Sunday, October 16, 2005

Seeing the Trees: Preparing for Multiple Choice Tests

Test season has begun and students, particularly first year students, are struggling through their first series of multiple choice tests. Some students prefer multiple choice tests to other kinds of tests. They find them easier to write and more straightforward than essay tests. The students who do not prefer multiple choice tests not only find them difficult, but also frustrating and confusing. Often, they feel that their grades do not reflect their effort. This happens for a number of reasons. One, when studying, it is relatively easy to focus on the larger ideas (theories/concepts) and miss the details, details are the bread and butter of multiple choice tests. Without knowing (and understanding) the details, the possibility of success diminishes greatly. Multiple choice tests generally do not test students' critical thinking skills. These tests measure whether students know how a process works, or their ability to recall facts given by the textbook or professor. Two, students misjudge their ability to remember information, confident that simply reading and re-reading their notes will be sufficient. And three, they tend to study inefficiently, often studying in big chunks over a short period of time (usually just before the test).

There is no magic pill, but here are some tips that should produce better results.

  1. Pay attention to the trees. It's relatively easy to see a large clump of trees, know it's a forest, even know the forest's name, but it's much harder to tell someone what trees that forest is made up of. In other words, it is important to not only look at the larger overarching ideas (historical periods, theories, ideas, systems, networks) but also the details that support them. Students can develop a fairly general sense of how, for example, the vascular system works, but may not be able to list the veins involved, how they connect or what they do.
    1. Create study cards, with the concept on one side and the details on the other (see this handout for an example of how to make study cards)

    2. Use the Cornell Note Taking system , cover up the main body of the notes and then use the column prompts to ask questions.

    3. Answer the review questions at the back of the chapter/textbook or in the study guide. Students are often worried that this is a waste of time while in fact, the study questions help them learn the information and practice applying that new information.

  1. Review on a regular, preferably daily, basis over shorter periods of time rather than once a week or just before the test. Tests show that people remember the first bit of information they study, the last bit of information they study, and very little in between. Thus, studying in shorter bits, 20 to 40 minute intervals, means that students will remember more and forget less because the interval between the first bit of information and the last bit of information is smaller.

There is more, but these tips are a start. Writing multiple choice tests is a new skill set for many students. Once they have learned it, multiple choice tests and exams become much less daunting.

The Learning Assistance Centre (LAC) has a handout available called "Tips for taking multiple choice tests."

The LAC is also giving a series of workshops that focus on test/exam preparation and writing multiple choice tests. They are:

How to Prepare for Exams on October 19th and Tips for Multiple Choice Tests and Exams on October 20th. Both workshops will be in 340 Helen Glass at 2:30.

Other useful websites are:

Study Guides and Strategies' handout on writing multiple choice tests.

The University York has a page on multiple choice tests. The best part of this page is that it includes examples of multiple choice questions and what students should look for when answering questions.

Cornell, the home of Cornell notes (mentioned above), has an excellent handout on writing multiple choice tests. (Note: This handout is in pdf format. Readers will need Adobe Reader to view it.)

Ryerson University has a page on how to study for multiple choice tests.