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The art of taking multiple-choice-question tests and how to get the right answers.

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Most exam scores reflect the effort you put in.

College means something different to everyone, but those who consider it worthwhile would probably agree that grades are important. Tests are the biggest determinants of the final grade for common majors at most universities. More to the point, many tests are in multiple-choice form, which generally involves a set of questions with a handful of possible answers per question. I think someone out there could benefit from a comprehensive arsenal of tools to pick apart the multiple-choice test, so these are the quintessential guidelines.

By its nature, a test with 20 questions and 100 possible answers (20 correct ones) is surmountable, no matter what the content or material. We will look at test preparation as a function of the test. Therefore, each test should compel a unique approach.

If you knew the exam questions ahead of time, you could probably delimit the amount of material you had to study, so your first emphasis should be on the professor. It pays dividends to get a comfortable impression of the professor, who will in turn devise problems from his/her lectures. There are few stereotypical professors, but you will not quickly forget the type that assures you the exam will be taken verbatim from lecture content, which actually turns out to be useless on exam day. It is better to read the text thoroughly and attend no lectures than to memorize every lecture and leave the book in the condition you got it. However, even if that is the case, you will have a much better chance of scoring perfectly if you tap both resources.


Applying techniques to actual questions

Let us imagine an exam and discuss those approaches. Consider that the test has an answer key. The answer key is the scan-tron with the perfect maze of dark ovals; and, it is the scantron against which all the rest are compared. If there is a duplicate answer key, then someone has merely proven that it is possible to decode the information encrypted therein and shared among an elite group. Enough small talk, so in this scenario the exam will feature 48 questions, each with four choices. It would not be the same without real questions, so I am going to select five from an old exam. This is Econ 310, in case you are curious.

1) The bond markets are important because they are

a) easily the most widely followed financial markets in the United States.

b) the markets where foreign exchange rates are determined

c) the markets where interest rates are determined

d) the markets where all borrowers get their funds

In other words, the question could be why is the bond market important? Maybe A) is the answer, so our goal is to simplify the answer in the same manner. Words such as "easily" and "widely followed" are misplaced, because they are not objective. The only surefire way to steamroll an exam is to place all your confidence in the ones that epitomize objectivity; yes, you're right if you read that as there's no sure way, absent complete objectivity.

Now our answer choice is straightforward, because:

A) [The most followed financial markets in the United States] is a reasonably determinate choice.

See how the other answer choices have been redacted below.

B) [Where foreign exchange rates are determined]

C) [Where interest rates are determined]

D) [where all borrowers get their funds]

Which statement is a proper one about bond markets? If I guess blindly, I have a 25% chance of guessing correctly, but if I eliminate d), the probability becomes 33%. In fact, d) is a throwaway answer, because it uses a very unambiguous word, "all", which cannot be equivocal. If one borrower gets his/her funds elsewhere, the answer is rejected via proof by contradiction.

Other than d), even a proud pedant cannot narrow down the answer choices further. Nevertheless, A) seems unlikely, since just because something is "the most widely followed", it is not necessarily, inherently important, here especially.

The correct answer choice is c), but it cannot be found through sheer common sense, since b) is in the same exact format, and both answer choices hinge on a single term. One must know what "foreign exchange rates" and "interest rates" are, in order to answer accurately. If a guess is taken now, it is as good a bet to be right as it is to be wrong, and if a person is leaning toward one choice on top of it all, it should "probably" be the correct choice.

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2) Money is defined as

A) bills of exchange

B) anything that is generally accepted in payment for goods and services or in the repayment of debt

C) a risk-free repository of spending power.

D) the unrecognized liability of governments

These answer choices are solidly put, in their original form, and an informed guess is not possible. Curiously though, one answer choice sticks out visually, because it is so instructive. The longest answer is the best answer, and b) is it.



3) Evidence from the United States and other foreign countries indicates that

a) there is a strong positive association between inflation and growth rate of money over long periods of time

b) there is little support for the assertion that "inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon."

c) countries with low monetary growth rates tend to experience higher rates of inflation, all else being constant

d) money growth is clearly unrelated to inflation

It is important to be analytical in answering this question. The revised answer choices follow, but they have been tweaked from a different angle

a) Money Growth:Definite inflation

b) Money Growth:Unclear relationship to inflation

c) Low Money Growth:Inflation

d) Money Growth:No relation to inflation

Look closely, and see that a) and d) are opposite choices. b) and c) are choices thrown in to confound the reader, and c), especially, will cause confusion, since many people are likely to infer something from the answer choice that is not true. Several variables can co-relate, so it is a mistake to assume that one is perfectly correlated to the other, as a consequence of spurious reasoning (e.g. when it rains, people hold very heavy umbrellas, so, when it drizzles, people ought to hold light umbrellas). From one intensity or extreme to intensity, extreme, or threshold level, there are additional effects that can be activated, causing inconsistencies and the implication of any false assumptions that depend on continuity.

a) and c) are also opposite answer choices because they both support a relationship, but one is a direct relationship, while the other is an inverse relationship. The one constant among all choice is "inflation", so it must be key to the educational value of the question. Although most correct answer choices avoid being theatrical in tone, it is hard to safely throw out b). It does contain absolute terms in the quotes, but those terms are qualified by the vague quantifier, "little." In effect, it is a relative answer choice and a very weak one. Multiple-choice tests cannot encompass a thorough review of the material, so key points are squeezed into the correct answers. The concise assertions are nearly always serious candidates for the correct answer. Those pointed answer choices are not just short in length, but they convey substantial information. Therefore, the long winding choices are used to define terms, but the short and pointed ones are usually more central to the conceptual objectives of the course. It may seem ironic, but the idea is to make students understand complex theory for some rudimentary ideas and expand on the notions that might seem obvious but really are not so, between the superficial perceptions of the terminology and the underlying applications.

Note that answer choice d) is a negative assertion. It seems suspicious then, as a plausible choice. How much sense does it make to devote very credible information in the incorrect answer choices, when, ostensibly, the goal is to declare something untrue? Not much.

b) and d) are less solid answer choices than a) and c). b) is actually a pretty convoluted choice, and very few questions will include reams of information to digest into intelligible information. Unfortunately, the hardest questions will be the ones that contain answer choices like b), and they are just not as easy to disentangle as other questions.

So far I have avoided appealing to common sense, but general knowledge cannot be neglected altogether.


4) Financial markets have the basic function of

a) getting people with funds to lend together with people who want to borrow funds

b) assuring that the swings in the business cycle are less pronounced

c) assuring that governments need never resort to printing money

d) providing a risk-free repository of spending power

Okay, c) is false. d) is a repetition of an answer choice in the second question. This is so important, you should remember nothing else, if you remember anything. Do not make needless mistakes! Do not choose d) in answer 2) and answer 4), unless you think financial markets have the basic function of providing money and money is the basic function provided by financial markets from connecting the corresponding questions. Correct grammar is not a trivial matter, and gibberish must not be a logical conclusion of different answer choices. Great, both c) and d) are nonsensical, and the answer is as good a guess as being right or wrong; these are always excellent odds.


Q5 and conclusion

5) Which of the following statements about financial markets and securities is true?

a) A bond is a long-term security that promises to make periodic payments called dividends to the firm's residual claimants.

b) A debt instrument is intermediate term if its maturity is less than one year.

c) A debt instrument is intermediate term if its maturity is ten years or longer.

d) The maturity of a debt instrument is the number of years (term) to that instrument's expiration date.

If the question is asking about financial markets and securities, how could a), an overview of just one security, be a sensible answer? It is the equivalent of asking about eggs and dairy and hearing about a brand of organic eggs. This answer is an easy one to eliminate, since it has no meaningful relationship to the question at hand. A bond is not "about financial markets and securities", even though bonds are sold in financial markets, and it is one type of security. There is no distributive property in the answer, because it is not saying anything about financial markets and securities and general. If no claim can be made about the general from the specific, then it is a responsible decision to discard the extraneous details. b) and c) are even more egregious answers, since the information pertains to intermediate term, which then refers to maturity, thereby causing the original question to appear poorly worded at best. Answer choice d) is best, purely because it is the most logical selection. "The" is an indefinite article, and in this case, it is referring to something that the reader should be able to figure out. Answers a) b) and c) (b & c especially), make little sense, and might be considered entirely self-referential.

The probability of getting five correct answers, implementing just logic and reason, is the product of the individual probabilities of getting each answer correct; and, to be sure, 2.06% (1/3*1/4*1/2*1/2*1) is better than 0.097% [(1/4)^5].

The odds of getting at least three correct answers are 25% (with care) vs. 10.35% (without looking at the questions).

Sound Advice From Dr. Crystal Hendrick -- At 2:33, The Third Point Alludes to Our Discussion

Addendum -- Good Practices

To this point we have implicitly used logical rules to form the basis for reasoned judgments. The full extent of our knowledge is rarely well reflected in our performance on multiple choice question tests. It is not uncommon that a more knowledgeable test taker will receive a lower score than someone not as informed on the material. To that end it's useful to think about students who misinterpret the question and select the incorrect answer, inadvertently.

Certain good practices (listen in the order I've found to be most helpful) help in avoiding wrong answers due to errors:

  1. Literally first and foremost, one should skip through the factual details and read the question carefully for full comprehension of what knowledge is needed to select an appropriate answer choice. It may also help to conceal everything but the question itself before forming an opinion on what the question is asking; and, while deciding what form of an answer is necessary and representative of what the correct answer choice will look like. As an example, the question might say all of the following are true except for which given answer choice. Then, it becomes easier to affirm those things you know to be true and boost your probability of picking the accurate choice. Or, the question might ask which of the following choices is "best." One common mistake is endorsing a disorganized order of processes in answering questions via skipping the second most important step.
  2. The test taker must anticipate the correct answer using an approach that reflects his best understanding of material presented and a final self-justified view of what is the correct answer. This is quite important, not only because it reinforces the selection of correct answer choices where one actually has good comprehension, but because for certain types of questions -- and strings of similar questions -- it can serve as an effective double check.
  3. Once the student has arrived at his own thinking of the correct answer, after unbiased contemplation, the student should check if his answer is one of the choices. If it is, then the student should assume either that he has the correct answer or that he has a plausible answer choice designed to misdirect and prey on people overlooking a small piece of the puzzle that is, nevertheless, a point of instruction.

    Either way, the student now knows his line of thinking is pretty accurate in how the student has formulated his reasoning.The student's confidence in his/her caution being adequate is associated with how much trust the student should place in a correctly anticipated answer choice.

    But all answer choices must be considered, because to not consider an answer choice is to deprive oneself of a vital component in decision making; that is, it engenders feelings of circumspection to know that one has looked all available possibilities -- even ones that could defy rational expectation 1.

    If one has a misconception that the test is going along smoothly and then the person sees they have an answer that's way off the mark, they can realize the error of their ways before it's too late.Suppose the answer choices are so disparate in comparison to one's initial thoughts. Then one has a second chance to start from scratch and forget any assumptions.
  4. Given a pure form multiple choice question with a question that requires an answer in its own right -- that is, without respect to the other answer choices: Suppose you follow the first three steps and your preformulated answer is presumably wrong because it's not one of the choices. At this point, you must re-read the question and make sure you understand what is being asked. There are several common variations that follow:

    A. You know full well what is being asked. You know full well how to deduce the correct answer. You know that your answer is correct and you know that it's not one of the choices. Clearly, the instructor made an error.

    B. If you are at all unclear or unsure what the question is asking, perhaps the question is ambiguous. There could be multiple correct answers/interpretations; you know full well that your answer is correct according to one precise interpretation so, the instructor made an error.

    C. Or, if you are unclear or unsure what the question is asking, perhaps you don't understand a term; thus, you can't "know" what the correct answer is. Now, the art of conjecturing the correct answer is in play.

    D. You know full well what is being asked. You know full well how to evaluate each answer choice for correctness. None of the answer choices holds to be categorically correct. One of the answer choices would be correct if the question was along the lines of "...most accurate answer choice...?" By not qualifying it properly, the instructor failed to make the question rigorous enough to withstand scrutiny.
  5. Keep a proper pace. If you get stuck or have a doubt that could cause you to get stuck; if you make an educated guess or make an arbitrary guess, circle the question. If you gave it an educated guess, also try to notate the answers you have not been able to dismiss (the remaining choice), then move on to the next question.
  6. Review the circled questions after you have been through the test once. Apply every available tool to resolve them. Then skim through the complex questions and make sure you haven't made an error or oversight. Finally, double check your answers to the clear cut questions against what is on the scantron, just to make sure there's no transfer error(s).

Multiple choice questions are graded by machine; the questions are either chosen from a question bank or devised by an industrious teacher. At the end of the day, it is these biases that we exploit to choose answers, in some cases, for no other reason than they seem the most plausible. The astute exam taker knows the tendencies of the teacher; and, those tendencies are hints because the professor must choose questions suitable to his/her liking. Thus, if a professor conducts his/her class according to a predictable sequence, then the correct answer choices may directly relate to key concepts covered in class and emphasized for study.

Multiple choice questions sometimes overlap -- depending on the material. As an example, consider a question that you've narrowed down to two possible answer choices; now, consider that you're sure the correct answer to the next question is also one of those two same choices. In addition, both questions have different correct answers. This pattern crops up often. Depending on one's objectives, it could make sense to take an all or nothing guess, whereby a correct guess on one question equates to a correct guess on the corresponding question (via choosing different answer choices). Alternatively, it could make sense to hedge against a worst case scenario, whereby choosing the same answer choice in both question guarantees one correct answer and one incorrect answer.

General knowledge is a decisive advantage in multiple choice tests because answer choices follow a pattern of reasoning. If it's an algebra test, one might "plug and check" until the answer resolves itself. Early questions in a course dealing with legal concepts might provide definitions and prompt the student to choose which phrase/term fits the definition -- later on, more involved questions will crop up about one or two of those concepts, signaling that it's safe to eliminate other choices in the early questions. I'll try to write outline notable patterns here at a later time.

Heuristics -- Tactics -- and Rules of Thumb!

© Fredgoldstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Fredgoldstein | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

When Unclear About Specific Details.. Resort to... Using

Absolutely correct. To the point that we are conditioned to have our preferred modes of inferring conclusions unscientifically , we avail ourselves of "heuristic" shortcuts on a regular basis. What are some prosaic examples of heuristic problem solving?

1. The more something costs, the better the quality.

2. The shabbier something looks (on the outside), the shabbier its internal components.

3. The more consistent an observation, the more reason(s) is/are required to explain deviation(s).

4. The more intricate a story is, the more likely it is to have factual merit.

5. Between competing propositions, the one that creates the most resonance is the one that's likely to be taken more seriously.

Information for question 1 (see below)

  1. IDENTIFY what is ultimately being asked by the question
  2. PREDICT the correct answer based on best understanding
  3. COMPARE the anticipated answer to the available choices
  4. UNDERSTAND what knowledge is needed to answer

Considering the information given above, when answering multiple choice exam questions:

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. What is the proper sequence (earliest to latest) of steps?
    • Understand, Identify, Compare, Predict
    • Predict, Compare, Identify, Understand
    • Identify, Understand, Predict, Compare
    • Compare, Predict, Understand, Identify
    • Panic, Misinterpret, Dismiss, Rationalize

Answer Key

  1. Identify, Understand, Predict, Compare

© 2010 Sullen91


magoosh from Berkeley, CA on January 30, 2012:

I love the end point that just with some simple logic and reason you can increase your hit rate by over 2x. Test-taking is a certainly a skill that can be learned. nice work!

Sullen91 (author) from Mid-Atlantic Region, US on July 28, 2010:

Thanks for the suggestions. I'm going to try incorporating them when I have more time. On a side note, my position is to post every comment, whether it is flattery or fulmination.

2uesday on July 28, 2010:

Sullen, multi-choice test papers and exams are more interesting than they seem for a topic. I have seen some on subjects I have never studied and thought I could probably get a low grade pass on some of them by using commonsense to rule out two answers. If that guess was correct, I think I would possibly then have a

fifty-fifty chance of guessing the answer from the other two. Maybe not though.

re/ Your above comment about this article is correct, I find it hard to read large blocks of text on a laptop screen.

You could split it up, as you could then put it into more then one text capsule- if you give the second text capsule a suitable heading or leave it without a heading. When the hub is made in that way you sometimes get/fit more adsense ads in on the page. You can delete this if you want to, I do n't mind if you do.

If you have an Amazon account you could put relevant products on the page - say books such as revision guides.

Not that I know much about Amazon just it is available and I am trying it out on my pages.

Sullen91 (author) from Mid-Atlantic Region, US on July 22, 2010:

Haha. I'm glad someone can read that massive block of text.

Lifeallstar1 on July 21, 2010:

This is really cool to find. Thank you for the much needed information. :-) Jess

kellieshell on July 21, 2010:

aAthough I dont go to school, this hub is very interesting, useful, and very well written. You did a great job.

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