answer.

Let's look at some strategies for answering sentence equivalence questions. Now, some of these strategies are going to sound very familiar. That's because we've seen them previously with reading comprehension and with text completions. Some of these are just basic verbal reasoning test-taking strategies that apply across the board. So, you should, as always, read the sentence, get an overall sense of what is going on, identify words or phrases that seem significant, especially those words or phrases that point to the underlying logic of the sentence.

With these, you might want to try to fill in the blank with your own words. And then look at the answer choices and see if there's an answer choice that matches how you filled the blank. And by all means, after selecting your choices, after making your answers, you want to reread the two completed sentences to be sure that they both make sense and that they both say more or less the same thing.

You shouldn't assume that if two of the answer choices have the same meaning, that they are the correct answer. In other words, you can't just look at the options and find synonyms without grappling with the logic of the sentence because the answer choices, the set of words or phrases presented to you, will often contain words that just don't fit the logic of the sentence. So, you can't just pick two synonyms and assume that those are the correct answer choices.

Now, the two correct answer choices themselves do not have to have exactly the same meaning. They may not strictly speaking be exact synonyms, but they're going to be pretty close in meaning because the two sentences that are created with those two choices have to be similar in meaning. But they don't have to be exact synonyms, and that's important to keep in mind. Now, when filling the blank, you should ask yourself, should the word be similar to or contrasted with the nearby word or phrase in the passage? And similarly, should the word have a positive or a negative character, given the overall logic of the sentence?

Now let's look at some general strategies for the Verbal Reasoning measure as a whole. You should, of course, become familiar with the item formats and directions before you take the test. I've touched on this in some earlier screens with regard to the sentence equivalence item type and the select in passage item type, where you actually go into the passage and click on a sentence that fits a certain description. You want to be familiar with those question formats before you take the test so you don't waste precious time trying to figure out how these question formats work.

You want to try to answer every question. There's no penalty for guessing. So, it's to your benefit to try and answer every question. And every question does count towards your final score.

Read each question thoroughly. I touched on that earlier. Make sure you understand what you're being asked to do, what the task is. Make notes, if that's useful for you. Use your scratch paper.

Read all the answer choices before answering. Don't just glance at the first one. And that might seem appealing at first glance, but that may or may not be the correct answer choice. Make sure you read all the answer choices and pick the best answer choice for that question. And use any knowledge you may have that can help you figure out answers to unfamiliar questions.

You want to be aware of the time. Don't obsess over the time. But every now and then, check in with how much time you have left and how many questions you have left to answer. Make sure you're on track for finishing the section in time. And use the Review screen. The Review screen can be a useful tool. I'm not going to go into that in any depth in this presentation but become familiar with that before you take the test-- how it works, what the functionality is with the Review screen, and how you can use that to your advantage.

Some other points to remember as you start preparing for the Verbal Reasoning measure-- try to get a good awareness of your strengths and weaknesses as a reader, as someone engaged in verbal reasoning. And you want to set realistic goals. It's important to keep in mind that verbal reasoning is a skill that's developed over very long periods of time. So, it's really hard to cram for the test. You can't really cram for the Verbal Reasoning test. Verbal reasoning's a skill that you developed over many years of reading challenging material.

But you can at the very least become familiar with the item formats, the different item types. And you can improve if you allow enough time for improvement to occur. You want to start early and work regularly. Essentially, you want to take courses or to engage in a course of study that includes complex reading material, that includes reading material that a graduate student in a graduate course of study would typically encounter.

People often ask us where they can find GRE-level reading materials. And with that question in mind, let's remind ourselves what a GRE reading passage is trying to do. We're testing verbal reasoning at a high level, a sophisticated level, a graduate school level. And as such, our reading comprehension passages are testing test takers' ability to identify a primary purpose or main idea of a passage, to identify specific points made in a passage, to recognize assumptions, to draw inferences and conclusions based on the passage, and to evaluate a passage's logical structure and rhetoric. In order to support questions along these lines, and that assess these skills, our reading comprehension passages have to be logically and rhetorically complex. So, they're not merely a collection of facts or assertions. But they are generally logically and rhetorically complex, argumentative pieces of writing.

So, in your preparation, you should be looking for reading material in which there is an argument being presented, an argument that's supported by reasoning and/or evidence of some kind. A point of view is being advanced based on research. Other positions, other points of view may be considered and evaluated and dismissed.

Where can you find this kind of writing, this kind of argumentative writing? Well, a variety of places. Specialized academic journals are good places to find such writing. Articles in periodicals, such as The New York Times, The Economist, Scientific American is a good source, London Review of Books and other kinds of book reviews, in which a book may be under consideration, being evaluated and discussed. Another good source are trade books by academic specialists or journalists that are addressed to a general audience. Basically, anything that's presenting an argument supported by reasoning and evidence of some kind. In general, textbooks, popular periodicals, don't have the kind of rhetorical complexity and argumentative complexity that are typically found in a GRE reading passage.

You might consider asking a professor at your undergraduate institution for graduate-level reading material. See if they have any recommendations along those lines. And another useful possible resource are study groups, in which you discuss a challenging reading passage, take it apart, see how it works. That sort of thing can be a useful study resource as well.

We also have a number of different resources for the GRE test on, so let's take a look at some of those. If you go to the GRE website, there's a very detailed, comprehensive overview of all three measures on the test-- Verbal Reasoning, as well as Quantitative Reasoning and Analytical Writing. There is detailed information on the question types that are included in the test. There are sample questions, along with explanations that explain the right answer and why it's the correct answer.

There's general advice. General test-taking strategies are presented. There's also a more detailed discussion of how to find GRE-level reading materials for your practice. So, take a look at those and go out and find passages along those lines as you begin your course of study for the verbal measure. But the GRE website is a great resource, very comprehensive, all kinds of information. All the information I've presented to you today is discussed in very useful detail.

So here is a link to the official GRE website which I've been discussing. Like I say, it's got all kinds of very useful, very comprehensive information and explanations of the test, what the test is all about. It also includes policy information, test dates and locations, important information along those lines. So a great resource. Also, links to a couple of websites, which are easy-to-use sites, designed specifically for test takers. And these include quick summaries, helpful guidance, and some useful tips and suggestions on how to get started in your preparation.

So that's the end of my presentation on the verbal section of the test. I hope it's been useful for you. And I wish you the best of luck as you prepare for the Verbal Reasoning measure.