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Top Tips for Multiple-Choice Written Exams

As we head into exam season, it is worth doing a bit of exam training with your students. Exam technique will only take students so far, but if they are well-prepared, at least it means that you will be giving them the best chance to show what they can do. They should go into the exam feeling confident and it will minimise the chance of them underperforming on the day. Today, we are going to focus on multiple-choice exam papers. 

Know the Exam Basics

  • How long is the exam?
  • Do I record my answers on the question paper, or is there a separate answer sheet? 
  • Am I allowed to make notes on the question paper? This is important because it is sometimes useful to underline or highlight important words or phrases in a text, or to tick a couple of possible answers so that you can review them later before recording your final choice. 
  • How do I need to record my answers? For example: write the letter, circle the correct letter, mark with a cross, shade in a box? 
  • What other information do I need to put on my answer sheet? For example: name, class, teacher, date of birth? 
  • If the questions relate to a reading text, do the questions appear in order, or might they relate to different sections of the text randomly? 
  • Should I tick more than one answer? Most multiple-choice exams require only one answer and if you give more than one, you will not get a mark. However, for some forms of multiple choice, you may need to tick two or more answers. Double-check this. 

Know the Marking Scheme

  • How many questions will there be? 
  • Are there different types of question?  
  • If so, what are they and how are they different? 
  • Are some questions worth more marks than others?
  • How long do I have for each question?
  • Have I allowed myself time for a final read through and check? 
  • Should I allow more time for some question types?
  • Find out if the test penalises incorrect answers. 

Top Tips

  • Read the instructions carefully. Multiple-choice test instructions vary, as do the methods of recording your answers and correcting answers. Make sure you understand what you need to do. 
  • Next, go through the test and answer any questions to which you know the answers. Do this quickly – working at speed focuses your attention and will also increase the time you have to review the more difficult questions. 
  • If you do not know the answer to a question, just put a small mark beside it and move on to the next one.
  • When you have answered as many questions as you can, go back over the others using some of the strategies provided.
  • Unless incorrect answers are penalised (and few multiple-choice exams do this), always answer every question. There is always a good chance of getting the right answer, especially if you can narrow down the options. 
  • If you change your mind about an answer, make it really clear which is your final choice. You may be given instructions about how to amend an answer. Remember that you will not get a mark if it is not clear which answer you have chosen.

Choosing the Correct Answer

  • Read the question carefully.
  • If possible, see if you can answer the question without looking at the choices – if it’s a paper test, you can use a sheet of paper to cover the answers until you have guessed. 
  • Then, reveal the answers and see if one matches the answer you have in your mind. 
  • If it does, great! If you cannot guess the answer ‘blind,’ consider each of the answers provided. 
  • Make sure you read all the options. Sometimes, there is a partially correct answer or an answer which is less good - so, make sure you don’t miss the best answer! 
  • If you are sure or pretty sure you know the answer, complete the answer for this question, then move on to the next. 
  • If you do not know the answer, think about whether you can eliminate one or more of the possibilities. However, only eliminate an answer if you are 100% sure it is incorrect. Elimination may confirm your choice or at least narrow down the options. 
  • If you cannot remember the answer, try to think of related facts. Because of the way memory works, it can trigger related facts, and you may even suddenly remember what you could not call to mind.
  • If you are filling in a missing word in a language frame, check if the options all make sense grammatically.

How to Spot Distractors

Along with the correct answer, every question will have options that are incorrect. These are called distractors. Whilst it is impossible to give a fixed set of rules for how to spot them, here are a few hints that may help: 

  • Longer answers may be more likely to be correct because they may need to be qualified to be correct. 
  • If there is one option that is completely different to the others (what is called an outlier), it is probably a distractor.
  • Some guides suggest that strong qualifiers in answers(all, none, always, exactly, must) indicate an incorrect answer; and weak qualifiers (sometimes, often, usually, may) indicate a correct one. Although this is not correct, it is still worth paying close attention to these kinds of words – as they can make a seemingly correct answer, incorrect - and vice versa. 
  • Question-setters often use, in one of their answers, an exact word or phrase from a comprehension text. Beware of these ‘echo’ phrases. Contrary to some guidance, this does not give a strong indication whether the answer is correct or not. However, as with qualifiers, these echo phrases are worth attending to. Go back to the text and try to understand the phrase in its context. 
  • Do not discount an answer just because it contains vocabulary you don’t know. Instead, try to use strategies such as breaking down the word into its components, to try to make sense of it. 

Final Checks

  • When you have finished, re-read each question to make sure you haven’t misread it - then double-check that your chosen answer makes sense. Especially, watch out for negative words like “not” which are easy to skip and which might have caused you to choose a completely wrong answer. 
  • Check you have not missed any questions. It is not uncommon for students to miss out questions - or even whole sections - by mistake. Check both sides of every page on the question paper! 
  • Look to see you have marked all your answers clearly and unambiguously– and have followed any instructions provided about amending answers. 
  • Finally – always make sure you have written your name on the paper before you hand it in. Otherwise, all your hard work might have been in vain!

These tips are also available as a downloadable PDF to be used as a handout for your students.

Written by Mike Turner




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