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How to cram for multiple choice tests and other exams -- a methodical guide on studying efficiently and effectively.

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Midterms and Final Exams

If you are a student you need not dread exams, but instead you should embrace every objective exam, which will be multiple choice tests for our purposes. Test taking is a skill that can compensate for general indifference or apathy regarding course material. In most cases, provided a sufficient number of questions, you should be able to score higher than 95%, reliably. There are some qualifications to this assertion. Foremost, your instructor should provide you with an unambiguous guide as to where the exam questions will be derived from. If your instructor evades your inquiries or does not reveal what the source of the exam questions (related post re: nuts and bolts of informed, "reasoning" in answering actual test questions and making educated assumptions; useful information so please have a look if possible) will be, this guide will be of limited help to you. Assuming you are confident about the source of the questions (e.g. textbook chapters), with adequate preparation you should find the test easy.

Be Methodical -- Use Procedure to Formulate A Plan

Problem solving steps proposed by Robert J. Sterling:

  • 1. Problem Identification
  • 2. Problem Definition
  • 3. Resource Allocation
  • 4. Problem Representation
  • 5. Strategy Construction
  • 6. Monitoring
  • 7. Evaluation

1. Acknowledge a desire and/or need to perform "well enough" on the upcoming test despite limited time.

2. What is "well enough" and how is it possible to do well -- what will help to perform well enough?

3. What resources will be utilized; what means will be used out of those that are available?

4. What kinds of actions are appropriate to achieve the score needed?

5. What process of actions will be undertaken to achieve the score needed?

6. Is the process of actions being undertaken adequate to the situation? What adjustments should be made?

7. Did the process of actions achieve an acceptable solution; did it work?


Joe has been slacking off all semester. With the weekend almost over (it's Sunday and 6 PM), there's 62 hours left until the final exam. Joe needs to get a B (80%) in the class for his program of study.


1. "I need to deal with this final exam predicament (!?) so I can get a B in the class."

2. Having checked the syllabus, Joe sees that the final grade depends on a weighted average score which includes: a project, two midterms, and the final exam.

The project is worth 15%; each midterm is worth 20%; the final exam is worth 45% of the final grade. Joe retrieves his graded work.

He received 90/100 on the project; 84/100 on midterm 1; 60/100 on midterm 2. He has received 42.3 points so far (out of 55 possible points) during the semester.

He needs 37.7 points (out of 45 possible points) on the final exam to receive a B in the class. Thus, he needs to score 83.78% or better on the final exam. The final exam consists of 50 multiple choice questions -- each worth the same number of points (2). Joe should not miss more than eight questions on the final exam!

3. The exam questions will be based on five textbook chapters (11-15). In addition, there will be an extra five questions taken directly from the lecture notes for 10 points of possible extra credit. The instructor has posted a study guide of the information that will be covered on the final exam. Joe certainly noticed, having taken two midterms already that the instructor models his test heavily on previous class discussions of certain topics that appear in the textbook.

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Joe has been absent during many class meetings; he decides to spend a few hours gathering information about the classes he missed from a few friends. He figures at least half of the exam questions will be directly related, so it is definitely worth spending a few hours determining what was emphasized during class meetings. Joe will review the lecture notes as an additional point of reference to what he should study. He'll spend resources of four to six hours preparing relevant resources. He'll spend almost all other waking hours cramming.

4. Joe knows he will study the textbook pages related to class discussion; he will also read to get an overview of any other pages in the chapters. Joe will also make use of the lecture notes and study guide. He'll try to study concepts that he believes to be similar in form to those which much of the last two midterm questions were derived from.

5. Heretofore, Joe has methodically built up his plan of action to address his problem. He has asked and answered the question: How will I cram? I will study (only) what is/has: pertinent, familiar, perceived high value, perceived high-value priority, and most favorable to study according to these criteria -- possibly at the expense of not studying other material.

  • Joe is familiar with some of the material (he wasn't totally oblivious to important ideas); he is well oriented enough to have an elementary -- and even detailed -- understanding of some of the ideas. With further study, he'll try to build on his existing knowledge, across sections/chapters where it is already concentrated in pockets, in order to consolidate a strong grasp of the material over a sizable chunk of the overall content.
  • He'll try to rehearse the lecture notes especially well, to have a good chance of receiving 10 extra credit points and a good time: points trade-off.
  • Since each chapter covers concepts that are distinct from each other, he decides it should be okay to truncate his study of at least one chapter, perhaps chapter 15 -- to which he doesn't have prior exposure.
  • The chapter which is foreign to Joe happens to be one that was implicitly emphasized in multiple class meetings. Joe decides rather than to briefly survey this chapter he will do so for the one that least coincided with class discussion and activities. Because, although it is potentially time consuming in this case, studying what's most likely to appear throughout the test is his first priority.
  • Joe will study chapter 15 first when he wakes up on Monday. He reasons it will be easier to rehash and remember if he studies it on more on than one day. This is the most important chapter, so it can't be trivialized. Joe demonstrates adherence to an important principle:

Under severe time constraints, it is better to have a weak understanding of what's "important" and a moderate understanding of what's "less important" than to have a strong understanding of what's less important and no understanding of what's important. Because, if what’s "important" is 'featured' on the exam, it means trouble and a pitched battle to guess on every third or fourth question. Disregarding a chapter/source altogether can sink a person outright, no matter how well they understand the other material. How unsettling having to parse a string of questions you know nothing about! It can be nerve-wracking enough to wreck your confidence in answering other questions and ultimately, it can blow up in your face.

Reaching step 5 is a good sign. It is where the rubber meets the road. Taking your unique situation into account, the strategy consists of taking what you need to study from the previous step (hopefully there's reasons/criteria justifying this) and configuring options by reconciling the considerations. For example, recognizing that you can't study everything in detail is a consequence of balancing too little time with studying everything well. Choosing what not to study well should be a consequence of judgment, based on what you know to be true. If the instructor says not to worry about studying something, don't. If the instructor minimizes the importance of studying something, it may be a reason not to study it. If you can't understand something and you know you for sure you wouldn't understand it by any means on the day of the test, why study it? If you can gain complete mastery of 81% of the material and you need 80%, and you can't guarantee your proportionate overall understanding will be 81% if you had to study the other 19%, then it might make sense to deemphasize that part which poses a suboptimal expected outcome. If you're good at rote memorization, and rote memorization will give you easy points or work out to your favor, then it could make sense to abandon comprehension to whatever extent it would waste time and hamper your ability to do better.

In short, prioritize, combine, and optimize. If step 5 is carried out properly, the whole should be greater than the sum of its parts.

Don't skip anything altogether unless you are sure it won't blow up in your face.

  • Joe created a schedule and put each task on a timeline.

6. Joe took a practice assessment on chapter 15 after studying for eight hours (two hours more than he intended to take); he got 75% of the questions right and decided he was two hours behind schedule but 25% better off than where he thought he'd be in comprehending the chapter. Joe decided to rest for a while and then study some of the lecture content. Half an hour into reviewing the lecture notes, he felt like he was getting more confused than anything else. He determined it would be better to relax and sleep on what he had learned in chapter 15, then wake up early tomorrow and take a closer look at the study guide. He changed his mind about thoroughly reviewing the lecture slides to get extra credit points -- it was futile and pointless...

Step 6 is crucial. You must utilize every question and exercise for which the answers are available to simulate your level of understanding, provide feedback about your progression, and, broadly, signal whether your ongoing efforts are meeting with success or failure. Practice is the perfect way to strengthen your motivation because if it is shows good results, the method is working -- be it in depth study of the every word or swift incisive substantive points.

Ready, go

Let us say that you have a final exam worth 25% of your final grade, and it will include 50 multiple choice questions; in addition, it will be based exclusively on the text chapters 3-5 and 8-10. Thus far you have not been doing so well, so you really need to crush this exam.

Well, here is how: Count up the page numbers between chapters; so if the average chapter is 30 pages long, you have about 180 pages to study. Next, determine the conditions under which you study best. For example, caffeine in doses of 150 - 300 mgs is an excellent short term study aid, but the optimal effects might last only 4 or 5 hours. Now, make sure you have everything you need, including water bottles, lighting, and a comfortable place to rest your textbook and your body (this is important). Determine a realistic estimate of how many pages you should aim to study. For example, some cutoff points make sense, such as a daunting chapter that is very long. So let's say you decide 50 pages is a good target, because you can study 10 pages/hour. In my experience, 8 pages/hour allowed for me to fully absorb all the main points, the secondary points, lists, side notes, and basically anything remotely pertinent to what would later appear in exam questions. Granted, you must really be committed and be willing to study rigorously.

At the outset of each chapter is a list of objectives; make sure to memorize these objectives in sequence. This will help you psychologically, because you will be able to see the chapter subdivided into these objectives and know when you have fully covered one objective or are nearing the end of one, which will usually produce 1-3 exam questions, based on the scenario outlined above. Go ahead and begin reading the chapter. In the opening page, there will usually be a set of ancillary points to be covered on the top; scan these but don't pay as much attention as you have to the chapter objectives. We have delayed long enough, but it is time to dive into the text.


Start reading and grapple with the sea of words by focusing on each sentence or string of related sentences. Remember, caffeine can help here. No matter how text heavy a page is, 5-7 minutes is enough time to digest most of its contents. Pace yourself and if you find yourself lagging behind, improvise and ignore those elements of the text which are not as important, such as boxes in the margin that refer to extraneous information, for the person who wants to go the extra mile and do research or follow up. Always make sure to memorize highlighted words, definitions, and any text that appears different to signify it is vital information. Sometimes you will encounter a clause or passage that does not make sense, because the author(s) have used poor wording. Fear not, but try to relate whatever you can make of the idea to your personal experiences, and update your understanding if possible as the chapter progresses. Eventually you will reach the end of the chapter; at this stage, you want to read the summary, which should appear rudimentary to you, if you have been studying the right way. If there are multiple choice questions, fill in the blank questions, or an assessment of any kind that is not too cumbersome, make sure to answer. This will give you an idea of how well you've been able to incorporate the information into your understanding and how you stand to perform on a test based solely on that information.

Repeat the process until you feel that you're not comprehending (yielding) as much information, or until you feel that you have reached the benchmark you set out for yourself.

If possible, you want to study in intervals, because the more times you can access the information with a fresh mindset, the better you will be able to identify and acquire new information and consolidate existing information. I have studied for major exams in two 12 hour study sessions and performed quite well, but there is a greater risk of losing information from your memory completely or not being as comfortable with the content in its nuances and fine details, which will hurt your grade.

More on the technical aspects of choosing which material to study intensively and which to study lightly, or whether it is better to study all material with a more balanced approach -- later on. Also, the art of answering multiple choice questions -- soon.


Delonte on January 07, 2015:

I might be beaitng a dead horse, but thank you for posting this!

Sullen91 (author) from Mid-Atlantic Region, US on November 14, 2013:

Caffeine increases alertness. It's in the context of "cramming" that I refer to it. Everyone should exercise individual judgment based on their own experiences.

Steel Engineer from Kiev, Ukraine on November 06, 2013:

NoDoz, tea, coffee, "energy" drinks and etcetera actually reduce mental ability. They strip valuable Magnesium and other minerals from the blood stream. The reduction lessens recall time and muscle function. To cleanse the caffeine, the kidneys use a lot of water to flush it out. Dispersed into that water are all the minerals your body needs.

There are long-term consequences.

A good remedy to replace Mg is pumpkin seeds. They are very high in Mg and low in Calcium (which counters Mg in the blood stream and in muscle action.)

gotmaduece on January 23, 2013:

good info, must give 2 daughter to read, thank u, u have been very helpful here.

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