August 21, 2013

Using SWAG to Answer Exam Questions

Written by  Russell Bowen

Taking a certification exam is hard work. No doubt about it!  Long hours of heavy concentration staring at a computer. Answering questions on a wide variety of subjects. Tough questions. It seems as if the certifying board wants the candidate to be an expert on business, chemistry, statistics, biology, toxicology, radiation, and a host of other subjects all rolled into one. We sometimes ask ourselves "how does anyone ever pass one of these exams?"

What I've learned over the the years is that good preparation helps quite a bit. While there are going to be a few exam questions that extend deep into the depths of specific subjects, most of the problems relate to fundamental ideas. A firm understanding of the fundamental concepts of each rubric is essential in passing the exam. That is all good, but is there anything we can do to answer those questions that are really out there?

Let me introduce the SWAG (or scientific wild apple guess). Another name for the SWAG may be the gut instinct or intuition. The SWAG has been around for centuries and in many ways it can be quite useful. There is actually some science behind the SWAG.

I recently read about a psychology experiment called the weather prediction model. In this experiment, participants were given clue cards to predict the weather. There were four cards and each had a unique pattern. The cards related to physical probabilistic realities of the weather, but the relationship between the cards and weather was extremely complex. Each subject was shown four cards and asked to predict the weather. Then, they were told whether their prediction was correct or not. After just fifty trials, participants could correctly predict the weather 70% of the time, but the participants had no idea of the reasoning behind their predictions. They were guessing.

This experiment has been repeated a number of times with different models and it is pretty certain that we are able to learn many complex systems without knowing an explicit explanation. This leads me to believe that maybe the thought of intuition or the SWAG may not be unreasonable. While I don't think we should rely on SWAG for most decisions in life, I think it is reasonable to use this method to answer the more difficult questions on the certification exam.

If you are taking an exam and you don't really know the answer to a question, then just take a SWAG at it and move to the next question. There is a reasonable probability that your professional experience will carry you through.


Reference: "Probabilistic Classification Learning in Amnesia." Knowlton BJ, Squire LR, Gluck MA. Learn Mem. 1994 Jul-Aug; 1(2) 106-20

Read 4929 times Updated on August 21, 2013