How to Take Multiple Choice Tests

The strategies that we have covered thus far should be helpful in preparing you with the necessary knowledge needed to succeed with multiple choice exams. For students who lack essential learning skills or who fail to apply the kinds of active strategies we have been discussing, multiple choice exams are extremely difficult. Some students have even gone so far as to label themselves incapable of writing multiple choice exams effectively. Some have even taken the step of changing out of a major area of study to avoid having to take exams in this format. In probably the majority of cases, these extreme responses are unnecessary; these students would have done better to examine the way they were preparing and adjusted their style of learning and studying to equip themselves better for these often difficult exams. If you're having difficulty with multiple choice exams, you will probably want to do what you can to make your situation better.

The reasons why these tests are so difficult have to do more with the structure of the exams than the level of difficulty of the material. Many students make the assumption that multiple choice exams are simple and do not require a rigorous approach to study. If you can understand not only how to prepare, but how to approach and analyze the structure of multiple choice questions, you will have a much clearer sense of how to take the guess work out of multiple choice exams. In terms of their structure, multiple choice exams have a few unsavoury characteristics: first, these tests typically have many questions to answer and the topics you studied are typically scrambled and shuffled; second, the ideas you learned about in class or in the text may be reworded in different ways: colloquially, technically, by example, or by analogy; third, very often the multiple choice test is not simple recognition of basic ideas but recognition of the answer to a reasoned problem. Your reasoning must make use of the learning from the course and may go beyond the material covered in class or require you to apply knowledge from the course. You may have to go beyond straight memorization to make an analogy or to solve a novel problem. You cannot just be familiar with the material; you must be able to write it down, talk about it, and analyze it

In-test Strategies for Multiple Choice
With all these characteristics, it is no wonder that multiple choice tests are both under-estimated by some students and revered by others. We begin with a series of in-test strategies and then apply these to a few example questions, highlighting the structure and purpose of each question. When appropriate, we mention additional preparation strategies that could be used to prepare for the questions:

  • Preview the exam. As you browse through, take note of those questions which seem easier (i.e., those questions you think you can answer) and perhaps plan to skip those which seem harder, setting time limits, and getting settled; keep to time divisions for questions as they are usually equally weighted; (see In-test Strategies, page 20.)
  • Start with questions you can answer readily. Don't waste time labouring over troublesome questions at the start. Be sure to get credit for items you know well.
  • Recycle through the test. Now try the questions you could not do on the first attempt. Sometimes the answer will occur to you simply because you are more relaxed after having answered other questions. Sometimes, too, your answer to one question provides a clue to the answer of another.
  • Set goals for time and pace yourself accordingly. Allocate your time according to the relative worth of questions. Try to save a few minutes at the end for review and revision. Remember: your first answer may not always be your best answer. Change answers, but only if you have a good reason for doing so. For instance, changing an answer from, say, selection "b" simply because your response to the previous four questions was also "b" and you cannot believe that five questions in a row would have the same item as the correct response, is likely not a good reason; be flexible in your approach.
  • Read the questions carefully: twice if necessary. Avoid jumping to conclusions about what you think the question asks.
  • Circle or underline key words in questions. Multiple choice tests examine your ability to read carefully and thoughtfully as much as they test your ability to recall and reason. Watch for words like "all," "always," "never," "none," "few," "many," some," "sometimes." (see Descriptive Words, page 13.)
  • Try to recall a concept from memory or think out the answer before looking at the options. Doing this successfully may help you "wade through" the alternatives and find a reasonable answer or choice.
  • Consider the cover-up strategy, whereby you read the question and try to answer it by recall before looking at the alternative answers;
  • Consider the true/false label strategy whereby you label the alternative answers as true or false statements and then look for a pattern in the answers;
  • Sometimes alternatives differ by only one or two words or in the order of one or two terms. These can seem very confusing. It helps sometimes to read the stem of the question (that's the question part) with an alternative while covering up the others. By methodically thinking through the alternatives this way, you may be able to make more sense of the options by labelling them true or false and eliminating those that don't correctly complete the question.
  • Use the hint of highly similar pairs -- this says that often the answer is imbedded in one of two very similar pairs and the "most correct" answer is often the one that correctly uses course terminology; consider the all or none of the above cues -- if two of the preceding alternatives are opposites then one of them and the all or none of the above choice is also wrong;
  • Be prepared to change your answer if you can determine a clear reason why your first response is incorrect -- many students report difficulties arising from changes that are made on the basis of nervous feelings;
  • You might want to try to answer all the questions from the same section of the course to offset the mixing of questions inherent in the design of the test -- this demands care be taken that answer sheets are correctly completed and that all questions have been answered; consider guessing when there is no penalty for a wrong answer.
  • Be alert to terminology which links the alternatives or questions to key areas of the course, lectures, or chapters of a course's materials -- this may help you narrow the field of possible choices and think through to the best answer.
  • Be wary of descriptive words which are overly exclusive or overly inclusive. These absolute terms tend to portray things as right or wrong where this is often not the case. Words like always, never, completely, and only are absolutes. Relative words like often, usually, seem and may are often more accurate.
  • Translate double negative statements into positive ones. Examples like "Not lacking" or "not none" become "having" and "some" and this can reduce confusion. Note that these are often partly in the stem and partly in the choices of a particular question.
  • If you must guess, look for some of these possibilities: the style of an answer option is very different from all of the others - this may disqualify it; the grammar of the question stem is not in agreement with the grammar of an alternative; some alternative is not in the area or topic of the question, but comes from some other part of the course- this may disqualify it.
  • Overall, 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.

Multiple Choice Question Practice
To assist you in applying the strategies we have been talking about, we have included a set of example questions. Examine the example questions and the discussion that follows each. Look for how the questions have been developed and attend to the in-test and preparation strategies mentioned. By understanding how multiple choice test questions can be built from course notes, you may be better able to construct example questions of your own. And, these example questions should help you to better understand how to apply the skills that you have been learning throughout these web-pages.

1. The memory strategy derived from Miller (1956) involving organizing disparate pieces of information into one related, meaningful group is referred to as

(a) organization
(b) the Cornell method
(c) elaborative rehearsal
(d) chunking
(e) SQ3R

Question 1 is typical of roughly a third of the questions you might face on a multiple choice exam in that it tests knowledge that was explicitly taught in the course lectures and texts. To answer the question you need not go any further than the content of your notes or readings, but answering this question correctly involves recognizing that the question is essentially testing a definition of a concept. A slight twist in this question is that the definition is given first and you must label it with the correct concept word from the list of alternatives. Studying for this question is fairly straightforward: practice recalling the definitions of key concepts and practice matching the definitions with the correct concept word label. A hint for working with this kind of question in an exam: read the stem of the question first, noting the key words (here the key words are "Miller, 1956" and "one related, meaningful group") and try to answer the question from memory before proceeding to the alternatives. The advantage of using this approach is that you have an answer in mind to compare to each alternative -- this often gives you a greater sense of confidence in your answer and may reduce "second guessing".

2. Which of the following is not related to the process of elaborative rehearsal?

(a) adding details to ideas and concepts
(b) analyzing component parts of an idea
(c) restating knowledge in your own words
(d) practicing remembering the information
(e) none of the above

Question 2 is somewhat different from the first question, primarily in that it tests in detail the knowledge you have learned in your course. To answer this question correctly it is important to note that this kind of question forces you to go beyond straight memorization of concepts from your course. To prepare adequately for this kind of question, you will have to look more deeply at the basic information and you will probably want to apply strategies which help you elaborate and understand the significance of finer details which are related to the concepts.

3. In the study by Bahrick and Hall, 1991 we find that graduates of college mathematics courses recall high school math knowledge for many years after. According to Bahrick & Hall, which of the following would you expect to be true of a group of university graduates who did not take math courses at university:

(a) they would recall their math from high school to essentially the same extent as those who took math courses in university
(b) most would recall little or none of their high school math 50 years after
(c) they would recall best those things which they learned more about in their university courses
(d) both (b) and (c)
(e) all of the above

Question 3 is representative of a third kind of question you are likely to face when writing a multiple choice exam. This question is different from the first two in that it involves applying the knowledge you have learned or thinking about it in a new way which may not have been taught explicitly in your course. This question tests your ability to reason through the relationship between a theory and evidence which was used to support it and apply this understanding to cope with a hypothetical situation. (Note, as well, that this question is a good deal longer than either of the first two questions and that the options are a little more tricky.) To answer this question well, you will have to be thoroughly knowledgeable about the theory and its actual findings and then be able to apply this knowledge to determine a possible outcome for the hypothetical situation offered. Studying for this kind of question should probably include elaborative review and practice recall of the theory and perhaps some creative thinking about what might change in a variety of slightly different circumstances from those presented in the theory.

If you were to face a question like this one in an exam, you might want to start by reading this question twice to be sure that you have correctly understood what is being asked. The question stem is made up of two parts: the context reference for the question, which tells us to think back to something we have studied (here it is Bahrick and Hall's 1991 study of periodic retrieval); and the question part. You might want to pause after the first part of the question stem to recall the study done by Bahrick and Hall before moving on any further. Because of the length of the alternatives in this question, you might want to read the question part of the stem along with each alternative individually to keep clear on what you are being asked. This kind of question seems to pop up more and more in multiple choice exams and chances are you will eventually face a test with questions like this. Questions like this one are thinker questions and you can probably see how simply memorizing the definition for "periodic retrieval" would leave you less than prepared to answer question 3. (Answers: 1(d); 2(e); 3(d))