Multiple-choice exams - Preparation and Writing Strategies

Aren't final exams quite the challenge? We recognise that for most students, this time is critical since it influences whether you proceed with your university studies or if you graduate. We thought it would be beneficial to familiarise you with various formats of university examinations to help you feel better prepared. In this post, we will outline preparation and writing strategies for multiple-choice exams. We previously covered the oral exam type and will cover the essay-writing exam type in an upcoming post. 

Multiple choice exams:

Exams with multiple choice questions can be distinguished from other exam formats and call for a unique approach to study. In multiple choice exams, students need to recognise a correct answer among a set of 3 to 4 wrong answers to a statement or question. These 3 to 4 wrong answers are called distracters. Therefore, the answer is included in the exam questions rather than an exam asking a student to produce a correct answer by formulating one entirely on their own. Because of this, there is this misconception that multiple-choice assessments are straightforward and easier the most exam types. We’re about to debunk this myth, but first, we will list a few reasons why people may feel this way. 


Perhaps the most obvious reasons for the consideration above are the following:

  • There is a guarantee that the correct answer is among the set of options, which allows students to score points by making a lucky guess.
  • Multiple-choice exams do not require students to analyse new information or apply theories to new situations. Many tend to bring emphasis on basic definitions, ideas, or comparisons. 
  • There are usually more questions in multiple-choice assessments than in a standard essay examination, which may consist of 3 to 4 essay questions. 

Although some people love taking multiple-choice exams for the reasons stated above, they are not for everyone. You know the old saying: different strokes for different folks.


Multiple-choice tests can be challenging for the following reasons:


  • You need to feel confident and familiar with the course material because multiple-choice exams contain a lot of questions. As a result, feeling prepared for such an exam after only a few chapters and taking notes from the textbook is nearly impossible.
  • Details are significant for answering multiple-choice questions since, unlike other exam formats, multiple-choice questions often require students to know more specific information like dates, names, or vocabulary. You will not achieve the best scores on such an exam by skimming through the course material; you must extensively revise and comprehend the information to answer the questions correctly.
  • The risk of unclear questions in multiple-choice exams is also higher since it is more difficult for the examiner to develop high-quality multiple-choice questions. As a result, students may encounter significant challenges in understanding the question and identifying the correct answer from a set of 4-5 possibilities.

Improve your learning to boost memory:

When studying for an exam or test, cognitive scientists argue that one approach to memorising information is more effective than others. It's known as "retrieval practice," and it is an act of attempting to recall all relevant information from your memory (things you have seen, heard, or read). Based on 100 years of cognitive science research, learning occurs more through "pulling" information from our minds than by cramming it in. As a result, retrieval practice is more of a learning strategy than a test preparation strategy but can be used to improve your learning and in the end, help you succeed in your exams. After all, there's a research-supported correlation between improved learning and higher grades. 


How can striving to recollect something help you learn it? Although it may appear paradoxical, the likelihood that you will recall anything in the future increases when you actively seek information out of your memory.


Practical ways to engage in retrieval practice:


  1. Write down everything you can recall from a previous class or lecture on a blank piece of paper.
  2. After each lecture or class, write down 5 things you can recollect from your memory. 
  3. Instead of beginning your review session by going through your revision notes and summary scribbles, ask yourself what you revised yesterday. You can either do this by speaking out loud (if you are an auditory learner) or by writing it down (if you are a kinaesthetic learner). There is a tiny switch in your brain from encoding to retrieval practice that will help improve your long-term learning and memory recollection. 


Interesting findings: Findings from long-term cognitive science research reveals that retrieval practice can help boost your grades. You may learn more about the discovery and research-based strategies by browsing this page.


Retrieval practice operates in the following ways:

  1. It helps keep information stored in your memory.
  2. It helps you find gaps in your knowledge: by checking how much you can recall by testing yourself, you’ll better understand what you know versus what you do not know.
  3. It helps you apply or use knowledge in different contexts: using retrieval practice while studying can help you figure out unfamiliar problems or situations based on what you know (increased intuition).

Curious to learn more about how retrieval practice works? 

We recommend watching a talk that was hosted by SXSW EDU and facilitated by Dr Pooja K. Agarwal, a cognitive scientist and founder of the RetrievalPractice organisation. This talk is premised on her book: “Unleash the Science of Learning”, which presents 100 years of research into effective teaching strategies.

Visit the following link:

Use memory association techniques:

There are several memory association techniques that you could use to help improve your ability to retain information.  One example of a memory association technique is a mnemonic device. A mnemonic device is a memory method that improves information recall and retention capacity. The following is a list of a few mnemonic devices you can try, all of which will help improve your memory with consistent practice and repetition.


Music mnemonics:

Retention of information through music, particularly rhythm, rhyme, and alliteration. 


Method of loci: 

To organise and remember previously stored information, this memory association strategy heavily relies on spatial associations between 'loci' (locations on a known route or rooms in a familiar building). Because these methods rely on visualisation, envisioning yourself moving in a familiar area can help you recall lists, locations, and routes. 


Rhyming mnemonics:

The leap year poem, ‘Thirty days has September, April, June and November. All the rest have thirty one, excepting February alone, which has twenty-eight days clear and twenty-nine in each leap year’. 



Chunking is breaking down huge amounts of information into smaller units (chunks) or arranging individual bits of information into bigger units. Your ability to store information in your short memory can improve through chunking. An example of chunking is gathering everything you need for the day in your pockets or handbag before leaving the house. Everyday items like car keys, a cell phone, and a wallet may fall under this category.


Acronyms and acrostics: 

This is where you make a new word (abbreviation) or group of words by combining the first letters of each word or line. For example, to recollect the order of mathematical operations, a student may recall the acrostic sentence “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” i.e. Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiply and Divide before Adding and Subtracting. 


If you are interested in learning more about practical ways to improve your memory, we recommend that you check out our Easy Ways To Improve Your Memory blog post.

Make flashcards:

Using flashcards to study for exams can be beneficial in terms of information retrieval. Make flashcards to help you define and link key terms, processes, names, and ideas to improve your retention. Depending on your major, you can also colour-code sets according to their type, for example, blue flashcards for Cognitive Psychology and red flashcards for Social Psychology. Multiple-choice assessments require the ability to recall information, and flashcards are an excellent tool for practising this skill.


Disclaimer: Don't rely only on the definitions of terms in the course textbook. You need to be familiar with all explanations of the subject matter, including the specifics of all key arguments, ideas, and case studies, because most instructors may reword concepts when preparing exam questions.

Quiz yourself:

Use free and relevant Education resources to create practice tests. You can use study guides, class assignments, and notes from textbook chapters to build your tests. However, you must ensure that you pay attention to critical details as you go through these materials. We recommend creating 10 to 20 questions for each test and setting them aside to test yourself later in the revising process. Try to frame your questions around the "who, what, when, where, and why" of the subject matter. You can also check your practice tests against past papers to ensure they're aligned.

Answering Multiple-choice Questions:

You may use strategies to boost your chances of success on multiple-choice exams, but the best way to do so is to thoroughly and purposefully study ahead of time. In a multiple-choice test, there is no other option than selecting the right answer. As a result, even a well-prepared student may make a mistake or be misled by distracters that closely resemble the correct response.


Here are a few tips to help you avoid these pitfalls: 

  • Always cover possible answers with your hand while you read the body of the question.
  • Covering possible answers helps you redirect your focus to what kind of information the question is asking you to answer. Look at every option thereafter while covering the subsequent answers. 
  • If you happen to come across questions you anticipated seeing on the exam: circle them and then cross out all of the answer choices you're confident are incorrect. 
  • This will simplify your task of selecting the correct answer, but keep in mind that there will be times when two answers appear to be correct. There are a few steps you can take to avoid this potential pitfall in the following section. 

Let’s dive into this a little further:

Read the question before looking at the choice:

  1. Note key terms or concepts in the question.
  2. Pay attention to questions that include words like “not” which may change the meaning of the questions entirely.
  3. If you come across material that you did not anticipate, don’t panic! As long as you are familiar with the material, you’ve probably come across something related to the question. This is where the act of retrieval practice will come in handy.
  4. Be aware of distractors, we suggest doing the process of elimination where you cross out the distractors by underlining or highlighting the key points of the question to help you maintain focus.

If you come across a difficult question:

  1. Try to rephrase the question in your own words. This can prove to be a difficult task if you are completely clueless about the real purpose of the question or if there is a concept included that you are unfamiliar with. 
  2. Take note of the key terms and words used in the questions.
  3. Try and eliminate possible distractors by trying to reason why they could not be the right answer.
  4. Pay attention to the inclusion of absolute terms in answers like “always”, “must”, “never”, or “no”. Absolute statements can serve as distractions. Before excluding such answers, you must, however, carefully consider if the remaining alternatives make sense to be the correct answer or not.
  5. If you are confident that an option in a set is incorrect, eliminate it immediately to narrow down your focus to the other options. 


Answer the question:

  1. Check that the answer you've chosen directly fulfils the question. In other words, your answers must reflect the purpose of the questions.
  2. Once you've decided on an answer, read the question with the selected answer to check if they match.


Review your answers:

  1. Before submitting your exam, it is crucial to review all of your selected answers. Reviewing allows you to identify any silly mistakes you made and change the answers to any questions you may have first misunderstood. Before changing any of your answers, use the strategies outlined above to help you feel more confident in making any changes.

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