Taking Multiple Choice Tests

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Creating the Questions

Take a couple of minutes to make up a couple of multiple-choice questions about the things around you. I'll wait.

You may have found that this is not as easy as it looks. Some questions are trivial:

My car is a:

Anybody has a shot at getting this question right, even if he's never seen your car. Other questions are nit-picky:

My car is a:

Even the driver of this car might have a problem! Avoiding the two extremes is not easy. For another example, look at these two questions:

Professor Dutch is:

Professor Dutch is:

In the case of the first question, even somebody who knows nothing about me would probably guess the correct answer. On the other hand, somebody who knows me very well might have trouble with the second question (I am 5 feet 11 inches tall).

Strategies for Taking Multiple-Choice Tests

The point of this little exercise is that good multiple-choice questions are not easy to write and that you can anticipate a lot of multiple-choice questions by putting yourself in the professor's shoes. A professor who doesn't want a lot of complaints about unfair tests soon learns that :

Sneaky tip: an answer with a glaring typo is often a wrong answer. The tester may have proofread the correct answers carefully, but not the incorrect ones.

Where Will the Questions Come From?

With those points in mind, what are some good sources of brief questions with unambiguous, brief answers?

A couple of suggestions for taking the test

Bright students often cheat themselves out of points on multiple-choice tests by violating the first four points above. The ability to simplify things to essentials and not become bogged down in extraneous details is a critical intellectual skill, and being able to take multiple-choice tests well is a consequence of that skill. Besides, bright students almost always make up far more points in correct answers than they lose by being over-attentive to details.

Do a Post-Mortem

After you get the test back, look it over for patterns.

Did you miss a lot of "all of the above" or "none of the above" questions? Chances are you're not reading the answers all the way through. Don't pick the first answer that looks right; make sure it's the best answer.

Did you miss a lot of questions because of not knowing the terms? Easy. Work on learning the terminology better.

Did you miss a lot of fill-in-the-blank questions? Read the question through and put the answer in the blank for each answer. Is the sentence true? Does it make sense?

Did you miss questions involving formulas? Make sure you can apply or at least calculate any formulas that might be on the test.

Did you miss "everybody knows" questions? Never gloss over things you think you already know. There are always new details, and sometimes what you think you know isn't so.

See the instructor immediately if you did poorly. Don't say "Oh, I'll do better next time. One bad exam can drop you to a B or C. Two bad exams can drop you beyond recovery.


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Created 15 Jan 1996
Last Update 06 September 2011

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