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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 distracters ), 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. [This is NOT the case with Vogeler's tests!]

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 that your instructor emphasized in class. 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 class notes and your assigned 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 textbook highlights 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.

Here are a few tips to help reduce these perils:

Before you begin taking the exam, enter all pieces of required information on your answer sheet

If you are so eager to start that you forget to enter your name and ID number,

your results may never be scored. Remember: your instructor will not be able to identify you by handwriting or similar text clues.

Always cover up the possible responses with a piece of paper or with your hand while you read the stem, or body of the question.

Try to anticipate the correct response before you are distracted by seeing the options that your instructor has provided. Then, uncover the responses.

If you see the response that you anticipated, circle it and then check to be sure that none of the other responses is better.

If you do not see a response that you expected, then consider some of the following strategies to eliminate responses that are probably wrong.

None of these strategies is infallible. A smart instructor will avoid writing questions for which these strategies work, but you can always hope for a lapse of attention.

1. Responses that use absolute words, such as "always" or "never" are less likely to be correct than ones that use conditional words like "usually" or "probably."

2. "Funny" responses are usually wrong.

3. "All of the above" is often a correct response. If you can verify that more than one of the other responses is probably correct, then choose "all of the above."

4. "None of the above" is usually an incorrect response, but this is less reliable than the "all of the above" rule. Be very careful not to be trapped by double negatives.

5. Look for grammatical clues. If the stem ends with the indefinite article "an," for example, then the correct response probably begins with a vowel.

6. The longest response is often the correct one, because the instructor tends to load it with qualifying adjectives or phrases.

7. Look for verbal associations. A response that repeats key words that are in the stem is likely to be correct.

8. If all else fails, choose response (b) or (c). Many instructors subconsciously feel that the correct answer is "hidden" better if it is surrounded by distracters. Response (a) is usually least likely to be the correct one.

If you cannot answer a question within a minute or less, skip it and plan to come back later. Transfer all responses to the answer sheet at the same time, once you have marked all questions on your exam. (If you try to do several things at once, you increase the probability of making a mistake. Saving the relatively mindless job of filling in bubbles until the last step reduces the probability of making silly errors.)

Be sure that you have filled the appropriate bubbles carefully IN PENCIL.

Tips for Success:

Mastering Multiple-Choice Tests

Doing well on tests requires a solid understanding of the course content, as well as a positive attitude and strategic planning and thinking. This document contains tips on how to do well on multiple-choice tests.


This document is a compilation of my own thoughts as well as many ideas and strategies suggested in documents on writing multiple-choice tests that are available on the Web. I have not cited specific sources within the body of the text below as I have altered the text from other sources so it appears in my voice and is consistent in style. Corey Goldman, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto

Preparing for Tests

Set a realistic study schedule and begin studying early

Short study sessions spread out over time are more efficient and effective than a single period of condensed study. Also, begin your study sessions with a quick review of the material you've previously studied, so that this previous material stays fresh even though you studied it in detail weeks before the test. If you learn a little each day and allow plenty of time for repeated reviews, you will enhance your long-term memory. Avoid the temptation to cram for tests; your short-term memory hasn't enough space for all that you need to know.

Identify what concepts are most important

Set priorities and study the most important concepts first.

Try to identify the content of the questions you will be asked

Anticipate test questions. Ask yourself: "If I were making up this test, I

would probably ask

permitting, try writing some multiple-choice test questions; guidelines and examples are provided in Composing Multiple-Choice Test


and then answer these questions. Also, time

Do not simply memorize facts

You will have to go beyond straight memorization. Concentrate on understanding the material taught; compare it, contrast it, and interpret its meaning. Focus on understanding the ideas and concepts in the course which knit the facts and details together. You must be more than familiar with the material; you must be able to write it down, talk about it, analyse it, and apply it. If there are graphs, tables, or figures on the test you will be asked to interpret data.

Actively summarize

For each major concept, integrate information from your lecture notes, the lecture presentations, text in the printed guide, and required readings onto a summary sheet by diagramming, charting, outlining, categorizing in tables, or writing paragraph summaries of the information. Your studying should also focus on defining, explaining, and applying terms.

Study with other well-prepared students

These study sessions will give you the opportunity to ask questions and further your understanding of the course material.

Review past tests

to experience the style of questions that have been asked in the past, as an indication of what you might expect, and to determine the level of thinking required (recognition, synthesis, analysis, application) and the degree of difference between incorrect and correct responses. But don't spend too much time on this. Your time is better spent mastering the

Controlling Test Anxiety

Be prepared emotionally and physically, as well as intellectually

Be prepared to do your best. Prepare your brain for optimum performance by keeping your physical resources well maintained. Get a good night's rest before the test. Eat well balanced meals; avoid fasting and do not take stimulants you are not accustomed to (e.g., coffee, soft drinks, chocolate). And keep up with your regular exercise.

Stay away from others right before the test

Anxiety is highly contagious. It is best to focus on what you know rather than on what you don't know. Reinforce your strengths and confine your weaknesses. For this reason it is also best not to study new material the night before a test.

Arrive at the test room early

Give yourself enough time to select a seat and calm down before the test papers are distributed. Select a seat where the lighting is best (frequently near the front of the room) and where your view of other students will be minimized. Remember to bring your student card and more than one HB pencil. Dress warmly and comfortably (and in layers, so you can put on your sweater if you're cold).

Don't expect to know everything

It is highly unlikely that any student will answer all questions correctly. Remember that a grade of 75% on a test, which is evidence of a good grasp of the subject matter, means that 25% of the questions were answered incorrectly. So, don't panic if you see a question you did not anticipate or prepare for. Use everything you know about the content of the course and your own reasoning ability to analyse the question and identify a logical answer.

Strategies During the Test

Preview the test

Preview the whole test before beginning to answer any questions. Make sure your copy has no missing or duplicate pages. Read the directions carefully.

Start with questions you can readily answer

to build your confidence and to save time for the harder ones. When you identify a correct response carefully mark this on the question paper. If you are unable to make a choice and need to spend more time with the question, or you answered the question but are not at all sure that you made the correct choice, put a big question mark beside that question, and move on to the next. Avoid getting bogged down on one question part of the way through the exam. It is much better to move on and finish all of those questions that you can answer and then to come back later to process the problematic questions. Sometimes the answer will occur to you simply because you are more relaxed after having answered other questions.

Plan your time and pace yourself

Allocate your time. For example, for a 90-minute test with 50 questions plan to spend about 1 to 2 minutes per question (as all test questions in BIO150Y are equally weighted). If you cannot answer a question within this time, skip it and come back to it later. Set progress points at the beginning of the test and use them to monitor your progress, such as, know what question you should be answering at the 30-minute mark.

Allocate time to review your answers

and to transfer your answers to the computer sheet. It is best to transfer all responses to the answer sheet at the same time once you have answered all questions on your question paper (thus reducing the probability of making a mistake). Note however that you will not be given additional time at the end of the test to transfer your answers.

Read each question carefully

Multiple-choice tests also examine your ability to read carefully and thoughtfully, as much as they test your ability to recall and reason.

Identify key words

Circle or underline key words, such as "all," "always," "never," "none," "not," "few," "many," some," and "sometimes."

Identify subject area

Identifying what lecture, reading, or laboratory exercise the question is from might help you narrow the choice of possible responses. (On many tests the questions are scrambled and do not follow the order that topics were presented in lectures or labs.)

Identify what is being asked

Answer each question as the professor intended, that is, within the context of the course material that was taught.

The "cover up" strategy

Some students find it helpful to read the question and try to recall the answer from memory before looking at each of the five responses.

The "true/false" strategy

Identify if the question is looking for a true or false statement. Then label each of the five responses as "true" or "false" and

eliminate those that do not correctly complete the question.

Read each of the five responses

and don't just stop when you come upon the one that seems likely.

Don't select a response just because you remember learning the information in the course; it may be a "true" statement in its own right, but not the correct answer to the question.

Don't dismiss a response because it seems too obvious and simple an answer; if you are well prepared for the test, some of the questions may appear very straight forward.

Don't be persuaded by fancy terms in the question; don't say to yourself, "That sounds impressive, so it must be the right answer."

As you read through the possible responses, mark off the ones you know are wrong. This will save time if you have to come back to the question later.

Should I change an answer?

Change answers only if you have a good reason for doing so. (Changing your answer from response "b" because you selected "b" to the previous two questions is not a good reason.) The origin of the myth that students most often change correct answers to wrong answers is probably that it is the wrong answers that students remember most when reviewing the test (for you are less likely to remember the answers you changed from "wrong" to "right").

If two responses appear to be equally correct

eliminate the response that appears to be least related to the question being asked. Remember, you are looking for the best answer, not only a correct one. Some responses may be correct but are not directly related to the question.

If you are not certain of an answer, guess

as there is no penalty for wrong answers. Eliminate the responses you know are incorrect. Narrow down your selection to two responses and then compare them and identify how they differ. Finally, make an informed guess.