I was first exposed to the advantages of the Quadrant Method while attending classes on Engineering. Our course included weekly quizzes. The quizzes were twenty-five question, multiple choice exams. The average of the weekly exams counted as 50% of the final grade. So doing well on the weekly quizzes was essential.
I handled the material well, but found myself always running short on time to complete the quiz. In Engineering and Math, each question may require numerous calculations to arrive at the correct answer. So a twenty-five question quiz can entail hundreds of steps.
On the fourth weekly quiz, we were given a problem for question number three that required twenty-seven calculations to complete. Being bull-headed, I plowed through the calculations, arrived at the correct answer, and found that I only had ten minutes left to answer the last twenty-two questions. I was the last to turn in my paper and barely passed the quiz.
I joined my classmates outside by the soda vending machine, who were collectively bitching about the toughness of the quiz. I overheard a conversation between Jonesy and another classmate, "If it wasn't for the Quadrant Method, I would never have finished that test."
Intrigued, I said, "What the hell is the Quadrant Method?"
"Simple," said Jonesy, "When you have a question that is too tough or will take too long, use the Quadrant Method to answer."
"Still, what is the Quadrant Method? And how does it work?"
"For the mechanics of the method," explained Jonesy, " you will require a wristwatch with a sweep second hand. I recommend the infallible Timex brand. Mentally divide the face of the watch into four sections, or quadrants. Assign the first quadrant as "A", the second as "B, etc. Wear the watch on your inner wrist, so you aren't looking at it during the test. Then when a bitch of a question comes up that will take too long to answer, turn your wrist over and use whichever quadrant the second hand is in to get your answer."
"Jonesy," I said, "there is no reason in the world that a random answer from your wristwatch will help you on the test."
Still, Jonesy and the other in-the-know students were insistent that the Quadrant Method really worked. I decided to give it a try at the next quiz.
Once again, there was a tough question in the middle of the quiz; one of those that required dozens of calculations (did I mention that calculators were not allowed?) to complete. After several minutes of work, I ran out of time to spend on that question. I used the Quadrant Method to give me a random answer. The rest of the exam was fairly easy, now that I had enough time to spend on the rest of the questions. For once, I completed the quiz without racing through the last few questions.
My score on this exam was the highest since the start of the class. Although empirical evidence showed the Quadrant Method produced results, I still felt it was not much more than a guessing game.
However, like many engineers, I go with what works; even if the mechanism is not clear. I continued to use the Quadrant Method throughout my courses.
The question remains, why did this simple technique improve my test scores? Recent research now shows what I believe to be the answer. A phenomena called "Decision Fatigue" has been shown to be a major influence in our daily lives. Put simply, we each have a set limit on how many decisions we can make before we get fatigued and start to behave randomly or follow the simplest path. Through the knowledge of the Decision Fatigue explanation, we can see that spending too much time working through a multi-stage problem exhausts the brain's ability to make decisions on later problems.
Another benefit is that the test taker, having predetermined that he will only spend a set amount of time on each question before using the Quadrant Method, is more effectively allocating his time. Spending too much time on one of the test questions will invariably result in running out of time for other questions.
In which cases should you NOT use the Quadrant Method?
Essay Questions cannot be answered this way. However, some tests are a combination of multiple choice and essay questions, and the Quadrant Method will ensure you have enough time to work on the essay section.
If you have to use the Quadrant Method on more than 10 to 15% of the questions, the Quadrant Method will not help. In this case, you are just guessing. This technique is primarily a time allocation method that the average B student can use to prevent getting stuck on certain questions.
If a multiple choice question contains one or more answers that can easily be eliminated, blind reliance on the Quadrant Method will probably give you a wrong answer. The Quadrant Method gives a 25% chance of getting the correct answer. If you can eliminate one of four answers by the process of elimination, your chances are now 33% that you will guess the right answer. If you can eliminate two incorrect answers, your chances are now 50%. In the cases where the probability of guessing is higher than 25%, you should not use the Quadrant Method.
A note about randomness.
Later in the course mentioned above, after successfully integrating the Quadrant Method into my test taking repertoire, we were given yet another of our weekly exams. I went through the questions, needing to use the Quadrant Method on only a few items. Upon finishing the exam, I found that 19 out of the 25 questions were answered with choice "C". Double checking of some of my "known good" C answers showed that I was fairly certain I had the right answers. A quick glance around the classroom showed several students with erasers in hand, changing their "C" answers to something else to make the answers more "random". As they erased, the instructor's grin increased. The sneaky bastard had set up a test with non-random answers to trip up the guessers! I left my answers as they were.
After the tests were graded, with a large portion of the class getting low grades, we went over the answers with the instructor. It was then he cheerfully told us, "We always set up one of the exams this way to bring the guessers' average down."
So here we have covered the mechanics of the Quadrant Method, the best way to implement it, and the times it should NOT be used. With this information, I hope your next multiple choice exam will prove to be easier.