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Anna Greathead: Reasoning Abstract Reasoning

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Anna Greathead
2 April 2018


I was working with two colleagues (one who had the same role as me and another who was there to assist with admin) at an independent sixth form college preparing aspiring medics and dentists to take their UKCAT – an aptitude test used for applications to medicine and dentistry in the majority of UK universities. One section of this exam is Abstract Reasoning. I've attached a picture of an Abstract Reasoning question for reference. 


Abstract Reasoning for UKCAT


This was the second day of a three-day course and, unlike the other two days, took place in a sports hall. We had around 50 year-12 students in the hall and had deliberately opted for no furniture – the students were sat in groups on the floor. We sat on the floor. We wanted to engage the students in a non-lecture style preparation for their UKCAT.


We wanted the students to write Abstract Reasoning questions (essentially pattern spotting) as our experience was that once you had created some of these questions it was much easier to spot the patterns in other questions.


1. Source very large blank templates. We wanted these to be A1 size and laminated so that the students could work in groups and then the sheets could be wiped clean for reuse.

2. Group the students into 5s. There were two teams with 5 groups each. Each group had a template and a marker pen and a rag for erasing any errors

3. Remind the students of the pattern they were trying to create – six pictures in Set A which all follow a rule, and six pictures in Set B which all follow a different rule. The sets should be similar enough so that spotting the rule would not be immediate, but the rule should be distinct enough that once spotted it was inarguable.

4. Set a time limit of ten minutes

5. Get groups to swap their sheets with another group on the opposite team. If they spot the rule they get a point, if they don’t – you get a point.


The students were noisy! This was not a problem in itself as part of the reasoning behind the sports hall day was to enable different atmosphere but it made crowd control tricky!

The students started slowly. Even though they were in groups of peers they were reluctant to ‘take the lead’ and get something started. This resulted in us having to extend the time.

The students wrote patterns which were far too complex. One group created a pattern featuring 70+ asterixis in each picture – the rule being Set A had an even number over 70 whereas Set B had an odd number over 70. There was no way this could have been worked out within the time scale allowed in the actual exam.

The students were disheartened when they couldn’t work out the patterns in the questions posed by the opposite team. There were cries of foul play.


We needed to be far more explicit in the instructions. We should have reminded the students that in the actual test they had less than 15 seconds per question and no one has time to count to 75 in 15 seconds! We should have given them some ideas – jumping off points. A lack of inspiration was clearly a time suck. The very large template sheets were not worth it. The novelty of wipe clean huge sheets of paper simply distracted from the task. In later years we emulated this by having the students work in pairs having given them an initial idea for their patterns.

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