5 Strategies (and One Secret Weapon) for Acing Multiple Choice Tests

When it comes to taking multiple choice tests, there’s this common piece of advice that often gets thrown around. “When in doubt, always choose C.” Right? Or maybe for you it was B because this advice comes from everywhere.

Maybe you heard it from your dad or your teacher or you read it on the internet. I’m pretty sure that I heard it from some kid in my eighth grade history class named Jimmy, but as Abraham Lincoln once didn’t say, “Always independently verify advice given to you by eighth-graders named Jimmy”.

“Truer words have never not been said. So today we are gonna go over some more well-founded and useful advice that you can use to make sure you ace that next multiple choice test you got coming up in the future.

And I've got five main strategies to go through as well as one secret weapon of sorts, so let's just get started. First off, when those test papers flutter down to your desk, don't just start immediately going through the questions one by one in a linear fashion.

Strategy 1 – Skim Through The Questions

Instead, take a few minutes to go through and skim the test and just get a general overview of the questions. Now, as you're doing this, you can answer any of the questions that stand out as really, really easy or that you're really, really confident in, but another thing you're doing by doing this whole little skim once over the test before you actually start in earnest is you're priming your brain for some of the questions and details that are on the test as a whole.

And this can be really, really useful for a couple of different reasons. One, you're priming your brain to start thinking about some of the harder questions and we're gonna get to that in a minute, but number two, sometimes multiple choice tests will have questions that hold details and hints or sometimes outright full answers to other questions on the test.

For example, say you’re taking a history test one day and you come across a question like this. Which American President’s death caused Napoleon to order 10 days of mourning in France? The options are:

  • Yoda
  • George Washington
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • John Adams

Now, as you’re going over the answers, you can eliminate one of them right off the bat (erm… Yoda!), but the other ones, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, you don’t know which of the three is the correct answer.

So maybe you skip it, you go on into the test and then later, you come across a question like, true or false. Even though Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were bitter political rivals during the heyday of their careers, they eventually regained their friendship and kept it until both of their deaths in 1826.

Now that question just established that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died in 1826 and say that you knew from some other source that Napoleon himself had died in 1821. If you knew that, then that question answers the previous question because both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are not possible answers, because Napoleon died before them, therefore, it can only be Washington.

These kind of details and questions aren't always gonna crop up in your tests, and in any case, you probably shouldn't waste a whole ton of your test time digging around for 'em because, you know, preparation is a much better strategy.

You should hopefully come into the test prepared to answer most the questions in the first place, but it can be helpful in certain occasions, so just prime your brain with a little bit of a preliminary pass before you start in earnest.

Strategy 2 – If You Can’t Think Of The Answer Then Just Move On.

The second technique on my list is what Barbara Oakley's book A Mind for Numbers calls the Hard Start, Jump to Easy technique. And this is a technique where, basically, you jump into a difficult problem and you spend a couple of minutes thinking really deeply about it, but if you can't get the answer to that problem, you move on.

Now this is something you're teachers have probably told you in the past, just to save time on your tests, but there's another benefit that they might not have told you about. If you spend some time thinking about a hard problem, you're engaging your brain's focus mode.

And I know this focus and diffused dichotomy is something I talk about a lot in these videos, but it's really, really important. So while you're using focus mode, you are concentrating on the problem and you're using your conscious resources to try to solve it.

But once you jump into a different problem, your subconscious resources, the more distributed parts of your brain, work on that difficult problem in the background. And then when you go back to the problem a little bit later, you probably have a better chance of answering it.

Oh, and my apologies to Dr. Oakley, but we have got to get a better name than Hard Start, Jump to Easy technique. So I'm gonna go ahead and recoin it the Tiny the Tiger technique 'cause it's like that one boss battle in Crash Warped where you spend some time fighting the boss and then you switch over to avoid these tigers and go back and forth from there.

Strategy 3 – Read Every Question At Least Twice To Ensure That You Are Answering The Right Question.

Tip number three is to make sure that you read each question on your exam twice. Doing this is really, really important because multiple choice questions can be tricky and because they have a limited number of answers and those answers are just written out for you, it can be really tempting to simply skim over the question very quickly and then go to the answer that looks most familiar.

But professors can be pretty sneaky when they’re writing these kinds of questions, so you need to watch out for a few things that can trip you up. For example, some of the questions on your exams might ask you which of the following is not X, Y or Z.

And it can be really easy to fail to see that word, not, if you’re going through really fast and just skimming the questions. Other questions might actually have more than one correct answer and your job there will be to find the answer that is most correct.

And of course, in that vein, there are also all sorts of questions that have all of the above or none of the above as potential answers and I am not too proud to admit that in several classes during my college career, I took tests very quickly and failed to see these types of answers on a few questions, which I, of course, got wrong.

Strategy 4 – Double-Check Your Answers At The End Of Each Page.

Tip number four is a tactic that I found personally useful all throughout high school and college and it's to double check your answers as you get to the end of each page of your test instead of just waiting to do it all at the end.

And the reason this is so useful is that once you get to the end of a page on your test, you probably only have five or 10 questions to go over and because you have so few, you're probably not gonna rush or get intimidated by the number of questions you have to check and that's gonna decrease the likelihood that you'll skip over a dumb mistake or something that just should glaringly stick out and that's gonna increase your scores.

Now this is not a replacement for giving your test a good once-over once you’ve finished it. And I definitely think you should be budgeting time at the outset of the test to do that, but by adding this technique into your test-taking arsenal, you can increase your scores even more.

Strategy 5 – Try To Visualize Where And When You Learned The Answer.

Alright, let's move on to tip number five here. So if you come across a question that you just can't get the answer to, or maybe you feel like the answer's on the tip of your tongue, but you just can't quite get it, try to envision yourself in the room in which you learned that piece of information.

Maybe it was your classroom, maybe it was your normal study spot, but either way, science has shown that if you can envision the area where you learned something, it activates something called context-dependent memory.

Basically, humans are more able to remember things when they're in the context or location in which they learned them, but research done in 1984 showed that if people simply envisioned the place in which they learned something, they can sort of, channel some of that ability even though they're not physically in that room.

Now, if even that doesn't work, or maybe you've run across a question where you just absolutely have no clue what the answer is, you've never seen it before or you just can't eliminate any of the choices whatsoever, well, it's time to break out that secret weapon.

Strategy 6 – If All else Fails…

So, remember our friend Jimmy who gave us that old advice, you know, "When in doubt, pick C?" Well, yeah, Jimmy was wrong, but that's okay, because instead of following some dumb rule or just randomly guessing, you can actually use statistics to exploit the way in which human beings typically write multiple choice tests.

And that's because, as the author William Poundstone points out in his book Rock Breaks Scissors, humans are pretty bad at creating actual random distributions of answers. During his research, Poundstone collected over a hundred multiple choice tests from all sorts of different sources.

Schools, colleges, drivers exams, online quizzes, you name it, he got it. And that totaled over 2,400 questions. And what he learned from doing statistical analysis on all those questions was pretty surprising.

First off, he did discover biases for individual letter answers, but those biases changed based on how many answers were available on the question. For three answer questions, you know, A, B, C, there was no bias.

And for four answer questions, the bias turned out to be B, not C, though it was a very statistically small advantage. 28% versus the expected 25%. And then, when we go over to five answer questions, you know, A through E, it was actually E that was the most common answer and C was the least commonly right answer.

Those findings are just the type of the iceberg though, and personally, I find them far less interesting than all the other things he discovered. Including the fact that with true/false questions, there's a definite bias toward true answers being correct.

In his research, 56% of the time, true was the correct answer and only 44% of the time was false the correct answer. Even more interesting and potentially useful to you is the fact that a question has a higher than average likelihood of not having the same answer as the question that came before it.

So if you have one question on a test where you knew the answer was C, you're definitely sure of that, and then you move on to the next question and you're stuck, or maybe you've narrowed it down to C or D, then it's likely that D is the answer, not C.

And perhaps most astoundingly, for questions that had either an all of the above or none of the above answer present, that answer was correct 52% of the time, which means that if you’re stuck on a question and you can’t narrow it down, that answer’s your best bet.

Now even though I had fun calling these findings a "secret weapon" of sorts, I really want to emphasize that you should only use them when you're completely at a loss and you have to take a shot in the dark.

You should use every other technique in the book to narrow things down, to give yourself some space, to use that Tiny the Tiger technique because, at the end of the day, all you're doing is exploiting the way that people write tests.

You’re not actually learning anything and you’re not actually using your mental faculties to work with the actual information and content of the exam. Anyway, beyond all the tips, the most important aspect of your success on any multiple-choice test or any kind of test at all is preparation.

Becoming Smart!

It is said that with age comes wisdom. As a "senior" I would candidly say that were I able to live my life over again but retain all of the lessons that I have learned in my life, then the new, young me would enjoy a very different life than that which I have enjoyed. Experiences (good and bad) teach us life's lessons if you apply them. My intention with this blog is to provide a constant source of wisdom to you, gentle reader, in the hope that you can avoid some or more of life's mistakes and thus enjoy a better quality of life. My sources are global because applied wisdom is what counts.

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