The Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA Test)
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What Is the TSA?
The Thinking Skills Assessment is a competency test required for acceptance onto certain courses at Cambridge, Oxford or UCL.
The test provides one common piece of information which helps the university compare everyone fairly, no matter where they are from or which exams they have previously taken.
The TSA assesses competence in critical and problem-solving skills, which are fundamental to successful study.
There are three versions of the Thinking Skills Assessment:
All three TSA tests include the TSA1 – a 90 minute, multiple-choice paper exam. The TSA Oxford also has an additional 30-minute essay writing task.
The test must be sat by all applicants before interviewing at their chosen institution.
The results are released in January, after interviews, and passing the TSA is a condition of being offered a place on the candidate's chosen course.
Prospective applicants for the courses which require the TSA will have approximately six-weeks in which to apply for their TSA test.
Each institution arranges the test according to a different time frame.
The TSA is designed and delivered by a private company – Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing, on behalf of all three universities.
Which Courses Require the Thinking Skills Assessment Test?
The TSA Cambridge is required for the following courses at the University of Cambridge:
- Land Economy
The TSA UCL is required for the following courses at UCL:
- LV01 International Social and Political Studies (ISPS)
- R990 European Social and Political Studies (ESPS)
The TSA Oxford is required for the following courses at Oxford University:
- Economics and Management
- Experimental Psychology
- Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)
- Psychology and Linguistics
- Psychology and Philosophy
- Human Sciences
- Philosophy and Linguistics
If applying for a joint course at Oxford, you may need to register for separate competency tests for both of your chosen subjects.
What Is Being Assessed?
The universities use the TSA to make a fair assessment of the critical and problem-solving skills needed to succeed on the course you are applying for.
A-Levels and other qualifications are not an unbiased assessment and can be prepared and practised for.
The Thinking Skills Assessment gives universities an insight into how a candidate can perform without preparation or within a subject they are not particularly knowledgeable about.
This gives a fairer comparison of their likelihood to succeed in a tough academic environment.
There are two types of questions on the TSA 1:
Critical thinking questions assess your ability to objectively analyse or evaluate an issue. They are essentially verbal reasoning questions, that assess your ability to understand an argument in day to day language.
Problem-solving questions assess your ability to find solutions to complex issues. They are non-verbal reasoning tests which assess mathematical and spatial reasoning, as well as the ability to effectively extract crucial information from data sets of graphs.
The TSA Oxford includes an additional essay writing task (section 2) which asks candidates to write an argument on a choice of four different statements.
This essay task tests a candidate’s ability to organise ideas with concision and clarity and communicate them effectively in writing.
The questions are not specific to the subject the candidate is applying for, but rather are a general demonstration of an ability to cohesively form an argument.
Question Formats and Type
All 50 questions on the TSA1 are multiple-choice and appear on the test in order of difficulty.
They are not split into two sections, but rather are distributed at random through one complete paper.
There will always be 25 of each type of question included in the TSA.
25 of the questions on the TSA are numerical problem-solving questions of three types:
- Relevant selection
- Finding procedures
- Identifying similarity
They are not maths questions but rather challenge a candidate’s logical reasoning.
Relevant selection questions require you to isolate relevant information from data, presented in a graph or table alongside information which is either irrelevant or a distraction.
Identifying similarity questions present a problem and ask you to identify another one which can be solved in a similar way.
Finding procedures questions assess your ability to find a method for solving a problem you might not know how to solve.
Example Problem-Solving Question
My aunt still makes us lemonade every Saturday. Her recipe is a secret, but she likes to say that it is “one spoon of sugar per person and one for the jug”.
She used to buy a packet of sugar every week but since my uncle came to live with her she now has to buy two packets every fifth week and one otherwise. A packet of sugar contains four spoonfuls.
How many people lived at my aunt’s home before my uncle arrived?
The correct answer is: d) 3
The information about the uncle is irrelevant, all you need to know is that 4 spoonfuls (one per person per week) minus 1 for the jug = 3.
Critical Thinking Questions
Each critical thinking question relates to a passage of around 150 words. The questions are all multiple-choice and may ask you to demonstrate your ability to effectively do any of the following:
Draw a conclusion – Consider all the answer choices and identify the one which draws a conclusion most closely from the passage.
Identify assumptions – Analyse the text carefully to find statements of facts which are not substantiated by evidence and are therefore assumed.
Assess the impact of additional evidence – Each answer in your multiple-choice question will give an extra piece of information, and the question may ask you to find the one which most weakens or strengthens the argument in the text.
Summarise a conclusion – After reading the whole passage, you will need to select the conclusion which best matches the argument presented in the text.
Detecting reasoning errors – Each answer option will describe a type of argument flaw, for example, a circular argument.
Matching arguments – These questions will not be centred around the same topic as the argument in the text, but instead, will ask you to match an argument that follows the same structure. You could approach this by replacing names or subjects in the original texts with algebraic letters (X or A, B, C) as the subject is irrelevant and is a distraction from what the question is asking you.
Example Critical Thinking Question
The motor car has become a monster that is damaging our cities where once it gave us absolute freedom to travel. There are now 21 million cars in this country where once they were only affordable by the wealthy, and the number is rising exponentially year on year. This has exacerbated pollution in our cities and towns.
The time has come that the use of private cars must be monitored and brought under measured control, otherwise, we will see pollution worsening in our cities, as well as congestion on the roads. Why should we be allowed to buy and use more personal cars when it is already faster to walk through a city than drive through it?
Which of the following best expresses the main conclusion of the argument above?
a) Cars do not give us the freedom of travel that they used to.
b) Traffic problems in cities would be better addressed by using public transport.
c) It is necessary to limit the use of private vehicles.
d) Cars are the main cause of city pollution.
e) The number of cars on the road has been driven by their affordability.
The correct answer is: c)
This article covers multiple arguments for limiting the use of private vehicles. These include pollution and traffic jams. The sentence including the word 'must' directs the reader to the writer’s opinion which is backed up with factual observations.
The TSA Oxford Section 2 Essay Question
The TSA Oxford Section 2 Essay needs to be presented on two sides of A4 paper in 30 minutes.
Candidates will choose between four questions each discussing a different topic.
Should every adult be allowed to vote in an election or should certain people (such as convicted criminals) be excluded from voting?
Should it worry us that only 14% of leadership positions in major companies are held by women? What can be done to help?
If we can only learn a language through its remaining written examples, all of its speakers have passed away and no recordings of speech are available, what is lost and does it matter?
Has the increased use of digital communication improved our interpersonal connections or destroyed them?
You can see a TSA Section 2 Specimen paper on the admissionstesting.org website.
Oxford University also provides detailed guidance on how to answer these questions.
As with any essay question, there is no correct answer. The questions leave plenty of space for debate and require the candidate to make an effective, highly persuasive argument in an intentionally limited amount of words.
Extension sheets are not granted, and with only 30 minutes to complete the test, the markers also want to evaluate the candidate’s ability to be selective with the information they chose to present.
What to Expect When Taking the TSA
The TSA1 is a 90-minute test with 50 questions – an average of 1.8 minutes per question.
The test is a non-calculator test and you will not be allowed to take anything into the exam centre with you.
The test is administered by local test centres nationwide outside of the universities, much like the driving test theory paper.
If applying for the TSA Cambridge or the TSA Oxford, you (the candidate) need to find a test centre yourself and register.
You can find a list of test centres close to you on admissionstesting.org.
If applying for a course at UCL that requires the TSA, UCL will arrange a test on your behalf at your local test centre.
There is no official fee, but some local test centres may charge an administration fee for taking the test.
The test is a paper test, but a computer-based test is available for students with different learning needs.
How Is the Test Scored?
Each question on the TSA is worth one mark, however, the test is scored using a psychometric model that factors in the question difficulty to the overall test score.
The score conversion varies year on year, but an illustrative example can be found on www.admissionstesting.org.
Marks are not deducted for incorrect answers so candidates are encouraged to attempt all questions.
Check the course website to find more details on the required pass mark for each subject, as this can vary.
The TSA Oxford and TSA Cambridge results will be issued to candidates as a PDF through an online account and will be available for 60 days. It will be up to the candidate to share these results with their chosen course.
The TSA UCL results are shared directly with UCL, and will not be shared with the candidate.
The TSA marking is automated, and re-marks cannot be requested.
How to Prepare for the TSA
Consult the TSA Question Guide
This is a very detailed document which includes answer explanations alongside example questions.
It has replaced the TSA Test Specification.
It guides you through each type of question with clarity and explains in detail which skills the test requires.
Check page 8 for a detailed list of mathematical skills tested, and page 9 for an explanation of the critical thinking question structures.
Work Through a Past Paper
All past papers dating back to 2008 are free and are available with the answer sheets.
Practice the Last Questions First
Because the questions come in order of difficulty, questions 41 to 50 are the hardest and, in the score conversion, make the biggest difference to your mark.
Once you are used to the format of the questions, you will be able to answer them with greater ease.
Plan Your Essay for the TSA Oxford Section 2
For the TSA Oxford Section 2, there is fantastic guidance available detailing exactly how to approach your essay on the Oxford University website.
Plan your essay before writing it and make sure you fully answer the question.
Decide broadly in advance if your answer is going to agree or disagree with the statement discussed.
Use your introduction to set out your key points of argument, and if your conclusion is 'maybe' or 'unsure', ensure you have substantial arguments in both directions to weigh up.
You are allowed to ask for scrap paper at the test centre to help with your planning.
Practice Against the Clock
You will have just under two minutes to answer each question on the TSA.
Even though some questions will hold more weight under the algorithm as they are harder, plan to answer each question in a minute, leaving a portion of time for checking.
There are no marks deducted for incorrect answers, so attempt all the questions.
As the Thinking Skills Assessment doesn’t test knowledge or subject-specific skills, the best preparation you can do is to familiarise yourself with the format and structure of the test.
Cambridge Assessment, who create the test, provide ample resources for test preparation.
The universities that require the test also provide information and advice on what they are looking for, so there should be no need to pay for test preparation materials.
The explanation and answer sheets are the most useful of these resources, as they break down exactly how to approach each type of question.
Prepare sufficiently and you stand a great chance of being accepted onto your chosen course.