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Multiple Choice and Other Objective Tests

TIP Sheet

General Statements about Objective Tests

  1. Objective tests require recognition and recall of subject matter.
  2. The forms vary: questions of fact, sentence completion, true-false, analogy, multiple-choice, and matching.
  3. They tend to cover more material than essay tests.
  4. They have one, and only one, correct answer to each question.
  5. They may require strict preparation like memorization.


Before Answering

  1. Listen carefully to oral directions.
  2. Notice if there is a penalty for guessing.
  3. Glance quickly through the entire test.
  4. Observe point values of different sections.
  5. Budget your time.
  6. Read the instructions and follow them.
  7. Write your name on each page of the test.


While Answering

  1. Read all directions carefully.
  2. Read each question carefully.
  3. If allowed to, underline key words.
  4. Answer the easy questions first.
  5. Skip questions that stump you. Mark them to come back later.
  6. If you have time at the end, go back to the questions you marked.
  7. Do not go back over every question. Reread only the ones that you were unsure of.
  8. Do not second-guess yourself. Change an answer only if you are absolutely sure your first answer was wrong. The odds are in your favor that your first answer was right.
  9. Make sure you have answered all the questions.
  10. If you have no idea of the answer, guess!



Prepare thoroughly for all of your exams. There is no real substitute for studying. Start studying for your final exam the first day of class.

Use a variety of study strategies. Know your preferred learning style and take advantage of it!

Pay no attention to students who finish early. Do not automatically presume that students who finish early did well on the test (they often leave early because they didn't study enough!)

Plan on being the last one to leave. That way you can relax and make the most of your time.

Ignore what other students are saying before and after the exam.

Consider all alternatives in a multiple choice question before making your decision.

Always guess if there is no penalty for guessing.

Do not guess if there is a penalty for guessing and you have no basis on which to make a good choice.

Eliminate options which are known to be incorrect and choose from the remaining options.

Look for information in test items that will help you answer other questions.

Pay close attention to key words on True-False Tests.

a. Closed words (such as never, only, always, all, none, and most) are often (but not always) indicators of a false statement because they restrict possibilities.

b. Open words (such as usually, frequently, mostly, may, and generally) are often (but not always) found in true statements.


To help you score as high as possible on all exams we have devised a plan of attack called SCORER. Each letter in the word stands for an important rule in test-taking. SCORER is based on the experience of many teachers and students and on research findings -- it might work for you!

S - Schedule your time.

C - Clue words help.

O - Omit the difficult questions.

R - Read carefully.

E - Estimate your answers.

R - Review your work.

S - The first letter in SCORER reminds you to SCHEDULE your time.

Consider the exam as a whole. How long is it? How many sections? How many questions? Are there especially easy or very difficult sections or questions? Estimate roughly the time needed for each section. Schedule your time.

For example, in a 50-minute test containing 20 questions you can spend about 50 divided by 20 or 21 minutes on each question. If you start at 9 AM you should be one-third finished by 9:17 halfway by 9:25 working on question 16 by 9:40. If you lag much behind these times you will run out of time before you finish the test.

C - The second letter in SCORER reminds you to watch for CLUE WORDS.

Almost every question has built-in clues to what is wanted. In a true-false test the Instructor must make up questions that are absolutely true or absolutely false. If he asks: "An unhappy childhood produces a neurotic adult. (True or False?)," he has a question he cannot grade. The more you know about psychology the more difficult this question is to answer. It is sometimes true, sometimes not: true for some people, false for others.

"An unhappy childhood always produces a neurotic adult."
"An unhappy childhood never produces a neurotic adult."
"An unhappy childhood sometimes produces a neurotic adult."

The first two are clearly false and the last is clearly true. The words always, never, and sometimes are called clue words.


"All men are taller than all women."
"Some men are taller than women."
"Men are never taller than women."
"Men are usually taller than women."
"Men are sometimes taller than women."

Answers: False, True, False, True, True

The clue words are all, some, never, usually, sometimes. These words are a key to answering objective test questions.

Some clue words such as all, every, none, exactly, always, and never indicate that the statement is absolutely true. Exceptions are not allowed. If they appear in a statement it must be true in every case to be true at all. For example:

"All squares have four equal sides."
(That's a definition.)

"Every insect has six legs."
(if it has more or less than six it is not an insect.)

"Politicians are invariably dishonest."
(That means there has never been an honest politician. We're not certain, but we think this is false.)

Other clue words such as many, most, some, usually, few, or often are qualifiers. They indicate a limited range of truth.

"Some apples are green."
(Sure, some apples are also yellow, pink, and even red.)

All clue words are red lights for test takers. When you see one, STOP and learn what it is telling you.

O - The third letter in SCORER reminds you to OMIT the DIFFICULT QUESTIONS.

A test is not the sort of semi-fatal illness you fall into; it is a battle to be planned, fought, and won. You size up the enemy, look at the terrain, check out his artillery, develop your strategy, and attack at the place you have the best chance of success. The 0 rule in SCORER says that to score high on tests you should find the easiest questions and answer them first. Omit or postpone the more difficult ones later.

The procedure for an objective exam is the following:

  1. Move rapidly through the test.
  2. When you find an easy question or one you are certain of, answer it.
  3. Omit the difficult ones on this first pass.
  4. When you skip a question, make a mark in the margin.
    (Do not use a red pencil or pen. Your marks could get confused with the grader's marks).
  5. Keep moving. Never erase. Don't dawdle. Jot brief notes in the margin for later use if you need to.
  6. When you have finished the easy ones return to those with marks, and try again.
  7. Mark again those answers you are still not sure of.
  8. In your review (that's the last R on SCORER) you will go over all the questions if time permits.


R - The fourth letter of SCORER reminds you to READ CAREFULLY.

  1. As we have already explained, it is very important that you read the directions carefully before you begin. It is also very important that you read each question completely and with care.
  2. Read all of the questions. Many students, because they are careless or rushed for time, read only part of the question and answer it on the basis of that part. For example, consider the statement "Supreme Court decisions are very effective in influencing attitudes." If you disagree with some Supreme Court decisions you may mark it false after reading the first six words. The political scientist knows it is true. He is not asking you whether the Court is doing a good job, only what the effects of its decisions are.
  3. Read the question as it is. Be careful to interpret the question as the instructor intended. Don't let your bias or expectation lure you into a false reading. For example, the statement "Once an American, always an American." may be marked true by a super-patriot who believes it should be true. Legally, it is not true.
  4. Read it logically. If the statement has several parts, all parts must be true if the statement is to be true. The statement, "George Washington was elected president because he was a famous film star." is false. (Not in 1776. Today it might be possible.) The statement, "Chlorine gas is a greenish, poisonous, foul-smelling, very rare gas used in water purification.", is false. (It is not rare.)


E - The E in SCORER reminds you to ESTIMATE.

Your instructor may never admit it, but you can go a long way on an objective exam by guessing.

On most true-false or multiple-choice tests you final score is simply the number you answer correctly. Wrong answers are ignored. There is not a penalty for guessing. On some tests you may have points subtracted from your score for wrong answers. Be certain you know how the test will be scored. If the test directions do not make it perfectly clear, ask your instructor.

  1. If there is no penalty for guessing, be certain you answer every question even if you must guess.
  2. If you have plenty of time, proceed as we have already outlined: omit or postpone the difficult questions, answer the easy ones first, return to the difficult ones later. Guess on any you do not know. (But be careful. Your instructor may be upset if you start flipping a dime and shouting "Heads" and "Tails" during the exam.)
  3. If the test is a long one and you are pressed for time, answer the easy ones, guess at the difficult ones.
  4. If guessing is penalized, then do not guess on true-false questions and make an educated guess on multiple-choice questions only if you can narrow the possibilities down to two. Guess at completion or fill-in questions if you have any idea of what the answer is. Part of a correct answer may earn some credit.
  5. "Guesstimating" is an important part of test-taking.


R - The last letter in SCORER is a reminder to REVIEW your work.

  1. Use every minute that is available to you. Anyone who leaves the exam room early is either very foolish or super-confident. Review everything you have done.
  2. Return to the double-checked, difficult questions. Reread them. Look for clue words. Look for new hints. Then go to the checked questions and finally to the unmarked ones if there is still time.
  3. Don't be too eager to change answers. Change only if you have a good reason for changing.
  4. Be certain you have considered all questions.

It is most important to build up your knowledge and understanding of the subject through systematic study, reading, and class work. SCORER is designed to help you do you best with what you know.



More on Multiple Choice Tests

Following are additional specific strategies that can be used when taking multiple choice tests:

There are three major reasons that multiple-choice questions appear on many college tests.

  • They can be used to test all aspects of students, knowledge and their ability to reason with information that they have learned.
  • If students have difficulty expressing their thoughts in writing, poor writing ability will not lower their grades on multiple-choice tests.
  • When answers are recorded on answer sheet, multiple choice tests are easy to grade.

Because of these advantages, you will answer many multiple choice questions on the tests you take during your college career.

Stems, Options, and Distractors

Multiple-choice questions are usually either incomplete statements followed by possible ways the statements may be completed or they are questions followed by possible answers. The following question is an incomplete statement followed by possible ways the statement may be completed.

 In this country, the ultimate legal responsibility for the education of children belongs to:

  1. parents.
  2. states.
  3. the federal government.
  4. local school boards.

The first part of a multiple-choice question is called the stem. The stem of the above example is:

"In this country, the ultimate legal responsibility for the education of children belongs to"

The choices that are given for answers are called options. These are the options in the example:

parents; states; the federal government; local school boards

Options are written so that one is the correct answer and the others are distractors. The correct answer to this question is option b; options a, c, and d are distractors. Correct answers are supposed to be selected by students who know correct answers. Other students are supposed to be distracted and select one of the other options -- one of the distractors.

  • Eliminate the distractors

The basic strategy for answering a multiple choice question is to eliminate the distractors and to select as the correct answer the option that is not a distractor. One way to locate distractors is to analyze a multiple choice question as though it is a series of true-false questions. The following questions about American history may be analyzed in this way.

Centers for early gold rushes were in the present-day states of:

  1. Oklahoma and Texas.
  2. California and New Mexico.
  3. Kansas and Nebraska.
  4. Nevada and Colorado.

This question, like most multiple-choice questions, is actually a series of true-false questions, only one of which is true. All the options are false except d.

When you answer a multiple-choice question, indicate with an X or a check mark the options that you decide are distractors. For example:

Oklahoma and Texas. X

California and New Mexico.

Kansas and Nebraska. X

Nevada and California.

In this example, a student has decided that option a and option c are distractors. She/He will eventually cross out option b and decide that option d is correct, or she will cross out option d and decide that option b is correct. The correct answer is option d.


  • Use common sense and sound reasoning

You may sometimes be able to select the correct answer to a multiple-choice question by using common sense, sound reasoning, experience you have had, and information you know. For instance, since you have been or have known many male adolescents, you can probably use your experience to answer the following question correctly.

Which of the following is not a secondary sex characteristic of normal male adolescents?

  1. Their voices deepen.
  2. They grow facial hair.
  3. Their subcutaneous fat increases.
  4. Their muscles develop noticeably.

Even if you do not know what a secondary sex characteristic is, you do know that options a, b, and d state facts about male adolescents. You might, therefore, conclude that option c does not state a fact about young men. Option c is the correct answer; it describes female adolescents.

Sometimes you may know information that will help you to select a correct answer. For instance, you may know that the word intrinsic refers to "that which is within." If you know the meaning of intrinsic, you should be able to answer the following question correctly.

Which of the following is an example of an intrinsic reward?

  1. food
  2. money
  3. praise
  4. self-approval

If you know the meaning of intrinsic, you should select option d as the correct answer. Self-approval is an intrinsic reward -- it comes from within a person. Food, money, and praise, on the other hand, are extrinsic rewards -- they come from outside a person.

Summary for Multiple Choice Questions

When you answer a multiple-choice question:

1. Cross out the distractors and select as the correct answer the option that is not a distractor.

2. Use common sense, sound reasoning, experiences you have had, and information you know to select correct answers.


When necessary, make your best guess:

Although no specific techniques can be applied to all multiple choice tests, the following are frequently means of getting points out of questions for which you don't really know the answers.

Occasionally, testers overlook some of the faults described below. It is important to use the following techniques with care to determine if they are applicable.


The results of research on a sample drawn form the 9th grade students who have failed Algebra will:

  1. have no specific significance.
  2. yield important data for all high schools.
  3. generalize for the narrow population, but may carry implications for similar populations.


The answer is C., mainly because it is the longest and most complete. Usually a test writer makes up a multiple choice test by leafing through the material to be tested. He-may come upon a statement that seems to provide a question and answer, and he bases the multiple choice item on this. Test writers in a hurry write as few words as they can get away with. Therefore, they skimp when they are writing incorrect choices on a multiple choice test. The best way to determine length is to compare the number of words used in the answer. The physical length is less important. Usually the choice containing the most words is the right answer.


Which of the following are the best source of information concerning the interior structure of the earth?

  1. barogram
  2. seismograms
  3. thermogram
  4. hygrogram


The question asks for a plural answer. ("Which of the following are....") Only #2 is a plural answer, so that is the correct one.

Shakespeare's reference to clocks in "Julius Caesar" is an example of an:

  1. anachronism
  2. antiquareanisms
  3. poetic licence
  4. ignorance


Grammatical grounds eliminate C. since the question calls for an answer beginning with a vowel "example of an...." Answer #1 and #2 begin with the same syllable, so it is probably one of these two: #2 is plural, and the question asks for singular answer. The best choice is #1.


Often a test writer will think it smart to include among the wrong answers a distractor similar to the right answer. This is done to ensure that the student is more than just vaguely familiar with what might be the correct answer.


The functional unit of the kidney is:

  1. the pelvis
  2. the nephron
  3. the neuron
  4. the medulla


#2 and #3 are very similar in spelling, so one of those is probably the answer. After this there are no clues, so that a student must use knowledge or guess. #2 is the correct answer.

The water bearing layer of an artesian formation is most likely composed of:

  1. limestone
  2. sand
  3. granite
  4. sandstone


The work "sand" is repeated in #2 and #4, and "stone" occurs in #1 and #4. Answer #4 has both repeated elements. The best guess could be #4.


Many test writers routinely include wrong answers that repeat terms of the question just to distract wild guessers.


An important commercial source of ammonia is:

  1. ammonia water
  2. coal tar
  3. soft coal
  4. petroleum


The repetition of "ammonia" in answer #1 potentially eliminates that as the correct choice.

"Coal" in both #2 and #3 suggests one of these answers. #3 is the correct one.

Test questions are often taken directly from the textbook. Watch for "unusual" or "catchy" statements. Watch for dates, definitions, or statements of facts.

V. ASK, before you take the test, if you are penalized for guessing. If so, don't guess. The instructor may subtract the number wrong for the number right. Then you may pay twice for every wrong answer.

VI. UNDERSTAND precisely how to indicate the answers. (Do you put your "x" by the right one or the wrong one?)

VII. WATCH your numbers. It's easy to get mixed up.

VIII. WATCH for special words.

Statements with never or always are likely to be false.

Moderate statements are often true.

An answer that is "almost, but not quite true" is still false.

Extreme statements are almost always false.



Read through each question quickly and answer the ones you are fairly sure of first. Spend little time on the questions, and skip the ones you don't know. These can be analyzed when you can come back to them. Remember that these test techniques alone will not help you do well on a test. Your knowledge of the subject matter is the main determinant of how well you will do!





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