The Spookiest Test Question: What Terrifies Students the Most?

In the chilling ambiance of Halloween, here’s a spine-tingling question for educators and students: Which type of question sends shivers down the spines of students?

Hint #1: It’s a universal type of question that causes students to instantly sweat upon reading it.

Hint #2: This type of question haunts both undergraduate and graduate students throughout their academic journey.

Hint #3: Successfully tackling this type of question distinguishes top-performing students from the rest.

Dare to discover the eerie answer?

Answer: A question that asks students to pick the best response.

Such a question can terrify even the bravest. Imagine if the query simply stated, “Select the correct response.” or “Provide the accurate answer.” Students’ confidence would skyrocket. But replacing “correct” with “best”? That’s when panic sets in.

The distinction lies in the implications. Opting for the “right” answer suggests that students can sift through their mental archives to pinpoint the singular, definitive response. This recall-based effort is something most students have mastered by the time they step into college.

On the other hand, questions that nudge students towards the best response gauge their analytical and evaluative skills. Dive deeper into these skills with the videos included in this post.

In my upcoming book, How to Successfully Transition Students into College: From Traps to Triumph, I illustrate this scenario from two vantage points. Within the Cognitive Traps section, I shed light on the common pitfall of outcome confusion. Students might pour hours into rote learning. This practice might impress many but can inadvertently lure them into the Pseudowork Trap, resulting in subpar performance and high anxiety.

In the opening Structural Traps section, I outline strategies for educators to steer clear of the Division of Labor Trap. Here, I analyze Bryce’s journey – a student who initially believed his biology professor “sucked” but began to view her as an ally once he escaped his trap.

These students often find themselves in a quagmire, being tricked without the treats.

Below is a snapshot of how analytical and evaluative questions manifest in various courses:

Assessment Type Easier Spooky
Writing Assessment Pen a 5–7-page essay on Topic X. Craft a 3–5-page essay arguing the best stance considering Topic X’s scenario.
Multiple Choice Choose the correct answer. (Only one is right.) Opt for the best answer. (Most responses are relevant, but only one is supreme.)
Math-based The concept is known, leaving students to work through the computations. Identify the right concept first, then compute.
Theory-based Apply a single theory to a given prompt. Decide the best-fit theory from several before application.
Historical Recall historical facts and figures. Debate which historical element had the most profound impact on specific events.


Drawing from over two decades of data collection from educators and students, there’s a pattern: students typically ace the straightforward questions but falter when faced with the more challenging, or “spooky”, ones. The best solution isn’t found in working harder, studying longer or managing their time better. No, the optimal solution is to empower students to engage in the proper mental labor during their studying and preparation. If they do this, then the assessment will affirm their knowledge, rather than indict their character.

So, if you ever notice students glancing around during an exam as if they’ve seen ghosts, remember there’s a new remedy to help them ward off these phantoms. Grab a copy of How to Successfully Transition Students into College: From Traps to Triumph and set them free to thrive.

Learn more at:

Leave a thoughtful comment below and I’ll send you a PDF version of this article to share with your network.


  1. Lynn Dornink

    Great identification of another trap! First-year students often don’t understand that professors want them to “fake it till they make it” in analytical/interpretive assignments. In other words, they want students to have the confidence to join the academic conversation (even when they are novices). Claiming this kind of authority can be a big leap for students and, on top of that, professors don’t always explain that they are often more interested in the way something is argued/analyzed than the argument/analysis itself.

    • Leonard Geddes

      Well said. In addition, students must read the material with the proper thinking skills activated. When they do, they extract much more meaningful stuff, which translates into better work. As I like to say, “If they think well, they learn well, and they perform well.”


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Call Us Today 1-866-337-3030