How to pass multiple-choice questions tests?
July 19, 2010 2:33 PM   Subscribe

Resources to help a high-school history student become a better test-taker, especially in multiple-choice exams?

One of my high school history students struggles mightily with tests. She is a hard-worker, does every single assignment to the best of her ability, does all the readings assignments, she takes careful notes, but when it comes to tests, she always does terribly. During the test, she takes longer than all other students and has a hard time narrowing down answers in the multiple-choice sections. She is really shy and quiet so I have some difficulties discerning if she has reading comprehension problems.

So, how have any of you have overcome similar problems with reading content and answer multiple-choice questions about it? Is there any online resources I can point to her or her family? Are there any strategies you can recommend that might help?

She is about to join an AP history class for the first time and I want to give her a fighting chance when it comes to the MC-test part of the class.
posted by dealing away to Education (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A website that I maintain has a brief page on strategies for answering multi-choice questions.
posted by Paragon at 2:44 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

In high school I participated in the Academic Decathlon, which is in large part just competitive test taking.The most important lessons I learned for taking multiple choice tests is: If you don't know the answer right away, leave the question and come back to it. Often, other questions on the test will provide clues or memory jogs to help you with the ones you skipped.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:55 PM on July 19, 2010

Poor kid. If she's otherwise bright, she probably just has test anxiety. There's help for that.
posted by goblinbox at 3:04 PM on July 19, 2010

I felt fairly silly adapting a technique I first saw in The Blind Side, but I have a similar (albeit younger) student and he really began to thrive once I started reading the questions aloud. Perhaps you could encourage her to mouth the words, if she's more of an auditory person.
posted by acidic at 3:07 PM on July 19, 2010

Part of mastering multiple choice questions is practice. If she can take practice tests regularly, a lot of them, that might help. Even breaking it down into smaller chunks- 20 questions a day or so will help her develop a speedier pace in going through them, or will help you identify if there is a reading isse she also needs help with.
posted by ambrosia at 4:01 PM on July 19, 2010

Shakespeherian is totally right - if you don't know, you need to cut your losses and move on.

Another thing that I found really helped is to, under almost no circumstances, change from the first answer I chose. I used to look over my answers if I had time before I had to hand a test in, and I invariably started second-guessing my answers and changed right answers to wrong answers. I rarely changes wrong answers to right ones. Realizing that I need to be confident that my first instinct is correct has helped me tremendously.

If the test is on those Scantron forms, then the only thing I'd do before handing a test in is to make sure I didn't accidentally skip a line or conversely fill in two bubbles on the same line. I actually did do that once, but caught it before I handed it in with almost every answer off by one question. Phew!
posted by just_ducky at 5:12 PM on July 19, 2010

I don't want to sound snobbish, but how many multiple choice exams would even be part of an AP History course? Isn't the point of AP classes to teach to the larger AP Exam, which is essay question based?

I don't remember having a multiple choice exam in high school past about sophomore year. We then went back to that format somewhat in some 100 level college survey courses, but aside from that I never saw them again. If she's college bound and on her way towards the later years of high school, her multiple choice days should be behind her (aside from the SAT, I suppose).

Further snobbery: students who don't have the academic aptitude for AP classes should not be admitted to them.

To answer the question more - I always felt that, regardless of the format of the exam, either you know the information, or you don't. Rather than looking at the choices and judging them against each other, you should be asking yourself the question. If you don't know the answer, you're already in trouble regardless of what your choices are. If she's overwhelmed by the choices offered and going down the various rabbit holes when, in reality, she knows the answer, I'd advise her to not even look at the choices until she's formulated the answer in her mind.
posted by Sara C. at 7:21 PM on July 19, 2010

Perhaps you could encourage her to mouth the words, if she's more of an auditory person.

I don't want to be the Official Voice Of Academic Elitism here, but if the student in question doesn't have the reading ability to take a written test, she should not be taking AP classes.
posted by Sara C. at 7:23 PM on July 19, 2010

I don't want to sound snobbish, but how many multiple choice exams would even be part of an AP History course? Isn't the point of AP classes to teach to the larger AP Exam, which is essay question based?

The ap exam is around half essay based and half multiple choice based. In my ap us class that I took this past fall, we took multiple choice quizzes every week, with an essay test every three or so. Each quiz had 30-50 questions based on the complexity of the content.
posted by kylej at 7:48 PM on July 19, 2010

Thanks for the correction. It's been over a decade since I took mine, and two of them were foreign language AP exams which might have had different formats from the one history one I took.
posted by Sara C. at 8:49 PM on July 19, 2010

Try giving her short-answer questions only. See if she can express the answer in her own words when given the opportunity. If she can, it's likely not a reading comprehension issue and more likely to be specific to understanding the mechanics of m/c questions. So, if that's the case, once she has some experience writing the correct answer, have her also provide incorrect answers. Once she sees what it's like to write an m/c question, she may develop better strategies for taking m/c tests. That is, if she can learn how test writers write incorrect answer choices, she may be able to see those patterns in the tests she takes.
posted by ifandonlyif at 9:48 PM on July 19, 2010

Does the textbook you use have online materials available? I was going to suggest you write up some practice quizzes and make them available to the class as a study aid (and encourage her especially to use them), but that's a lot of work that the textbook publisher might have already done for you! I've found supplementary quizzes like that really helpful in studying for multiple choice tests- they're often not very difficult, but I bet they'd be good for her testing skills.
posted by MadamM at 10:11 PM on July 19, 2010

First, your student is fortunate to have a teacher that's cares and will to look beyond the surface. I experienced similar problems and until a few decades later, when I was diagnosed with ADD as a middle-aged adult, couldn't figure out why. I too would take copious notes, getting all of the details and later, would be unable to sift through and identify what was really important - it ALL seemed so to me. Conversely, while attempting to write down every detail, I would sometimes miss jotting down an important point, or find it lost in the minutia.

Seeing your student diligently taking notes, it may appear that her notes would be thorough and helpful to her in preparing for tests. Perhaps you could meet with her after class, review her notes and discuss the important points as she sees them. Is she able to grasp what's most important? Did she miss including those in her notes? Does she do well on essay questions? She may see too many obscure possibilities within the multiple choice answers and freeze up. Maybe ADD or test anxiety as goblinbox suggests?

Judging someone's "reading ability" based on his/her ability to do well on multiple choice "written tests" seems a bit short sighted IMHO. What about the visually impaired? Conversely, memorizing and/or scoring well on multiple choice/guess tests does not necessarily measure one's comprehension of and ability to apply the material.

ADHD in girls often goes unnoticed and undiagnosed when the hyperactivity component is missing. If your student is struggling with some degree of ADD, she may question her capabilities and over time this can affect her confidence and self esteem. I understand that ADD/ADHD may be overly diagnosed, but if it's a possibility here, knowing why she's not testing well can help her in so many ways, beginning with finding effective ways of studying that fit with her style of learning. lists several resources available for coping with ADHD.
posted by wabanada at 11:09 PM on July 19, 2010

Judging someone's "reading ability" based on his/her ability to do well on multiple choice "written tests" seems a bit short sighted IMHO.

Not if it's with the criteria that the student wants to take an AP level course. AP courses are upper level courses which involve particularly advanced material. The expectation is that it will be taken with an eye to preparation for the AP exams, which are taken by advanced students who hope to place out of entry level college coursework in a particular area.

Seats in these courses tend to be scarce in all but the most competitive high schools.

If a student lags behind his or her peers in basic skills like reading and test taking, they are most likely not good candidates for AP level coursework. Mainly because, in this particular case, it's a situation where only high-performing students really have any reason to participate. If you can't read an exam question, you are not going to do well in the upper level college courses passing an AP exam will give you access to.
posted by Sara C. at 11:30 PM on July 19, 2010

As a teacher I find it is helpful to talk through several specific questions on the test to diagnose where the student is struggling. Did the student not know anything at all about the question? Then the problem is with attendance, attention, and note-taking. Did the student know the answer but fail to recall it during test time? Likely test-anxiety. Why did the student pick the answer they did? Was the error related to logic? Preparation? Memory?

In social science-y classes students who do well tend to understand that the teacher and the text is constructing a larger narrative. Successful students understand that the facts all connect together into a greater whole and the internal logic helps them remember the details, focus their studying, and provide a deeper understanding of the material. Less successful students typically fail to see this broader narrative or its importance and are thus overwhelmed by what they perceive as piles of disconnected facts. Further they tend to be bewildered by the types of questions and choices they are presented with on exams because they don't understand their underlying logic. When I use multiple choice questions I tend to ask some questions that are more or less straight factual recall and other questions that get at whether students understand crucial aspects of the deeper narrative. When I talk with struggling students I like to see what kinds of questions they struggle with, and frequently find this is the root of their difficulties. This can often be discovered when you ask the student "Why do you think this question was on the test?" about some question that was fairly central to the logic of the basic narrative you have been teaching.
posted by Tallguy at 6:50 AM on July 20, 2010

The expectation is that it will be taken with an eye to preparation for the AP exams, which are taken by advanced students who hope to place out of entry level college coursework in a particular area.

The AP program has grown significantly in the last ten years-- twice as many students took APs in 2009 than in 2001, and students take an average of four tests during high school. 25% of high school seniors have taken at least one AP test. They're no longer taken merely by students hoping to gain college credit-- they're essentially a requirement at many selective colleges. My peers in university took virtually all of the AP courses available at their school, which might mean 10 or 12 tests. Many top universities no longer give much credit for APs, and don't use scores for anything but placement in foreign language and math courses. Why? Because incoming student are assumed to have taken APs, particularly the popular subjects such as English, US History, or Biology.

Any fairly bright and motivated student, such as the OP's student, would be a fool to deny herself the opportunity to excel. Now, some people are upset that the AP is so common and so integral to the college admissions process, but that's a problem for universities, schools, and communities-- not individual students.

There are plenty of reasons why a person might be bad at taking tests. The suggestion of an mild undiagnosed learning disability is a good one, particularly if she's bright and well-behaved-- it might have never before been a problem in easier courses. To improve her skills this summer, I recommend that she take practice SATs, since those are beneficial and readily available. She should test a few methods, including predicting the answer, eliminating answers quickly based on a single wrong word, and learning how to skip questions as needed. No student is expected to get 100% of the AP MC-- there's too much variability in curriculum to make that a worthwhile goal.

Personally, the key was developing a great sense of pace, knowing the material like the back of my hand, and practice, practice, practice. I went to the bookstore, grabbed ALL of the AP US History review books, and did every. single. question. It only took a few nights. I probably didn't need to study so much, because I did very well in the class, but it really increased my test-day confidence. She should force herself to stick to the time limits, which is 80 questions per 50 minutes or something like that. She can even do this throughout the year, because some books organize questions by topic/era. Certain speedreading techniques (like scanning, letting words jump out at you) were also really helpful. I did a course of pseudoscientific "vision therapy" when I was a kid, which was silly, except it taught me the skill of quickly shifting visual focus to concentrate on a paragraph as opposed to a word. Really helpful on MCs, because you can exclude answers with jarring words and closely read the remainder, saving time.

Good luck! I think it's great that you're helping this student, and please encourage her. Doing well in an AP course, particularly with challenging conditions, is immensely rewarding for many high school students. There's no place for elitism in the AP, if students are generally smart and motivated enough. She's certainly not going to learn any less than she would in a regular-level course.
posted by acidic at 7:58 AM on July 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

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