2.3 Multiple-Choice Exams

Multiple-choice exams are the preferred exam method for many professors for several reasons. They are a relatively objective assessment tool, they can be used to cover a comprehensive range of topics, and their scores are quick to calculate, which is helpful to professors who have multiple course sections to teach and a very narrow timeframe in which to grade them. Many course textbooks also come with question banks that professors can access to help them compile midterms and finals. Whether using a test bank or creating questions from scratch, or doing a combination of both, professors can also easily modify multiple-choice exams to add or remove areas of assessment, shorten or lengthen the exam, or change the questions or the answer key for each class or semester.

Multiple-choice exams also make it easier for students to budget their exam time. Most of the time, a multiple-choice exam will be designed so that there are about as many questions as there are minutes for the exam (e.g., a 50-minute exam will have around 50 questions, an 80-minute exam will have around 80 questions). Even if yours does not quite conform to that ratio, though, you should easily be able to determine the average amount of time you will have for each question. The other benefit for students, especially if the exam is put together using a publisher’s test bank, is that the wording used on the exam is likely to be similar to that used in the textbook, which can help with recall if students have been using the textbook to study.

Myths About Multiple-Choice Exams

Myth 1: Multiple-Choice Exams are Easy

Students tend to give a collective sigh of relief when they find out that their final exam will be multiple-choice, but especially as students move into university-level courses, these exams become harder. There is usually a right answer, along with one or two answers that could be right if one were to look at things a certain way but that are not the best answers, along with one or two that are wrong. The author of the exam questions might anticipate the types of wrong or not-quite-right answers you might think of and include them to test whether you are certain of the right answer or just looking for something that seems like it could be right. Also, our brains tend to want to look for information that looks familiar to us, so in an exam setting where we are naturally a little stressed, we are especially vulnerable to tricky multiple-choice questions.

Myth 2: Multiple-Choice Exams Test Only for Surface-Level Knowledge

This one usually comes from how people conceptualize Bloom’s (1956) Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, which has been used by many educational professionals to understand different types of learning and assessment. Remembering, understanding, or applying concepts is sometimes considered a less complex form of learning, whereas analysis, evaluation, and synthesis or creation is deemed to involve deeper, more complex forms of learning. Today, most educators recognize that learning is much more complicated and that it is not so easy to say that one “type” of learning or assessment is less involved than another. For example, an emergency-room doctor must demonstrate direct application of knowledge very quickly, but there is an awful lot of analysis and evaluation that must go into that knowledge application, and one could hardly argue that it counts as a “less-complex” form of learning and knowledge demonstration. Similarly, multiple-choice exams can be designed so that students use very high levels of critical thinking to demonstrate comprehension or application, so do not be lulled into believing that just because an exam is multiple-choice, it will be easy.

Myth 3: Multiple-Choice Answers Can Be Predicted By a Pattern

It might seem like there is a pattern to your multiple-choice exam, where there is an even distribution of A, B, C, and D answers so that there are never too many of one answer in a row. This might be true for an entire exam bank for a textbook, but only a fraction of those questions will be selected for the exam you write (and the instructor likely modifies those questions or makes up additional ones to correspond to lecture materials). When preparing exams, your professors focus their attention on the overall length of the exam, how many questions are dedicated to each unit or section of course content, and how well the questions align with the learning objectives they have set out for the course and included in the syllabus. It is unlikely that your professors have paid any attention to the pattern of responses until after they have finished putting the exam together. One of the authors makes up an exam with extra questions and then whittles them down to create a suitable exam, so what might start off as a more even distribution will not be the case for the actual test. She makes up an answer key after the exams have been printed, so any patterns that do emerge are entirely coincidental and should never be relied upon to guide your answers.

Types of Multiple-Choice Questions

Knowledge-Based Questions

These usually prompt a student to name a theorist, recall a fact, or define a concept from lectures and assigned readings. For example:

_____ is credited with having coined the term sociology and is considered the founder of sociology.

a) Max Weber.

b) Herbert Spencer.

c) Emile Durkheim.

d) August Comte.*

e) C. Wright Mills.

According to the Census, slightly more than _____ of Canadians are bilingual.

a) 58%

b) 42%

c) 36%

d) 17%*

f) 5%

_____ are collective ideas about what is right or wrong, good or bad, and desirable or undesirable in a given culture.

a) Beliefs

b) Norms

c) Values*

d) Assumptions

e) Expectations

Comprehension Questions

These test your ability to interpret key ideas and are often found in multiple-choice questions that involve summary or explanation. For example:

Which of the following statements accurately summarizes Robert Merton’s (1968) strain theory?

a) Repeated violations of cultural norms lead to labeling and the eventual development of a permanent deviant identity.

b) The discrepancy between emphasized cultural goals and the legitimate means for obtaining them can lead to less conventional modes of adaptation such as stealing. *

c) The positions in a society that are most important require scarce talent or extensive training and thus should be the most highly rewarded.

d) Deviance is functional for society because it can promote boundary clarification and social unity.

e) People tend toward crime and deviance when they are relatively free of conventional bonds to society in the form of attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief.

Application-Based Questions

These usually involve questions that ask you to select the best demonstration of how a concept, perspective, or theory works in a real-life context. Sometimes you will have to use logical reasoning to infer the correct answer, or you might have to choose the best one based on the specific conditions presented in the question. An application question may even test critical thinking through the analysis of relationships or connections between events and ideas, as shown here:

Canadians may believe in the practice of monogamy, but many of them cheat on their spouses. This demonstrates a discrepancy between:

a) ideal and real culture. *

b) material and nonmaterial culture.

c) folkways and mores.

d) formal versus informal norms.

e) popular versus high culture.

Choose the best example of a prescriptive norm:

a) talking to your friend while your instructor is lecturing.

b) looking at a friend’s paper during an exam.

c) putting up your hand to ask a question in class. *

d) not reading a magazine during class time.

e) giving a friend a dirty look for talking to you in class.

Émile Durkheim is to _____, as Karl Marx is to _____.

a) social facts; alienation *

b) natural selection; social disorganization

c) means of production; social consensus

d) value-free; meritocracy

e) power; equality

Tips for Writing Multiple-choice Exams

Cover the Answers and Try to Answer the Questions

This is especially important when you are answering knowledge-based questions because in those cases, there is only one right answer, but other possible answers may look similar (e.g., one will use the word disease and the other will use the word disorder, but they will otherwise be the same), or they might be the correct answer to similar other questions in the exam. If you read them before you have had a chance to think about the question yourself, you are more likely to be thrown off by these almost-right answers. If you have been using sound study strategies, however, the answer you think of on your own before you look at the answers provided is likely to correlate more closely to the lectures and readings, and it is therefore more likely to be the correct one. If you are answering a comprehension- or application-based question, it may not be possible to think of the correct answer before looking at the options provided (e.g., if it is a question that starts with “which of the following is the best example of…”, you have to look at the answers to know which is correct), but you can still pause for a moment to consider what you know about the topic before considering each answer.

Be Wary of Tricky or Distracting Words

Questions framed in the negative using words like not often trip students up if they do not take conscious note of them (e.g., Which of the following is not an example of _____?). Also, watch carefully for qualifier words like always, usually, sometimes, often, never, simplest, or fastest. These are clues to you that several answers will be right in certain contexts, but you are being asked to consider the right answer based on the qualifier or condition that has been placed on the question.

Use a Systematic Process of Elimination if Unsure

Uncover each answer one at a time and determine whether you think it is correct, incorrect, or possibly correct. If you are able to write in your exam booklet, it sometimes helps to put a notation beside each answer to indicate which you think it might be (e.g. circle it if you think it is right, cross it out if you think it is wrong, and put a star beside it if you are not sure). If you do not see what you think is the correct answer, but you have identified others as incorrect, this is good news! You will have to make a guess between those you are unsure of, but by eliminating at least one or two answers, you have increased your odds of guessing correctly.

Wear a Watch and Distribute Your Time Appropriately

Not all exam rooms have a functional or correct clock, and you will not be permitted to look at your phone or use a smartwatch, so wear a basic digital or analog watch to your exam. Use the number of questions on the test and the total exam time as a gauge to estimate how much time you have per question. Most of the time, you will have on average about a minute to answer each question, but bear in mind that some questions will be shorter and simpler and will take less time, and others will be more complex and lengthy and will require more time to process. Rather than pacing yourself minute-by-minute or question-by-question, look at your watch every ten or so questions to make sure you are keeping a good pace overall.

Lightly Mark Answers and Move On

This way, you can easily erase your answer later if you come back to the question and change your mind, but if you do not have time to come back to the question, you have still marked down a guess. This also ensures you do not lose your place on your answer sheet and accidentally mess up the rest of your answers in the test!

Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Multiple-choice Exams

Changing Too Many Answers

As mentioned above, most multiple-choice exams have a correct answer, and then there will be another answer that could be correct but is not the best. The more you go back to re-examine your responses, the more likely it is that you will think yourself out of the correct ones by over-analyzing and becoming distracted by these second-best responses.

That said, there are some cases in which it does make sense to change an answer, but if you are well prepared for your exam, you should only have to do this once or twice in the whole exam. For instance, you might realize that you misread a question or an answer and need to make a correction. Or, you may have encountered information in a subsequent question that jogged your memory and made you realize you got something wrong. These situations should be fairly infrequent, though, so do not go looking for changes to make once you have made up your mind.

Marking Up the Answer Key

Most multiple-choice exams are scored by a computer, and if you put pencil marks outside of the intended answer selections or fail to erase an answer completely when you change it, the computer detects “extra lead,” assumes you gave more than one response, and marks the question wrong! If permitted, put extra marks or comments on the actual question booklet or some scrap paper rather than the answer sheet.

Leaving Answers Blank

A blank answer is a throwaway. You are better off guessing than leaving an answer blank because even if you are not sure, there is still a chance you might select the right answer.

Making Completely Random Guesses

To be sure, a random guess is better than no guess at all, but if you do have to guess, try to at least use a systematic process of elimination to narrow your choices down to 2 or 3 potential answers. Start by identifying any answers you know are wrong. Then, when weighing out the remaining answers, consider that the correct answer tends to be the longer or more specific choice, a grammatically correct statement, a value that is not extreme, or an example that is not a special case or exception (unless the question states that you are looking for a special case or exception). Here are some examples:

What percentage of Canadians support the legalization of marijuana?

a) 13%

b) 68%

c) 80%

d) 100%

An _____ variable is the cause in an experiment.

a) independent

b) moderator

c) predictor

d) dependent

In the first question, you could immediately eliminate 100% as an answer because it is an extreme value, and it is improbable that 100% of a large and diverse population would agree on anything. Also, legalization would probably never have even been considered by the Canadian government if only 13% of Canadians agreed with it. Thus, you can narrow the answer down to either b or c. When making a guess between those two, b seems more reasonable because most accurate percentages are precise numbers, whereas 80% seems too round a number.

In the second question, a is the only answer that fits grammatically into that blank space, so it would be your most reasonable guess.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Navigating an Undergraduate Degree in the Social Sciences Copyright © 2019 by Diane Symbaluk, Robyn Hall, and Geneve Champoux is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.