How to study, write and learn from multiple choice exams

by University of Victoria’s Counselling Services

Often students anticipate their first multiple choice exam to be simply a matter of recognising true statements. However, experience with these exams shows students that they are often asked to do more than just recognise textbook material.

Multiple choice questions require fine distinctions between correct and nearly-correct statements. They learn that these distinctions are not only of Recognition, but are distinctions that involve the thinking for Synthesis, Analysis, and Application. These higher-order thinking questions sometimes make the content of the questions unrecognisable.

Besides not being fully prepared for these types of thinking questions, students often read the questions carelessly. Therefore, it is to the students’ advantage to learn about the thinking required to answer multiple choice questions and to learn how to read the questions carefully.

Preparing/study for multiple choice exams

  • Take a Learning Skills course to learn:
    • how to recognise the various levels of learning that are tested in multiple choice questioning;
    • how to use new strategies for learning, remembering, and thinking.
  • Join or form a study group to practise making and answering multiple choice questions of various levels.
  • Study old exams. Examine each question to determine:
    • the level or type of thinking required of you (recognition, synthesis, analysis, application);
    • the degree of difference between incorrect and correct alternatives.
  • When studying the material consider groups of facts or groups of ideas that are similar in meaning.While learning each group, pay special attention to the differences among the facts and ideas within each group. It may be effective to think of each fact or idea in terms of what each means or includes and what each does not mean or does not include.

    For a concept, consider what is necessary or sufficient to include. How do two similar concepts differ? Why is that difference important?

Writing multiple choice exams

  • Do the multiple choice items first if your exam has types of questions other than multiple choice. Just reading the stems and alternatives acts as a warm-up to the material. (The stem is the question and the alternatives are the choices). Also, the ideas embedded in these multiple choice questions will fuel your thinking for doing the other parts of the exam.
  • Read the directions carefully. The directions usually indicate that some alternatives may be partly correct or correct statements in themselves, but not when joined to the stem. The directions may say: “choose the most correct answer” or “mark the one best answer.” Sometimes you may be asked to “mark all correct answers.”
  • Often you are required to answer up to 70 multiple choice questions in an hour or less. (Some have 200 questions to answer in 3 hours). This means you may have less than a minute, on average, to spend on each question. Some questions, of course, will take you only a few seconds, while others will require more time for thought.Plan to progress through the exam in three ways:
    • Read every question carefully but quickly, answering only those of which you are 100% certain. Put a “?” on those that need more thought.
    • Then, examine/study the questions not yet answered. Answer those you are reasonably sure of without pondering too long on each. Erase the “?”
    • Finally, study read the remaining unanswered questions. If you cannot come to a decision by reasoning or if you run out of time, guess. Erase the “?”. Note that some examinations penalize “guessing” by subtracting points for incorrect answers. Check with your instructor. If there is no penalty, then a guess is better than a blank.
  • Use the process of elimination procedure. Eliminate the obviously incorrect alternatives.
  • Read all of the stem and every alternative.

    • Read the stem with each alternative to take advantage of the correct sound or flow that the correct answer often produces. Also, you can eliminate any alternatives that do not agree grammatically with the stem.
    • Some students find it effective to read the stem and anticipate the correct alternative before actually looking at the alternatives. If you generally do better on essay exams, this strategy may help you a great deal. Our research shows that one is three students scores better with this strategy alone!
  • Consider “all of the above” and “none of the above.” Examine the “above” alternatives to see if all of them or none of them apply totally. If even one does not apply totally, do not consider “all of the above” or “none of the above” as the correct answer. Make sure that a statement applies to the question since it can be true, but not be relevant to the question at hand!
  • Note negatives. If a negative such as “none”, “not”, “never”, or “neither” occurs in the stem, know that the correct alternative must be a fact or absolute and that the other alternatives could be true statements, but not the correct answer.
  • Note superlatives. Words such as “every”, “all”, “none”, “always”, and “only” are superlatives that indicate the correct answer must be an undisputed fact. In the social sciences, absolutes are rare.
  • Note qualifying words. “Usually”, “often”, “generally”, “may”, and “seldom” are qualifiers that could indicate a true statement.
  • Study Qualifications. Break the stem down into grammatical parts. Pull out the bare subject and verb (if it is in the stem), and then examine all the modifiers (qualifiers) to the subject and verb. This process ensures that you will examine every part of the stem.
  • Changing Answers. Research has shown that changing answers on a multiple choice or true-false exam is neither good nor bad: if you have a good reason for changing your answer, change it. The origin of the myth that people always change from “right” to “wrong” is that those (i.e. the wrong ones) are the only ones you will see when you review your exam – you won’t notice the ones you changed from “wrong” to “right.”

Following-up after your exam has been returned

  • Study your marked and returned exam in order to learn from your successes and mistakes, and to improve your performance on the next exam. This will pay dividends on future exams.
  • Examine each question you did get correct. Remember how you knew that the information was important when you studied. How did you study?
  • Examine each question you did not get correct in order to understand the find distinction between the correct alternative and the incorrect alternatives. Ask yourself why the correct answer is correct and why the other alternatives are incorrect.
  • Determine the level of thought your instructor expects of you by reading through all of the questions. Are you expected to recognise, analyse, synthesise and/or apply the material that has been presented to you? Study accordingly for the next exam.

This article was originally produced by The University of Victoria‘sCounselling Services, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Reprinted with permission.

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