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, they learn, 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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
grammeatical 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
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.
Click here to do a
sample multiple choice test on this handout.