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guessing game
multiple choice questions
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Mastering Multiple Choice - How To Tame The Biology Guessing Game
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How can you master multiple choice questions?

Multiple choice questions should be the easiest questions of all. After all, they write the answer on the paper for you, all you have to do is find it. Yet so often, for many students, that seacrh for the correct answer is often fruitless and frustrating.

The first important point about multiple choice questions is simple probability. If you know nothing, you should be able to guess 25% of them correct (if there are 4 options). This should be the worst result possible as a little knowledge should get us further than just blind guessing.

A second important point is that generally there are two distracters and two close responses (again assuming 4 options), one of which is correct. With a minimal amount of preparation, the two distracters can often be eliminated with a sound general knowledge, bringing our guessing probability to 50%.

When teachers are able to analyse mutliple choice responses (such as when a large number of students do the same exam) they generally find a very high percentage for the correct answer and one other response with a fairly high percentage (sometimes even higher than the correct response). The latter will be the ‘close, but not quite right’ response.

In order to help you master the mystery of multiple choice, here are a few general rules.

Rule 1: Never leave a multiple choice question blank

Even if it happens to be written in a language you don’t recognise, make sure you answer the question. If you are unsure and want to come back later, make some mark on the paper as a reminder, eg an asterisk or a highlighter mark. Sometimes students cannot answer a question, then fill in the following response in the space for the previous question. The mistake may not be realised until you get to the end of the section and realise you have one extra space. By that time, students may have forgotten which question was originally left out and this wastes valuable exam time. Remember too, a guess will be correct 25% of the time, whereas a question left blank scores nothing 100% of the time. So even when you don’t recognise anything about the question, take a guess.

Rule 2: Cover all responses and try answering the question first, from your own general knowledge, then see if you can find a response that matches what you thought the answer should be.

Most students find that their first thoughts are often the best. Sometimes you can get too focussed on the 4 options and try to convince yourself why each one might be correct. Many students have talked themselves away from the correct answer and circled a wrong response in this way. The exams are written by people that know how you think. This is why you can go down the wrong track and find a matching response. If you cover the responses until the last moment, you can often find the matching option to what you worked out was the 'correct answer'.

Rule 3: Eliminate the distracters

We said before that two of the responses are more obviously wrong and you should be able to eliminate at least one of them. If you can eliminate incorrect responses, this increases your chance of selecting the correct answer. Even if you are still not sure which of the remaining responses is correct, you may have doubled your chance of getting it right.

Rule 4: Don’t fall for the numbers game

Often students think that there will be more Bs or Cs than As or Ds. This may be the case for school based tests as teachers do not always have time to count the numbers of correct responses to make sure there is an even spread. However external exams and online, multiple choice quizzes have more rigorous guidelines and analysis procedures. Whilst it is better to select 10 consecutive C responses than leave questions blank, do not change your answers because you don’t have enough Bs or think there will be more Cs. This is simply an exercise in statistics and devalues your subject knowledge. Put more faith in what you know than in the pattern of the responses. Diagonally repeating patterns look nice but rarely match the answer key.

Practice, as with most activities, makes perfect. Well, at least it makes you better than you were and there are a number of online, multiple choice quizzes and practice questions which can be very helpful. You will have a bank of questions which are usually randomly chosen and many of these sites provide instant feedback or emailed results so you can identify the areas which need a little more work.

Using technology in this way to enhance student practice and conceptual understanding is an excellent way of integrating technology into science and increases the opportunity and probability than students will interact with the learning materials.

So don't be daunted by the mysteries of multiple choice questions. Remember a few rules and keep practicing and before you know it, you will be the new Master of Multiple Choice.

Street Talk

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