Multiple choice: do you love it or hate it? Few other exam formats provoke such passionate responses as multiple choice, yet this format is common at the university level. If you prefer other types of exam formats to multiple choice, understanding why you dislike multiple choice may help you determine what steps to take to master this exam format. We've encountered a few common reasons for some students' difficulty with multiple choice; see if you can identify with any of these situations.
Whatever your feelings about multiple choice, you'll encounter this format often at university, especially in first- and second-year courses. Keep reading this handout for extensive information to help you with many aspects of multiple choice, from study strategies through ways to untangle difficult wording.
Since multiple choice exams are common in courses which cover a lot of factual information, the most important planning strategy is to stay on top of your coursework. If you keep up with readings and assignments, attend lectures and take thorough notes, and set aside time to integrate and summarize your text and lecture notes on a regular basis, you'll be well on your way to preparing effectively for multiple choice exams. Weekly review right from the beginning of the semester can drastically reduce the amount of time you'll need to spend relearning old material before the exam. We recommend that you begin each study session with a quick review of the material you've studied previously, so the previous material stays fresh. Attending Supported Learning Group sessions regularly is another good way to ensure you're processing and keeping up with course content.
If you make the time to review weekly, you'll avoid having to cram at the last minute. When you cram, the information you've studied stays in your memory for a limited time. That means that you'll probably forget most or all of the information as soon as you've finished the midterm or exam. While cramming might seem like a timesaver at first, it usually ends up costing you in later semesters, when you'll have to relearn information from previous courses. By incorporating regular review into your study schedule, you'll make a difference in your exam performance now and in the future. For ideas and suggestions about how to fit weekly review into your schedule, check out our time management resources.
If you ask experienced, successful students for their advice on how to prepare for multiple choice exams (as we did in writing this handout), you would probably find that there are two different approaches. Some students advocate an emphasis on factual detail, terms, and definitions. They memorize as much material as possible and make note of small but interesting details. Other students concentrate on understanding the course ideas and concepts which knit the facts and details together. They emphasize the relationships, similarities, and differences between concepts.
Since many multiple choice exams test for both the recall of facts and an understanding of concepts, the approach you take to studying for multiple choice tests must be based on a thoughtful analysis of your course and your instructor's approach to the material. You'll be better prepared for major exams if you look at each test during the semester as an indication of not only how much of the course material you know, but also what type of knowledge (factual details, conceptual understanding, or a combination) the instructor expects you to have. The safest approach to studying for multiple choice exams is to acquire a thorough knowledge of the facts, as well as an understanding of the concepts and ideas underlying them.
A common error students make when preparing for multiple choice exams is to study only to the point where they can recognize the correct answer ("after all, the right answer is on the page in front of you ..."). However, multiple choice exams test not only your ability to recognize information, but also your ability to apply facts and concepts in new contexts.
To ensure that you can do more than just recognize the right answer, test yourself periodically as you're studying:
Strategies like these can be used to test your ability to recall the material and to re-organize and transform it into a new format. Since very few multiple choice exams repeat course information in the same way that it was covered in class, you'll need to prepare for exams by studying the course material in a variety of ways. You'll become better prepared for exam questions which apply or present material in new ways that weren't discussed in class or in the text.
Since multiple choice exams demand that you deal with the course material in a specific format, your preparation should include practice in both writing and answering multiple choice questions. Writing multiple choice questions enables you to see the information from your notes and text translated into the multiple choice format before the exam itself. Try these ideas when creating questions:
You'll also need to practise answering "real" multiple choice questions. There are a number of places where you might find practice questions:
Wherever you get practice questions, it's important to limit the time you give yourself to write the practice exam (because you won't have endless amounts of time during the exam) and to correct your answers.
Find out as much as you can about the exam well in advance so you'll have time to prepare appropriately. You should be able to answer these questions about your exam:
If your exam is open book, study and prepare for it in much the same way you would for a regular exam; don't assume that you'll have time to look up answers while you're writing the exam. However, it may be worthwhile to tab the important pages in your notes and text so you can reference them quickly. An alternative is to create your own crib sheet — a one page sheet which contains all of the essential information about the course material.
If your exam restricts you from changing your answers, skipping questions, or reading ahead, keep in mind that these restrictions may place additional stress on you. Depending upon how you react to such stress, you may need to prepare even more thoroughly for online exams than you would for paper-based exams. If possible, use sample questions or practice quizzes on WebCT or in your textbook's CD to prepare yourself as much as possible for reading and responding to online questions within a limited timeframe.
For every exam, it's important to calculate the amount of time you can spend on each section or question according to the number of marks it's worth. Do the easy questions or sections first - this is helpful for calming nerves and establishing your concentration. It is also important to work at a fairly quick pace; multiple choice exams are notorious for being long.
Careless mistakes are often made when students rush through the "stem," or first part of the question, and miss important information. Try this approach to make sure you read each question thoroughly.
If you've followed the steps above and you're still not sure of an answer, it's tempting to keep rereading and reworking the question until you select one. However, you may be wasting valuable time as you "worry through" these questions. If you're unsure of an answer, skip the question and keep going. If you run out of time, it's better to have answered all of the easier questions than to have missed some of them because of your attempts to answer the more difficult ones.
The language of multiple choice questions can sometimes lead to confusion about what the question is really asking. Try these techniques when you encounter a question with difficult or confusing wording:
Keep in mind that these techniques will not work for all questions, and that they can be time-consuming. If some of these techniques seem helpful, make sure you familiarize yourself with them in a practice exam well before the midterm or exam.
If you've tried the strategies above and you still don't know the answer:
In general, when reviewing answers, you should only change an answer if you have a specific reason for doing so (for example, you remembered a new piece of information). Even if you're not entirely sure that your answer is correct, it's usually better to keep it than to switch to another answer at the last minute.
If your exam won't let you go back to difficult questions, then make sure you answer each question before going on to the next. You will need to monitor your time very carefully to ensure that you have enough time to complete all of the questions. Deciding on a certain time limit for each question before you begin the exam (i.e., "If I can't decide on an answer within X minutes, then I will quickly choose from my remaining alternatives and go on to the next question") can help prevent you from taking too much time on a few difficult questions.
If it's possible, print off the quiz or exam right after you have written it. You'll have a good source of material to help you prepare for the final.
When they don't do as well on midterms or exams as they would have liked, some students simply don't think about the exams again, other than to say, "I'll do better next time." Resist the temptation to forget about exams when they're over, and make an effort to review them thoroughly. Especially if you didn't perform as well as you wanted to, you'll need to determine why your performance wasn't as expected so you can adjust your studying and exam-writing strategies for improved performance in the future.
If your instructor doesn't return your midterms or exams, you'll need to make a special effort to review them. Email your instructor or visit him or her during office hours and request to see your exam, ideally within a few days of when marks were posted. You may not be able to take notes while reviewing your exam, but instructors are usually very willing to let you read through your exam.
Once you have the exam in front of you, try to determine why you chose an incorrect answer by asking yourself these questions:
Each of these examples calls for a different kind of correction strategy, rather than simply increasing the time spent studying. Some strategies are briefly discussed below. If you can't figure out why your answer was wrong, see your instructor or TA for help. Understanding why you've made an error is critical to preventing that error from happening again.
For more information on any of the ideas discussed in this handout, come to Learning Services, part of the Library and Learning Commons on the 1st floor of the Library. It's the best source on campus and online for advice and information on preparing for and writing exams: