All of the Above

by Ken Dickson

1. Introduction

It is not uncommon for students to call AU's Counselling Services for help in learning how to write exams. Multiple-choice exams in particular can pose difficulties for students who have otherwise studied diligently to learn their course material. Although exams give a student the opportunity to show that they have learned the course learning objectives, a weakness in test-taking skills can result in exam scores that are below the student's potential. In other words, "test-wiseness" can significantly affect your exam scores. Educational research has shown that by learning exam-taking skills students can often improve their test scores by 10-15 percentile points, and in some cases even more. So, the good news is that these academic skills can be learned. Let's look at some ways to improve your exam results.

2. Study

First and foremost, there is no magic system for taking exams that is a substitute for studying and learning the course content. If you think your study skills could be strengthened for better learning and retention, here are some resources to assist you:

Now, for your first quiz:

Resources for improving study skills are available

a. from the AU Counselling Services web page
b. from the AU Library
c. by speaking with an AU counsellor

3. Prepare

It makes sense that you should prepare yourself to write your exams. Appropriate preparation for your exams includes not only regular and thorough reviews of your course materials in order to ensure that you have covered the course learning objectives, but also:

  • familiarity with the expectations and university regulations governing exams, including ordering and paying for exams, unwritten exams, supplemental exams, and appealing exam results.
  • knowing when and where you will write your exam. Schedule your study time and course reviews to peak just before your exam. When students misjudge the timing of their studying and/or ordering of exams they can end up scrambling to coordinate their efforts in a way that increases their stress and anxiety, something that can be disruptive to a more appropriate exam-taking state of mind.
  • tackling exam anxiety early in the course rather than later or not at all. If you know that exam anxiety detracts from your ability to do your best on exams, then check out Mastering Exam Anxiety or contact an AU counsellor for guided assistance.
  • preparing yourself physically and emotionally to write your exam. These include things that seem more obvious but are overlooked with surprising frequency:
    • Get a good night's sleep before the exam rather than staying up late in order to cram.
    • Have an appropriate (for you) breakfast before a morning exam or lunch for an afternoon exam.
    • Arrive early enough to write so you can get yourself into your best exam-writing state of mind, but neither too early nor at the last second.
    • For more hints on how to prepare yourself to write your exams, see the third section of Mastering Exam Anxiety.

Time for your second quiz:

Proper preparation for writing exams should include:

a. familiarity with the university's regulations on exams
b. knowing the time and place for exam writing, and scheduling your final course study reviews to coordinate with this
c. starting early to master exam anxiety
d. physical and emotional preparations that are personally effective

4. Exam taking skills

With a solid foundation of effective study skills and proper exam preparation under our belt we're ready to look at some strategies of "test-wiseness".

a) Exam time management strategies

Running out of time because of spending too much time on a few questions and therefore missing the opportunity to earn easier marks on later questions happens unfortunately too often. Here are some ways to avoid that pitfall.

  • Take a few moments to get an overview of the exam, looking at each page to get a sense of the questions, seeing how many pages there are in the exam booklet, and what is the total number of questions. This overview allows you the perspective to plan your strategies for tackling the exam. In particular, note whether every question is worth the same number of marks or not. If not, you will have to balance a strategy of doing the easy questions first and quickly versus spending more time on the harder, more valuable questions.
  • Divide the total number of minutes of the exam (e.g. a 2-hour exam = 120 minutes) by the total number of multiple-choice questions on the exam. This will give you an estimate of the average number of minutes you can take per question. Some questions will take less time, some will take more. Based on this number, make a mark beside the question number which you think you should have reached by the end of the first hour (and the second hour if you are allowed more than two hours). This will tell you whether you are on schedule to finish the exam on time, are ahead of time and can focus longer on more difficult questions, or behind time and must focus on the questions you can answer with quicker certainty. You should bring a watch or clock in order to regularly monitor the exam time remaining.
  • Generally, your strategy should be to read each question closely yet quickly, then answer the ones you are fairly sure of, but place a mark beside questions that will take more thought, and then move on to the next question. Don't worry about the questions you don't answer at first because you will come back to them. Having read the harder question, your subconscious mind can be making connections and your memory can be stimulated by information in other questions you read as you move through the exam. Then, when you return to the unmarked questions, you will more likely be in a more primed state of mind to answer them.
  • Don't rush yourself into choosing your answer too soon. Even if one of the answers is the one you expected from the question, take time to read the other alternatives in case there is an even better answer such as "All of the above".

b) Question-reading strategies

Not taking enough time to read each question closely can cause you to miss key words and therefore choose a wrong response. Here are some guidelines for reading each question.

  • If the question uses confusing grammar such as double negatives, say the question to yourself in the positive.
  • Underline key words in the question so they stand out from other, possibly distracting, words and help you get clear on what is being asked.
  • Since 'distractors' may be intentionally inserted into the question to test your ability to sort the useful information from the useless, try to get a sense of what is relevant and what is not in the wording of the question.
  • If none of the alternatives fit the question, go back and re-read the question to emphasize more precisely what the question is asking for, and then re-read the alternative answers.
  • Note words in the question such as "not", "always", "never", "everyone", etc. These specific qualifiers should guide your choice of answer.
  • Note whether the question is asking for only one answer or whether several or all the answers could be correct.

c) Thinking strategies

A common study skills error is for a student to think they understand a piece of information when, in fact, they can only recognize it. While some multiple-choice questions are written to test the student's recognition memory, other questions demand higher-level thinking processes such that the question may not even be recognizable from the specific course content yet can be answered correctly by thinking about the course concepts in ways other than simple recognition. Exam preparation study methods and exam-writing strategies should both include these types of information processing in order to best answer questions that assess how well you have learned the material.

  • Recognition - Being able to recognize important facts is a necessary part of learning. Recognizing something is different, however, from producing it without any external cues. If your study method requires you to do the latter, then you will be better equipped for questions that go beyond simple recognition. For example, if you find that you consistently have difficulty distinguishing between two similar multiple choice answers, then your studying may be focussed on recognition rather than conceptual understanding. Similarly, if you only memorize the words of a definition but don't emphasize the concept, then a test question may state the concept in new words. Will you be able to recognize the concept or just the words from the text?
  • Analysis - Assessing your understanding through these kind of questions may involve separating out parts of theories or ideas, possibly requiring you to contrast several different parts in order to choose the right answer.
  • Integration - Questions of this type require you to make connections between different pieces of information. This may involve comparing similarities, perceiving a more theoretical linkage, or seeing the larger picture that encompasses the pieces of information provided in the question.
  • Transfer - A deeper level of learning can be assessed by questions that require you to apply the course information to new situations or in new ways that may have not been covered in the text. If you understand the ideas, then you will be able to choose answers that use the course concepts in different situations or different ways.

d) Selection strategies

Over the years students have evolved many different approaches to multiple-choice questions. Here are some of them.

  • After reading the question, cover the answers and try to predict the answer from your own knowledge. The various alternative answers can be distracting or confusing, so emphasize your own knowledge first. It's okay to take a few moments to recall pieces of information related to the question since this will assist your memory in linking to other relevant course content that will likely make your answer choice more obvious. Even if you are right, however, double check the other answers in case there is an even better response.
  • As you recognize alternatives that are false, scratch them out on the test booklet so there will be less to read if you have to come back to the question later. Eliminating the less relevant ones also allows you to concentrate more effectively on distinguishing between the (remaining) more relevant ones in order to find the best choice.
  • Check the wording of the question. If it ends in "an", the answer most likely starts with a vowel. If not, then the answer should start with a consonant.
  • Be cautious with alternatives that you remember reading in the text. Some answers are correct by themselves but not as answers to the question.
  • For more difficult questions you should read the question stem together with each of the different alternative answers in turn. Repeatedly reading the question with each answer in this way will help you get a better feel for the answer that flows most smoothly from the question, and is more likely to be the correct one. Also, you can eliminate alternatives that mesh with the question in a grammatically incorrect way.
  • If the question allows "All of the above" or "None of the above", check the answers for one that is false or one that is true, respectively. That way you can eliminate one or both of these two choices.
  • If words such as "always", "never", "all", "every", or "none" are in the question, then the answer must be an absolute fact. If the answer involves any contrary instances, then that answer can be eliminated.
  • If you must guess at an answer, try to eliminate some of the other alternatives. That way you increase your probability of a successful guess.
  • Only guess if you are certain you will not be penalized for wrong answers (e.g. right minus wrong).

Time for quiz three:

Test-wise strategies for writing multiple-choice exams include:

a. time management strategies
b. strategies for reading questions effectively
c. information processing strategies
d. answer selection strategies

And now for your final exam:

To write multiple-choice exams more successfully students should:

a. learn and consistently apply proven study skills methods
b. acquire and apply knowledge about the exam process, and prepare themselves for writing exams
c. learn specific techniques and strategies of exam-taking skills

While the above information covers important aspects of writing multiple-choice exams, further assistance in learning how to show what you know on exams can be accessed through your tutor and/or AU's Counselling Services.