Taking Multiple Choice Exams
Studying for a multiple choice exam requires a special method of preparation distinctly different from an essay exam. Multiple choice exams ask a student to recognize a correct answer among a set of options that include 3 or 4 wrong answers (called distractors), rather than asking the student to produce a correct answer entirely from his/her own mind.
For many reasons, students commonly consider multiple choice exams easier than essay exams. Perhaps the most obvious reasons are that:
• The correct answer is guaranteed to be among the possible responses. A student can score points with a lucky guess.
• Many multiple choice exams tend to emphasize basic definitions or simple comparisons, rather than asking students to analyze new information or apply theories to new situations.
• Because multiple choice exams usually contain many more questions than essay exams, each question has a lower point value and thus offers less risk.
Despite these factors, however, multiple choice exams can actually be very difficult and are in this course. Consider that:
• Because multiple choice exams contain many questions, they force students to be familiar with a much broader range of material than essay exams do.
• Multiple choice exams also usually expect students to have a greater familiarity with details such as specific dates, names, or vocabulary than most essay exams do. Students cannot easily “bluff” on a multiple choice exam.
• Finally, because it is much more difficult for a teacher to write good multiple choice questions than to design essay questions, students often face higher risks due to unintended ambiguity.
To prepare for a multiple choice exam, consider the following steps:
Begin studying early
• Multiple choice exams tend to focus on details, and you cannot retain many details effectively in short-term memory. If you learn a little bit each day and allow plenty of time for repeated reviews, you will build a much more reliable long-term memory.
Make sure that you identify and understand thoroughly everything in your syllabus.
• Pay particular attention to fundamental terms and concepts that describe important events or features, or that tie related ideas and observations together. These are the items that most commonly appear on multiple choice exams.
As you study your notes and your specific readings, make lists and tables.
• Concentrate on understanding multi-step processes, and on ideas, events, or objects that form natural sequences or groupings. Look for similarities and differences that might be used to distinguish correct choices from distracters on an exam.
• If your book has new vocabulary or key definitions, be sure that you understand them. Sometimes new words and concepts are collected at the end of a chapter. Check to be sure that you have not left any out by mistake.
• Do not simply memorize the book’s definitions. Most instructors will rephrase things in their own words as they write exam questions, so you must be sure that you really know what the definitions mean.
Brainstorm possible questions with several other students who are also taking the course.
Practice on sample questions, if you have access to a study guide or old exams.
Answering Multiple Choice Questions
There are many strategies for maximizing your success on multiple choice exams. The best way to improve your chances, of course, is to study carefully before the exam. There is no good substitute for knowing the right answer. Even a well-prepared student can make silly mistakes on a multiple choice exam, however, or can fall prey to distracters that look very similar to the correct answer.
• Read the directions carefully
• Know if each question has one or more correct option
• Know if you are penalized for guessing
• Know how much time is allowed (this governs your strategy)
• Preview the test
• Read through the test quickly and answer the easiest questions first
• Mark those you think you know in some way that is appropriate
• Read through the test a second time and answer more difficult questions
• You may pick up cues for answers from the first reading, or become more comfortable in the testing situation
• If time allows, review both questions and answers
• It is possible you mis-read questions the first time
• Improve your odds, think critically:
Cover the options, read the stem, and try to answer
• Select the option that most closely matches your answer
Read the stem with each option
• Treat each option as a true-false question, and choose the “most true”
Strategies for answering difficult questions:
Eliminate options you know to be incorrect
• If allowed, mark words or alternatives in questions that eliminate the option
Give each option of a question the “true-false test:”
• This may reduce your selection to the best answer
Question options that grammatically don’t fit with the stem
Question options that are totally unfamiliar to you
Question options that contain negative or absolute words.
• Try substituting a qualified term for the absolute one.
• For example, frequently for always; or typical for every to see if you can eliminate an option
“All of the above:”
• If you know two of three options seem correct, “all of the above” is a strong possibility
• toss out the high and low and consider the middle range numbers
“Look alike options”
• probably one is correct; choose the best but eliminate choices that mean basically the same thing, and thus cancel each other out
• Create the equivalent positive statement
• If two options are opposite each other, chances are one of them is correct
Favor options that contain qualifiers
• The result is longer, more inclusive items that better fill the role of the answer
If two alternatives seem correct,
• compare them for differences,
• then refer to the stem to find your best answer
Always guess when there is no penalty
• for guessing or you can eliminate options
Don’t guess if you are penalized for guessing
• and if you have no basis for your choice
Use hints from questions you know
• To answer questions you do not.
Change your first answers
• When you are sure of the correction, or other cues in the test cue you to change.
Remember that you are looking for the best answer,
• Not only a correct one, and not one which must be true all of the time, in all cases, and without exception.