Every spring for the last dozen years, I have taught and graded a giant introductory course with enrollments anywhere from 180 to 450 students. Over the years, many students have asked me the same question; “How can I improve my score on the exams?” This blog provides one of the secrets that I have learned on how to ace large multiple choice tests.
Many colleges and universities have giant introductory classes that are typically graded using computer graded fill-in the bubble tests. My introductory class’ final exam every year has 100 questions. About 20% are true or false and about 80% are multiple choice with four or five predefined answers. Each lecture over the entire semester gets about five questions on the final exam. After writing the test and having it proofed by my teaching fellows, I feed the questions into a special computer program that randomizes both the questions and the order of the multiple choice answers. Then the program produces multiple versions of the test. This randomization ensures there is no particular sequence to the questions.
After having graded roughly 2,000 students, I now understand that almost every student looks at their midterm grade, some look at what they got wrong on the midterm, but none look at the pattern of correct and incorrect answers on the midterm.
The secret to acing large multiple choice tests is to look at the pattern of right and wrong answers on midterm and practice tests. The pattern tells you the type of test taker you are and often provides a simple way of improving your grade without much effort. I consistently see five types of test takers:
1) The Self-Doubter: This person does great on the test until they get to a hard question and then falls to pieces. This past semester I had a student who got the first 11 questions right, which put them in a very select group. The 12th question was one of the hardest on the test. They got the 12th question wrong and then fell to pieces with most of the next dozen wrong. If you are a self-doubter and get rattled by hard questions, skim the test and answer all the easy questions. Then go back and do the questions that are of moderate difficulty. Finally, tackle the hard questions at the end. There are almost never any rules forcing you to do an exam sequentially from the first question to last. If there are no rules, jump around the test to boost your score.
2) The Crasher: This person does great on the first part of the test and then bombs all the questions at the end. I have seen students who got almost all of the first three-quarters of the test correct and most of the last quarter all wrong. Long tests take energy, stamina and concentration. People often try to make it through a long test by drinking extra strong coffee, 5 Hour Energy Drink, Red Bull and even snort cocaine. It is sad to see students physically crash in the middle of an exam. If you are a crasher, get more sleep or eat a real meal just before the test begins. Many professors don’t mind if you bring a small snack like a granola bar or Powerbar. Sometimes it is even okay in the middle of an exam to go to the bathroom. Figure out why you physically crash; is it low blood sugar, is it not enough sleep, is it hard for you to sit still for hours at a time, and fix it to boost your score.
3) The Panicker: The panicker is the opposite of the crasher. This person is all flustered and worried as the test begins. They do really badly on the first part of the test. Then after seeing that the test is not so bad and they actually know the answers, they start to settle down and the pattern goes from lots of wrong answers to almost all right answers. If you panic at the start of a test, take a deep breath and say “I know this material and will do fine on this test.” Repeat the deep breath and the affirmation 3 times before starting to answer questions. Remember most colleges require 32 or more courses to graduate. One test is not going to determine your entire life.
4) The Under-Studier: The person who under-studies has a steady pattern of wrong answers. Often either every other answer is wrong or every third answer is wrong. They then come to my office and lead off by telling me the number of hours or days they have spent in the library “studying.” It is not the number of hours you spend in the library that determines an exam grade but the quality of time spent studying. Sitting in the library does not mean you are learning the material. When I walk through the library, I see students who are “studying” the anatomy of the person sitting across from them, people who are “studying” their friends’ Facebook posts, and people who are “studying” the inside of their eyelids. When it is time to study, kill the Internet, shut off your phone, and find a single person carrel or room with no distractions. If you feel the urge to nap, leave the library. Don’t associate sleeping with a place you want to associate with studying.
5) The Class Skipper: This person has wrong answers just for some particular lectures or topics on the test. On some sections, they get all the questions right and on other sections they get all the questions wrong. When I talk to these students, they usually admit that they missed the lecture on the topic they got wrong, but in their defense they “got the notes” from someone who was in class. Getting the notes from someone is often meaningless. Come to class instead and pay attention.
How do you boost your exam score in classes with long multiple choice tests? Get your midterm or practice tests and go over the pattern of wrong and right answers. Then decide if one of the five personality types fits you. Once you know what category you fall into, fix the problem and move yourself into the sixth category: Test Acer. I discovered this secret too late to benefit myself, but it is not too late for you!