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.
 our 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 the answer sheet.
Unlike 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 answer:
Question: On a world scale, livestock perform many functions. Identify the least important one.
Possible answers: 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, Cultural Landscapes, on how to figure out the correct answer:
Question: Institutions have geographical manifestations, which include all but one of the following:
Possible answers: A) location  B) ecological  C) material structures  D) spatial patterns  E) social hierarchy.
Determining the 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.