Effective Strategies for Multiple Choice Tests

Confronted with a multiple choice test, many students mistakenly rejoice. “Great! No essay questions! This will be easy!” they imagine. But the reality of standardized, multiple choice tests is that they have been designed with specific “lures” to bait the unwary student into choosing an incorrect answer. In the world of multiple choice tests, a miss is as good as a mile. Fortunately, there are a few effective strategies for multiple choice tests that will help students score higher.

Critical Reading Comprehension Tests

At the high school level, reading comprehension tests are the killers. These are the tests that are predominantly responsible for robbing students of elective credits and forcing them into job education programs or dropping out of school, or in the case of the SAT/ACT, giving up on scholarship opportunities. Many research studies question the usage of such high stakes tests, but a few test strategies may help when preparing for them.

First, know the types of questions that may appear on the test.

There are three basic types of questions on most reading comprehension tests: information, vocabulary, and judgment.

Information questions are the easiest to answer: these questions are generally answered by reviewing text, locating the appropriate passage(s) that are relevant to the question, and carefully reading both the question and the relevant sections of text until one narrows the answer choice down to the best answer as represented by the text. It is helpful to remember that most standardized critical reading texts, for whatever reason, order such informational questions so that the answers tend to be found in order in the text. Thus, the answer to the first information question is usually found prior to the answer to the second informational question, which will be found in the text before the answer to the third informational question, etc. This is a useful thing to know when taking a reading comprehension test, because it focuses one’s attention on the relevant portion of text and allows one to dismiss “distracting” information that may appear elsewhere in the text.

Vocabulary questions are usually difficult for the following reason: although students can usually decipher the general meaning of a word within a text by using its context, one or more of the synonym or antonym choices presented in multiple choice format on a standardized test are usually equivocal (that means deliberately ambiguous, in case you haven’t studied recently for a standardized critical reading test). It’s not enough to know meaning of vocabulary in context; one must also know the meaning of the multiple choices of answers. The best way to learn vocabulary is to read a variety of challenging texts in tandem with studying word roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

Judgment questions are the most difficult ones on the tests. These questions generally ask students to make inferences about text (which statement would the author most likely support? what is the main idea of the passage? what conclusion could you make about the character’s motivations? etc.), synthesize information (which of the following statements best represents the points in the first three paragraphs? or which of the following statements tends to support the author’s thesis that…) and answer questions about an author’s attitude, tone, or purpose. To answer these questions, there is no shortcut. One must read the ENTIRE passage, and then find the BEST answer that most clearly reflects an author’s intent in the passage. As stated, they are the most difficult questions, and as a result they are usually worth slightly more points on the test. These questions should be lingered over and more time should be spent analyzing each response in order to find the BEST answer to the question.

A word about footnotes and graphics: These usually present critical information. Students must discipline themselves to read footnotes and decipher graphics/tables or risk missing the answers to one or more questions. Remember, that fine print is there for a reason, and often, questions are directed towards the content of that fine print.

Second, be savvy about multiple choice test strategies.

When one is faced with a question where there seems to be two or more possible correct choices, one needs to be very critical of the wording of the question. Sometimes, you can narrow eliminate one or more incorrect choices just by critically focusing on the exact wording of a question. Remember that “critical reading skills” measure one’s ability to decipher text – do not rely on your own knowledge of a subject to answer questions, but be sure that the answer you choose is text-based.

Third: when English is a second language…

Standardized reading tests are especially difficult for students who speak, read, and write English as a second language. These students have the added challenge of deciphering English phrases that convey figurative meaning rather than literal meaning. There is only one way to prepare for these types of questions, and that is to read a variety of types of text in English, and to pause and reflect upon meaning when unfamiliar words or sayings are encountered.

Multiple Choice Math Tests

Many students have difficulty with basic mathematical operations like handling fractions or negative numbers in equations. As a result, it almost always pays off to review the basic rules for adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing fractions and negative numbers in an equation. Most upper-level multiple choice tests allow students to use at least a simple calculator, but there are usually one or more answers that can distract one from choosing the correct answer on a standardized math test, so it is useful to practice using the calculator beforehand.

Beyond these basics, it helps to review some simple geometry (graphing a line, determining angle measure or length of a side in a polygon, etc.) since these are also usually represented on upper level math tests.

Beyond Review

Most standardized tests are timed, and they usually begin first thing in the school day. It is critical that students get adequate rest for several nights prior to such a test (9 hours has been deemed “adequate” for teenagers) and eat a good breakfast with plenty of protein (that will help stabilize their blood sugar, minimalizing any sugar “crash”).

These simple strategies have helped many students conquer the multiple choice standardized tests in their state.