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Tips for Computer-Based Multiple Choice Tests (CBT, CBE and CAT)

by S. Merritt on September 17, 2009

Multiple choice testing has changed dramatically over time. The earliest tests were marked by hand, question by question. Then came answer keys – templates that test markers could place over the tests to identify which bubbles were filled correctly. Later, computers were able to score the bubbles.

Over the years, however, computer based tests (CBT) or computer based exams (CBE) have become more popular. In these tests, students use computers to input their answers to the multiple choice questions. This has evolved into two main styles of computer-based testing, and a need for some specific strategies for taking the tests.

CBT/CET Multiple Choice Tests: Like Paper, Only Not…Paper
The first type of computer based test is the simplest, where the test is turned from paper to digital format, and the rules stay pretty much the same. Instead of filling bubbles to answer the multiple choice questions, you’re clicking a mouse or using a keyboard. You can work your way forwards or backwards through the test, in sequence, just like you would on a standard paper multiple choice test.

CAT Multiple Choice Tests: A Different Beast Altogether
Computer Adaptive Tests, or CAT’s, are tests that change based on how well you perform. Each question you answer impacts the next question. Answer incorrectly, and your next MCQ will be at the same difficult level. Answer correctly, and the test will, in theory, select a harder question for you to answer next.

This leads to some unique characteristics for computer adaptive multiple choice questions:

  • Each test-taker will get different MCQ’s
  • The questions will be in a different order
  • You can’t go backward and review your answers, or return to a previous question to change it
  • Unusual scoring algorithms, that take into account how long you take to answer a question or how many questions you skipped

Strategies for Computer Based Tests
Although the content and questions may be more or less the same, here are a few tips that will make a difference if your exam is computer-based:

  • Use scratch paper: because the MCQ’s are going to be presented on a screen, you may not be able to see all the information on screen at one time. Having and using scratch paper will allow you to jot down details, formulas, etc. while you look at other areas of the screen. This is going to save you a lot of up and down scrolling.
  • Try a Sample: Some exams, like the GMAT, will have a tutorial so that you become familiar with the test interface. If you can give this a shot before the exam, you can focus on the questions instead of the format during the exam itself.
  • Watch Your Time: This is particularly important. On paper, it’s easy to cycle through questions over and over again. On screen, it can be slow and awkward. You’ll need more time for cycling. On CAT’s, it’s not allowed, so you’ll need to structure your time even more. You won’t be able to skip the hard stuff, or get hung up on one question for too long.
  • Practice with a Ticking Clock: Some MCQ tests, like the GRE, have an actual clock on screen that counts down. This can cause some serious anxiety if you’ve never taken a test with a clock counting down in your face all the time. Try a few practice runs using a clock or watch.
  • Get The First Ones Right (CAT): Some CAT tests, like the GRE, will place more scoring emphasis on the first ten questions. That means you need to do your best to nail those ones, so you’ll want to allocate more time to them.
  • Know the Rules Up Front: Don’t be complacent about the format. Just take the few minutes to find out the scoring system and any details you can about the multiple choice question format, and how the computer handles it. It’s one less thing to worry about on test day.
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