IQ Tests: What They Are, How They Work and How to Get Top Scores
An IQ test is a method of assessment used to determine an individual's IQ, or intelligence quotient, a numerical figure that indicates where that individual sits on a scale of general intelligence.
The idea of measuring intelligence in a standardized fashion has been around for many years, but gained prominence in the early 20th century with the work of Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon.
Binet and Simon built on the work of their predecessors to create an assessment capable of identifying both gifted children, and those with potential cognitive deficiencies.
Known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, it was recognized as the first official modern IQ test, and is still widely used today.
Various interpretations of IQ tests have emerged throughout the years, used for varying purposes. For example, the Army Alpha test used by the US government in World War I to evaluate military recruits.
Despite ongoing debate about the nature of intelligence, and validity of standardized testing as an accurate measure of it, IQ tests remain popular to this day, and when administered correctly, can provide valuable insight to an individual’s cognitive abilities.
IQ tests serve a variety of functions and can be taken in a range of circumstances.
Some are designed specifically for school age children, used for purposes of educational development, or to assist in the diagnosis of cognitive impairment.
They can be used for these purposes among adults too, though the content and format differs from that of assessments designed for younger test takers.
IQ tests may also be used by employers alongside other forms of psychometric testing to assist with talent acquisition and development.
For some test takers, it’s simply a case of wanting to explore their own potential, and seeing how their own IQ compares to that of the general population.
When it comes to intelligence, there is no universally agreed upon definition, nor is there a single best practice approach for measuring it.
What is agreed upon is that intelligence can be categorized as either:
Crystallized intelligence – This refers to what an individual has previously learned, e.g. historical facts or word definitions. It is essentially knowledge based intelligence.
Fluid intelligence – This refers to an individual’s natural abilities, e.g. their talent for problem solving through reason and logic.
There are IQ tests that look at both, as some researchers believe that to assess a person’s ability to learn, you must look at the knowledge they have already acquired.
Most however focus solely on fluid intelligence, measuring not what you know, but what you can work out.
Typically, this more popular type of IQ test also has an emphasis on memory, assessing information retention and recall.
Some of the most widely used IQ tests include:
- The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale
- Woodcock-Johnson Test of Cognitive Abilities
- Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale
- Raven’s Progressive Matrices
Well designed IQ tests make use of a number of question types, each focused on a particular area of cognitive skill.
These include, but are not limited to:
Language ability – Also referred to as verbal reasoning, this question type measures your ability to interpret, evaluate and use new information to solve a given problem.
Numerical ability – Similar to verbal, numerical reasoning questions look at how well you work with new information, but in this case that information is presented as data.
Spatial ability – This is a specific type of problem solving skill, in which the individual is able to visually manipulate shapes and objects.
Logical ability – This is perhaps the question type most closely associated with IQ tests. They typically make use of inductive reasoning, asking the test taker to complete abstract patterns by identifying sequential rules.
Memory – You may also be asked questions on information presented to you at an earlier stage of the test.
Research indicates that when an individual performs well in one area, they generally perform equally as well in all others (and vice-versa in the case of a poor performance).
This has led to the theory that there is one particular component of intellect that determines a person’s overall cognitive ability. This is referred to as the general factor of intelligence, or the g factor, and is essentially what is being measured in an IQ test.
Test scores are presented on a bell curve, with the average score of 100 represented at the peak of the curve.
Either side of this sit the low and high averages followed by the extremes, with a score of 130 or above considered very superior, and a score of 69 or below indicating severe cognitive impairment.
It should be noted at this point that an IQ test is only one measure of intellect, and a high score does not necessarily mean that the test taker will be successful in life.
There are many other contributing factors to success, like determination, opportunity and the soft skills that drive emotional intelligence, like communication and empathy.
IQ tests can prove a valuable resource in many scenarios, but they are not without their limitations.
An individual's score on an IQ test should always be taken in context, and address any barriers that may have impacted their results.
These barriers include:
Test taking experience and skill – It’s a simple fact that some people perform better under test conditions than others. At the same time, someone that has never taken an IQ or aptitude test before may be thrown by its format and content. If a test taker performs below average, it may not necessarily be a case of lower IQ, but a consequence of inexperience or anxiety.
The test taker’s motivation – Not everyone that sits an IQ test is personally motivated to do so. As such, they may put little effort into the activity. This raises questions about their result reflecting their intelligence, or simply a lack of interest.
Cultural and language bias – Perhaps the biggest limitation of IQ tests is an inconsistency in performance across different cultural groups. Intelligence is relative, and a skill deemed important in one culture is not necessarily valuable to another. Additionally, if the language of the test administered is not the first language of the test taker, it brings into question the validity of their results.
Regardless of their purpose, anyone using IQ tests needs to be aware of these limitations, and ensure that any IQ test results are considered objectively.
There are a lot of things that can influence your IQ, some environmental, some genetic.
The IQ of your parents, your home environment, access to education and nutrition are all contributing factors, but that’s not to say that your IQ is predetermined, nor is it set in stone.
In fact, you should look at improving your IQ as a form of personal development.
Here’s some tips on how to build on both crystalized and fluid intelligence, and work towards above average scores on your next IQ test.
As discussed, most IQ tests focus on fluid intelligence. This means that they’re not looking at the information already in your head, but your ability to apply critical thinking, using experience, intuition and logic to solve problems.
When you understand this, you understand that your potential is not restricted by what you already know, and by identifying key abilities deemed important to general intelligence, you can look for ways to develop them.
Practice tests won’t necessarily improve your IQ, but they will help you become familiar with test format and question types.
This in turn will boost your confidence when you do come to sit an official IQ test.
Nerves and anxiety can often lead to a skewed performance, so the more confident you are the more likely your results will be a true reflection of your potential.
Whether it’s through a formal training program, or in your spare time by way of an online course, continued education is one of the best ways to improve on your IQ.
It’s not particularly about what you learn, but the process of learning itself. Structured education ensures your brain stays active, and challenges you to look at problems from a new perspective.
In a similar vein, when you make reading a regular habit, you open yourself up to new ideas, new points of view, and new opinions.
You might not agree with them all, but in evaluating them you improve on your reasoning skills – a core component of IQ tests.
You’ll also improve your vocabulary, understand the role of context, and develop an all round better grasp of language use.
Here we’re talking about things that work on your memory recall, problem solving skills, spatial awareness and executive control functions.
Think anything that requires you to multitask, focus, conceptualize, process information or apply logical thinking.
Crosswords and word puzzles, brainteasers, sudoku, jigsaws, concentration games, board games like Scrabble – there’s plenty of indoor activities you can turn into a regular habit.
Outdoor activities like mazes and orienteering can be beneficial too.
The key here is to continually challenge yourself. Once you’ve mastered a certain activity, move on to the next level or something new, as once it’s comfortable with a certain task, the brain tends to work on autopilot rather than applying itself.
We live in a world of increased efficiency thanks to technology. The tools, apps and devices we use everyday make our lives far easier, but at the same time lessen the use of our cognitive functions.
We don’t need to use our memory, because calendars and scheduling tools send automated reminders. We don’t need to concentrate on spelling and grammar because autocorrect will catch our mistakes. When travelling from A to B, there’s no need to navigate because our satnavs take us straight there.
Technology is great for productivity, but every once is a while it’s good to exercise the brain by doing things the hard way.
There’s a lot of research that suggests musicians and those that are bilingual have an increased level of cognitive ability, and whilst studies are ongoing, it’s a widely held belief that musical and/or language training can significantly improve your IQ.
Learning these skills can result in enhanced memory function, better spatial awareness and greater verbal intelligence.
Whilst the biggest benefit comes from starting at a young age, it’s never too late to pick up your favourite instrument, or explore a second language.
We tend to think of sleep as a way to rest and recover physically, but it’s equally important to allow our brain the time to do the same.
A lack of sleep doesn’t just affect our concentration levels. It can also impede our ability to learn, reason and remember.
With that in mind, one of the simplest ways to improve cognitive function is to stick to a routine that allows for sufficient and quality sleep time.
Whatever your reasons for taking an IQ test, it’s important to remember that it is only one mark of intelligence, and your results do not fully define your potential for success.
That said, improving your IQ is highly beneficial. Not only can it lead to greater opportunity, it also contributes to your health.
Just as a lack of physical activity leads to degeneration of the body, neglecting mental activity results in degeneration of cognitive function, so the best way to improve your IQ is to continually exercise your brain and seek challenging new experiences.