How to study for
Multiple Choice Exams
(Students Self Help Articles Week 2)
Multiple choice tests often involve heavy volume and an emphasis on details which place heavy demands on your memory skills. What can help you cope as you study?
Instead of cramming, you can build memory. Instead of simply dumping into your long term memory, you can structure information. To get us thinking about structure, let’s begin by comparing two images:
We are setting up a business office, and we are going to do it twice!
Office #1: We have no money for furniture — just a bare office. Every piece of paper that the office generates is placed into one of the back corners of the office. The pile of paper grows higher and higher. Each time you need to find something, you have to sit on the floor by the paper pile and sift through it.
Office #2: We invest in filing cabinets along the whole back wall. We label all of the drawers in the cabinets and put in dividers. Each piece of paper coming into the office has its place. When you want to find something, it’s in its expected place and is easy to find.
Relate these two images to two ways you can store academic information:
1. You can throw all of the facts that you learn into a heap in the back corner of your long-term memory;
2. You can structure the information into a filing system as it arrives. Hopefully, it is evident that to structure is the way to go!
The ideas presented here are to stimulate your thinking about strategies for structuring academic information. These are not “easy tips” but are some solid “new food for thoughts” about studying for exams. If you can learn to structure information, you can be an efficient learner and get the positive results you are working for.
Make Good Use of your Course Outline:
Your course outline is your guide to the course. Although course outlines vary, usually they provide an outline of the major themes to be covered.
Take a careful look at the course outline at the beginning of term and regularly throughout — each week — to see what topics have been completed and what is about to be covered. These topics are the “bare bones” structure of the course and your own personal road map to guide you.
If you are as familiar as you need to be with the course outline, you should be able to recall this super-structure of major topics from memory.
When exams come around, use your course outline to help you plan your review. Assign a specified amount of review time to each section of the course.
Pay LOTS of Attention to Headings:
We are all familiar with the way in which texts are structured, into blocks of information, with each block having its own sub-heading. Good sub-headings will be descriptive or informative and reflect key ideas of the chapter.
In multiple-choice questions, these subheadings frequently show up in the questions, either in the stem of the question or as one of the alternatives-quite commonly as the correct choice!
Many students skim over the headings as they read text chapters, but that is a big mistake! Focus on them sufficiently for you to be able to recognize if one shows up on the test.
Similarly, when you take your own notes from a lecture, model them on the way in which texts are structured. That is, include a title for each lecture and sub-headings throughout.
If your instructor has not given you a title in class or on your course outline, ask yourself, “What did we cover today?” and then add a title to your notes. As you read over your class notes after class, look for the blocks of information and include all of the necessary sub-headings.
Finally, pay particular attention to the HIERARCHY of headings in your text and lecture notes. What are the overarching major themes? How is each major theme subdivided into sub-themes? How many layers of information are there?
Pick up on All Clues and Signals that Something is Important:
In a text, some information will stand out; it will be giving you a signal that it is a “main” idea. A typical signal includes:
text highlighted in bold or italic fonts;
a question posed in the margin;
a diagram, picture, or table with accompanying caption;
a inset box;
a glossary of terms.
What this text structure is saying to you is, “Pay special attention to me!” Pick up on that clue. Information highlighted by text structure is likely to show up in some of the multiple-choice test questions.
In class, listen for signals from your instructor, such as repetition of an idea or concept, or even overt messages, such as, “this is very important!”. Illustrative materials, such as overhead transparencies, often form the basis for multiple-choice questions.
Another signal to look out for both in texts and in class is information that your instructor can easily translate into a multiple-choice question.
For example, if there is a pair or small set of closely-related terms, you can be tested on the precise meaning of the terms and the differences between them.
Comparisons are common in multiple-choice: genotype and phenotype in biology, assimilation and accommodation in psychology, structural functionalism and symbolic interaction in sociology; there are many such examples of comparisons that you can look out for.
Also, any information that comes as a numbered list, a flow chart, or stages in a sequence can easily be built into a question.
Put yourself in the role of the professor who is having to generate the questions. Look at the way that information is structured and look out for potential question material.
Get to Know the Specific Language and Typical “Types” of Main Ideas in Your Discipline:
In any discipline there is a core vocabulary that you need to know. Be on the look out for concept names in both texts and lectures.
Know your key terms and their definitions, and be able to generate examples to prove to yourself that you really understand the ideas they represent. Even where the emphasis in the multiple-choice questions is on application of ideas, rather than recall, you still need to know the key terms and their definitions in order to understand the elements involved in the application.
“Key terms” and “definitions” are only two of the “types” of main ideas that you will come across in your courses and that tend to show up in multiple-choice questions.
In each course that you take, there will be other “types” of main ideas that you will have to learn to recognize and track. Once you “tune in” to a course, you recognize the pattern of main ideas more readily. This is not an easy idea to come to grips with, but it is one of the most important when it comes to studying for multiple-choice tests because those questions mainly focus on the main ideas. The next paragraph gives you three examples of “types” of information to reinforce this important idea.
When you are tuned in to a specific course, you think like someone in that field, for example, you think as a psychologist, geographer, or biologist.
For example, in psychology, many issues are explored by evaluating research studies. One key “type” of main idea to track for in psychological research studies is the “conclusion” which summarises each study. In geography, many “models” have been developed to explain the complexity of the spatial world. These “models” are a key “type” of main idea in the discipline of geography. In biology, it is common to study a “system” such as the respiratory system; in each biological system, key “types” of main ideas include: the component parts, the function of each part, and the overall mechanism that keeps the system in balance, to name only three.
And so, in each course you take, try to identify the pattern of “types” of main ideas. It is these main ideas that show up commonly in multiple-choice questions, and if you can develop the skill of recognising and learning the main ideas in your courses, you will be as well prepared as you can be for your multiple-choice questions.
Student Development Centre’s Learning Skills Services, The University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada
Sam. O. Salau
(Africa’s Leading Author On Campus Issues)
(Africa’s Leading Author On Campus Issues)