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Thou Shalt Pass: 10 Commandments for Multiple Choice Tests

by S. Merritt on September 6, 2009

Here are a few “commandments” for taking multiple choice question exams – these simple tips can make a great difference your results:

  1. Use real multiple choice questions to study
  2. Don’t lock yourself to a fixed study schedule
  3. Structure your material
  4. Focus on learning, understanding, and context – not straight memorization
  5. Cycle through the test – don’t answer in sequence
  6. Answer the easiest questions first
  7. Don’t linger on something you don’t know, or can’t figure out quickly
  8. If you’re easily confused, cover the answers while reading the questions and try to answer without looking
  9. Adopt an “I’ll answer that later”, as opposed to an “I don’t know that” attitude – trust that the answer will come
  10. Remember that multiple choice test-taking is a skill

1. Use multiple choice questions to study

Multiple choice questions are more than a test format – they’re a skill. That means that answering them is something that can be learned and improved upon.  Old tests and exams, sample questions and even”home made ” multiple choice questions can help you simply improve your level of skill. Remember: you’re being tested on your ability to deal with the test format, not just the course content!

2. Don’t lock yourself into a fixed study schedule

Inflexible study schedules aren’t effective. They don’t allow for learning speed, material difficulty, and other factors. They also don’t allow you to practice the mental flexibility required to do well on multiple choice questions. Multiple choice questions require you to be flexible and nimble in your approach; you need to be able to jump from question to question rapidly, and without anxiety.  Fixed study schedules don’t help.

3. Structure your material

Multiple choice questions are highly structured and condensed blocks of information. Your study notes should be, too. If you continue to study from your original source material – text books, etc. – you’re missing a valuable opportunity to put your brain in multiple choice test mode. Try to condense your material, and rewrite it in hierarchical fashion.  For example:

  1. Topic
    • Subtopic
      • Content
      • More content

4. Focus on learning, understanding, and context – not straight memorization

Memorizing large quantities of material is hard work.  The better you structure your material and understand it, the easier it will be to recall during multiple choice exams.  If you truly understand the material, you’ll also find it easier to apply to new problems you haven’t seen before.

5. Cycle through your multiple choice test – don’t answer in sequence

Make multiple passes through the exam. It’ll help you finish on time, get your brain “in gear”, and you may even find the answer to earlier multiple choice questions later in the exam.

6. Answer the easiest questions first

Why not? Move fast, get the easy grades, and get in the groove.  Answering the easy multiple choice questions first makes the harder questions easier!

7. Don’t linger on something you don’t know, or can’t figure out quickly

If you don’t know the answer to a multiple choice question, or can’t figure it out quickly, move to the next one, and come back later.

8. Cover the answers while reading the questions and try to answer without looking

Studies show this can be extremely helpful for people who have trouble with the multiple choice test format.

9. Adopt an “I’ll answer that later”, as opposed to an “I don’t know that” attitude – trust that the answer will come

Test anxiety is high in the initial stages of a multiple choice test. If you don’t know an answer, don’t worry.  Just assume that you’ll answer it on your next pass.

10.  Remember that multiple choice test-taking is a skill

Remember that for best results, you need to improve at the test format itself, not just the course content. In addition to prepping for the SAT, for example, you also need to practice the multiple choice question format.

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