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Using Prior Knowledge and Logic to Beat the TOEFL Clock

On the TOEFL, time is not your friend. One of the biggest eaters of time on the TOEFL is multiple choice questions. It’s best if you can check every answer choice carefully. If time allows, you should compare every choice to the reading, or to your listening notes. But what if you are not answering the questions as quickly as you need to? What if it’s taking you too long to carefully check each choice? Sometimes you can use your own prior knowledge to choose correct answers more quickly.

By “prior knowledge,” I mean the knowledge you already have about the topic of a TOEFL reading or lecture. TOEFL readings and lectures cover very general academic topics. TOEFL questions on these topics ask you about basic topical information. Sometimes the information is so basic that you may already know it.

In some cases, this basic knowledge of yours will allow you to know if answer is correct or incorrect almost instantly. Below is a TOEFL question where two of the answers simply aren’t true, according to scientific facts that you probably already know:

Paragraph 1:

Most people consider the landscape to be unchanging, but Earth is a dynamic body, and its surface is continually altering—slowly on the human time scale, but relatively rapidly when compared to the great age of Earth (about 4,500 billion years). There are two principal influences that shape the terrain: constructive processes such as uplift, which create new landscape features, and destructive forces such as erosion, which gradually wear away exposed landforms.

1. According to paragraph 1, which of the following statements is true of changes in Earth’s landscape?

( ) They occur more often by uplift than by erosion.

( ) They occur only at special times.

( ) They occur less frequently now than they once did.

( ) They occur quickly in geological terms.

     (This question is from The Official Guide to the TOEFL Test.)

You can make an educated guess that the first answer is wrong, as long as you understand the key vocabulary. Erosion refers to landscape changes caused by the constant movement of water, wind, and other things in the environment. Uplift means unusual events that create mountains and hills, such as giant volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and collisions between the plates of the earth’s surface. Basic knowledge of the world tells you that uplift happens less often than erosion.

You can also rule out the second answer with basic prior knowledge of science. You probably already know that wind and moving water change the Earth’s landscape. Just through common sense, you can know that wind and water are always moving. So the Earth’s landscape must be always changing, not just changing at “special times.” Even if you don’t have time to check the reading passage, you can guess that this answer is probably also wrong.

From there, you only need to check the last two answers against the text. A quick scan of the text should show you that the fourth answer is the correct one.

If possible, you should compare all multiple choice answers directly to your reading or notes. But it’s probably not possible to pace yourself perfectly on every TOEFL task. When you’re short on time, the knowledge you need may already be in your head.


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