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Strategies for Multiple Choice Exams

Strategies for Students in the Colleges of Applied Health Sciences, Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Public Health

Before the Test:

  1. While you may have gotten by with rote memorization in some of your prerequisite courses, that’s not going to work anymore. You need to make sure you understand the concepts behind the facts. This will help you recall the facts and it will also help you guess on questions you don’t immediately know the answer to.
  2. In the past you may have walked into exams knowing every last detail that might be tested, but that’s not likely to happen again. Learn to accept the fact that you can’t learn everything.
  3. Practice your test-taking by using practice exams and questions in review books. Focus on reading the Q’s analytically and thinking logically. (This is especially important for more conceptual courses such as physiology.) Do a set of 15 or 20 Q’s and then correct your answers by putting a check mark beside any Q you missed (at this point don’t write in the correct answer and don’t read the answer rationale provided in the book). Now go back and retry any Q’s you missed. This is an extremely important and helpful strategy if you are not a good test-taker! You will learn a lot by correcting your own analysis.
  4. While your studying should be serious and deep, you should think of the test itself as a game. Your goal is to use good test-taking strategies to get the maximum mileage out of what you know.

During the Test:

  1. As you sit down to take the test, remind yourself to expect some questions you don’t know the answer to. This helps you avoid getting upset with the professor or yourself. (Getting annoyed during an exam is distracting and it increases your stress.)
  2. Before starting the test, jot down 1 or 2 formulas or memory devices that you’re afraid you might forget.
  3. Skipping tough questions on math or chemistry exams can be a good strategy, but it’s often a poor strategy on multiple choice exams. Skipping questions is time consuming and it can also increase your anxiety level because you may worry about a skipped Q while you’re working on a later Q. Rather than skipping a Q, make an attempt to answer it now and simply put a star next to it so you can recheck it later if you have time.
  4. Don’t’ read the options before you have read and thoroughly understood the Q stem. (Reading the options first may work for simple memory-based questions, but not for questions that are more analytical.
  5. Read the Q stem, and then stop and paraphrase it by saying to yourself, “I see, I’m looking for ….” For example, after reading the stem “Most of the major health problems of adolescents” you might say to yourself, “I’m looking for the most common, really serious health problems that affect teenagers.”
  6. With some Q’s, you can go a step further after paraphrasing the stem: anticipate what you think the answer will be and then look for the best match among the options.
  7. If the answer is not readily apparent, use the process of elimination. Cross off all the choices that are clearly false. Now, re–read the Q stem as well as any choices you’re still considering. Then make your final choice.
  8. Once you’ve narrowed your options down to two, do not rush your final decision. Remind yourself that you’ve already invested a fair amount of time in this Q, so you might as well spend a few more seconds trying to identify the correct answer. (Nervous test-takers often rush this final decision as a way to get relief from the anxiety of uncertainty.)
  9. Never give up on a Q when you realize that you’ve forgotten something. Always try to eliminate at least some of the options by using logic. Remind yourself that your odds of getting the Q right go up with each option you’re able to eliminate.
  10. Re–read any Q stem that includes negative words (not, except, etc.) If you tend to make careless errors with this kind of Q, mark each option with a T or F and remind yourself that you’re looking for a false option.
  11. If you read too quickly and you sometimes miss a word or two, run a pencil under the words as you read.
  12. For longer, case-based Q’s, avoid rushing through the stem with minimal comprehension and then rereading everything. Instead, assess as you go – talk to yourself. (“Okay, I’m thinking there’s a nerve problem. Yes, this detail fits in with that. But there’s also a fever. Hmmm.”) It’s fine to glance back to pick up a few details (“How long has this been going on?”), but you shouldn’t have to reread everything.
  13. Don’t read into the Q any interpretations that were probably not intended by the test writer. Ask yourself what a reasonable person would mean by the wording – not what the words could possibly mean. In other words, don’t read the questions in a “paranoid” way.
  14. If two choices overlap or mean essentially the same thing, both are probably incorrect.
  15. Options that include absolutes (always, never, all, none, etc.) are usually wrong. Most things in life have exceptions.
  16. If two options are “partners” (opposites of each other or options with a one or two-word difference), look closely at the partners. Usually the correct answer is one of the partners.
  17. Don’t worry about those pesky options such as all of the above, none of the above, both B & C. Simply go through the process of elimination and then look back to see what is left behind (all, none, etc.) Tell yourself that sometimes these options are correct, but sometimes they are simply “filler.”
  18. If more than one option looks true and you aren’t offered a combination option (ie. both B & C), check to see whether one of the options includes within it the other options(s). In other words, look for an umbrella option.
  19. Worrying about tricky Q’s will only lead to oddball interpretations. Tell yourself that professors aren’t trying to trick you. Instead, they want you to think analytically and they want you to be careful about details. Both of these expectations are legitimate; medical people need to be analytical and they also need to notice details.
  20. You may need to work at “reframing” things, but do your best not to be annoyed or frustrated about the form or content of your exam. This is important! An athlete who does not accept the “fairness” of a competition will probably not perform well. Likewise, as a student, if you can’t talk yourself into seeing the exam as “fair,” your performance may suffer.
  21. Change an answer only when you have a concrete reason (one you could verbalize). Never change an answer because of a feeling (that’s usually nerves).
  22. Don’t try to be the first to leave. Use all of the available time to look for careless errors. Double-check your Scantron.

After the Test
If your college allows for this, try to make an appointment with your professor to go over your exam and analyze the reasons for your mistakes. This can be very helpful. (It’s analogous to a sports team getting ready for an upcoming game by watching the tapes of a prior game.)

Written by Cecelia Downs
UIC’s Academic Center for Excellence

1200 W. Harrison, Chicago, IL 60607
312-413-0032

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