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Multiple Choice Exams: How to Prep

The Moment of Truth

As a sophomore at Penn, and after two unfortunate biology midterms, I knew I had to change my study habits. For other classes, like philosophy and chemistry, I prepared for the tasks I would perform on the exam. I wrote outlines for philosophy and solved problems for chemistry, so I thought that answering a ton of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) before the final exam would work just fine. I mean, how many different ways could I possibly be asked about the content?

Turns out there were enough ways for me to be very confused on that exam. In fact, there are several types of MCQs: single-correct answer, best answer, negative, multiple true-false, and multiple response. Each of them can be used to test a variety of thinking skills from rote memorization to critical evaluation (Burton et. al., 1990).

To Prepare Well, Train your Thinking Skills

Aside from understanding the content, in order to prepare well, we need to develop the skills necessary to perform well. In the case of multiple-choice exams at the university level, these skills are application, analysis, and evaluation, primarily (see Figure 1). We can train those skills by getting creative with the study activities we engage in! Let’s get to know multiple choice questions a little better first, however.

This image depicts the the 6 thinking skills found in Bloom's taxonomy and emphasizes application, analysis, and evaluation.
Figure 1: Thinking skills at the University level. Adapted from “Bloom’s Taxonomy” by the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

The Primary Objective: Analyze and Evaluate

Multiple choice questions (MCQs) are composed of a stem (prompt), a correct answer and two or more incorrect statements. The primary objective for many types of MCQs is to analyze and evaluate each statement (Burton et. al., 1990). Part of our studying, then, should be focused on training our ability to analyze information in the stem and alternatives and to evaluate the correctness or relevance of each choice.

Easy, right? Well, not quite. Without test questions and some guidance or structure for how to think, it can be challenging to analyze information in an engaging way. This is why I suggest using a browser-based digital flashcard maker called, Quizlet!

With Quizlet, you and your study group—if you have one—can import content from Google Docs, Word, or Excel and turn them into flashcards. Quizlet, then, allows you to self-test in 4 different ways and there is even a mobile app called, Quizlet Learn! I think the Matching and True/False question types are particularly helpful because each type of question helps you train your ability to analyze possible answers. If you plan to use the Multiple-Choice question type, just make sure that you insert questions as your terms instead of a single word or phrase.

Just One Disclaimer

With that said, I have to make one disclaimer. Because Quizlet uses a computer program to generate these questions, it may be easier to choose the correct answer than on an exam. The mobile app claims to modify the difficulty of questions as you go, but I think this can only take you so far. Go to the next level by identifying any decent questions and modify the statements, the stems (the prompts at the top) or the distractors (incorrect answers) to make them more challenging. This process of modifying and improving questions will help you to train your ability to analyze and evaluate as well.

Other Great Alternatives

Even if you decide that Quizlet does not fit your specific needs, transform your study sessions by taking the time to apply, analyze, and evaluate your course content! Other methods include:

  • Making concept maps to identify the connections between the big ideas in your lectures
  • Creating flow charts to think through the steps in a pathway or process
  • Annotating important representations like pathways, graphs, and diagrams
  • Explaining your problem-solving process in words

Learning instructors would be happy to discuss multiple choice exam prepartation with you more in a virtual appointment! Call us at 215-573-9235 today!

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Instructor

References:

Burton, J. S., Sudweeks, R. R., Merrill, P. F., & Wood, B. (1991). How to prepare better multiple-choice test items: Guidelines for university faculty. Department of Instructional Science, Brigham Young University Testing Services. Retrieved April 17, 2020 from http://testing.byu.edu/info/handbooks/betterItems.pdf.

Armstrong, P. (2015). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Vanderbilt University. Center for Teaching. Retrieved April 17, 2020 from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy/.

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