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.
multiple choice exams usually contain many more questions than
essay exams, each question has a lower point value and thus offers
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
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.
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
- 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."
- "Funny" responses are usually wrong.
- "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."
- "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.
- Look for grammatical clues. If the stem ends with the indefinite
article "an," for example, then the correct response
probably begins with a vowel.
- The longest response is often the correct one, because the
instructor tends to load it with qualifying adjectives or phrases.
- Look for verbal associations. A response that repeats key
words that are in the stem is likely to be correct.
- 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
instructor will probably
never take a close
look at your answer sheet, so if you fail to fill in bubbles completely
or if you make stray marks, only the computer will notice, and
you will be penalized. Erase any accidental marks completely.
- Take the time to check your work before you hand in
an essay exam, on which
you may later appeal
a grade on the grounds that the instructor misunderstood your
response, a multiple choice exam offers you no opportunity for
"partial credit." If you filled the wrong bubble, your
answer is 100% wrong.
Source: Center for Teaching Excellence
An example from Geography 111,
Human Geography, on how to figure out the correct
Question: On a world scale, livestock perform
many functions. Identify the least important one.
A) draft power B) milk and meat C) manure D) personal
status E) building materials
Determining the appropriate
answer: If you are enrolled in Geography 111, Human Geography, you will
have read a chapter about livestock in India which we also
discussed in one class period.
Answers A), B), and C) are obviously
correct. You have reduced the five possible answers to two: D) or E).
Even without knowing the correct answer, you can pick the correct answer.
If livestock provide three -- A), B), and C -- important things, then
livestock must also give the owners of livestock personal status (D).
Now you are left with building materials (E) -- stuff used to construct shelter
-- a rather limited use of livestock, given that trees, mud, and stones are
far more effective ways of building shelter. The least important use of
livestock is, therefore, building materials (E)! Congratulations, you
have thought through the correct answer.
An example from Geography 188,
Landscapes, on how to figure out the correct
Question: Institutions have geographical
manifestations, which include all but one of the following:
answers: A) location B) ecological C) material structures
D) spatial patterns E) social hierarchy.
appropriate answer: If you are enrolled in Geography 188, Cultural Landscapes,
we discussed this material in class. Geography is about
space and the material content of places.
Answers A) and D) are obviously
correct. Material structures (C) are buildings, in contrast to non-material
structures, such as "the law" or "the family," -- which means then that E)
social hierarchy can't be correct. Furthermore, cultural landscapes include
buildings and all structures, e.g., walls, fences, billboards, freeways.
C) is, then, also correct. Places also include environmental elements
of topography, climate, and vegetation. So, B) is also correct.
Congratulations, you have thought through the correct answer.