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Succeed at Exams

What is a multiple choice exam?

  • A multiple choice question usually includes a statement or questions followed by 4 or 5 choices.
  • You must select the best answer from the choices given.  Selecting the best answer is sometimes a straightforward process, but often it can be challenging. 

What makes multiple choice exams challenging?

  • Multiple choice may be an unfamiliar format if you are used to essay or short answer exams.  
  • Multiple choice exams can be long.  It can take concentration and energy to stay focused and to read each question carefully.
  • When reading through a multiple choice question, it can be easy to select the first answer that looks right, rather than evaluating each possible answer one at a time.
  • Multiple choice questions might be worded awkwardly, and it takes additional effort to decode those questions.
  • There are often two choices that look right, and it can be difficult to decide which is the correct answer.
  • You might assume that multiple choice questions will focus on basic terminology, but multiple choice questions can test you on complex material.  Make sure your study methods and depth of understanding fit your instructor's expectations.

What are some strategies for studying for multiple choice exams?

  • Find out what content the exam will cover. Check the course outline or ask your instructor.‚Äč
  • Analyze the course outline, review previous tests and quizzes, and use your course notes to determine the type of knowledge (factual details, conceptual understanding, or a combination) that the instructor might emphasize on the exam.
  • Use active study methods to learn and review information.  For ideas on how to study actively, see our guide Study Smarter, Not Harder, or try making a concept map or integrating your notes.
  • Memorize content in short, distributed chunks of time rather than long sessions.
  • Test yourself periodically while studying. A common error is to study only to the point where you can recognize the correct answer. However, you will also be tested on your ability to apply facts and concepts in questions you haven’t seen before.

What are some strategies for writing multiple choice exams?

  • Read the question carefully:
    • underline key words
    • translate the question into your own words
    • make note of terms that the instructor has bolded or underlined.
  • Before looking at the choices, think of the correct answer.   
  • Read all the alternatives carefully, even if the first one seems right, and highlight key words. Choose the best answer from the choices available – more than one may seem right.
  • If you still don’t know the answer, guess if you are not penalized for doing so.

How do I budget my time in a multiple choice exam?

  • Calculate the amount of time you can spend on each section or question according to the number of marks it's worth. 
  • Leave time at the end of exam to return to unfinished questions.
  • Work quickly and skip questions that you can’t answer right away.  Cross out options that are obviously wrong to save time when you return to the question later

How do I deal with difficult questions?

  • Pay close attention to negatives and absolute terms like “always” or “never”.
  • Watch out for distractors — extraneous bits of information that might distract you from the real purpose of the question. Cross out the distractors and underline the key points to help you maintain focus.
  • Treat each alternative as a true-false statement, and search for the one true statement amid the alternatives.
  • If you're debating between two similar answers, try identifying which is the worse answer, rather than which is the better one.
  • Keep in mind that these techniques will not work for all questions, and that they can be time-consuming. Try them out in a practice exam first.

What can I do after the exam?

  • Review your marked exam to see where you have gone wrong, and what you have done well. If your instructor doesn’t routinely return exams, go to office hours and ask if you can see your exam to learn from your errors.
  • Use the Analyzing Exam Errors LibGuide to help you go over feedback.

Strategies for studying: Find practice questions

  • Textbooks and lab manuals often have multiple choice questions, though some students find that these are much easier than the ones on the exam.
  • Some textbooks have websites; check these out for possible review questions.
  • Some instructors post practice questions on CourseLink.
  • Different textbooks on the same subject can also be good sources of practice questions.  Check the library for these.

Strategies for studying: Create your own practice questions

  • Creating exam questions helps you to see the information from your lecture and text notes translated into the multiple choice format before the exam. Try these ideas when creating questions:
    • Turn the headings and subheadings in the textbook into questions
    • Turn key concepts from lecture notes into questions
    • Review previous tests or midterms to figure out the question style your instructor prefers
    • Prepare questions on a section of a chapter, and then trade questions with a study partner.  Answer each other's questions.
  • Limit the time you give yourself to write practice questions (just like during the exam) and correct your answers.

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