Types of Exams

Different types of test questions require different approaches. Knowing whether you will have to answer multiple choice, short answer or essay questions on your exam will help you be more strategic in your approach to them.

Essay Exams

If you have to write an essay on your next exam, keep in mind that the process to help you tackle this type of question has some similarities to short answer exams. Use these steps as a guide:

  1. Choose the questions you know the most about (if you are given more than one to choose).

  2. Look for and underline key words that tell you what to write about. For instance, you may be asked to analyze or compare two ideas. Sometimes you will be asked to explain or summarize a topic. Underline these key words because they give important directions for what you need to write about.

  3. If permitted, use a dictionary or thesaurus to look up words about which you are uncertain. Rewrite the question into words that are more familiar to you.

  4. Do some prewriting. Take a few minutes to brainstorm ideas about the audience, purpose, tone, format, main ideas and thesis statement. Try to make a quick outline to keep your writing organized. This preparation will help you to write a better essay. If you are concerned that you may spend too much time on the prewriting stage, set an appropriate time limit - perhaps 10 minutes. It is a good idea to have your own watch when you write an exam so you can check the time often.

  5. Write your essay. Keep in mind the following points:
    • Double space as you write in case you need to add or clarify ideas later.
    • Your essay must have a basic structure: introduction, body paragraphs, and conclusion.
    • Be sure to clearly state your thesis in your introduction.
    • Start with your most important points and work down to your least important points, just in case you run short of time.
    • If appropriate, use specific course terminology as you explain your ideas to show that you have a good understanding of the material from the course.
    • If possible, add examples that help develop your ideas.
    • In your conclusion, restate your thesis and sum up your main points.
  6. If time permits, edit and proofread your essay.
    • Make sure your ideas are clear and well-supported.
    • If handwritten, check that your writing is legible.  
    • Check for grammar, mechanics, and spelling errors.

Multiple Choice

Sometimes multiple choice questions can be more complex than they appear. Use the CRAM strategy to help you tackle tough multiple choice questions with confidence:

Cover the options before you read the question.

  • Multiple choice questions can feel overwhelming, so covering the options can help to reduce your anxiety and focus your attention on the question. This will help you to recall the right answer and also reduce the chance that you will be distracted by the wrong answer.

Read and process the question.

  • Read the whole question first.
  • Then reread the question and highlight or underline key words to focus your attention on the requirements of the question. If you are writing the exam online, write down key words on a scrap sheet of paper (if this is allowed).
  • Try to rephrase the question in your own words to clarify its meaning.

Answer the question before looking at the options.

  • Jot down what you know about the topic and predict an answer.
    • This will confirm what you already know before you look at the options. Sometimes you may know the right answer immediately, but then second guess yourself later. Writing down what you know in advance will help you to avoid this tendency. Your first instinct is most often correct!

Match your prediction to the closest option.

  • Cross-off answers you know are wrong.
    • This reduces the number of options from which you have to choose. Usually you can narrow your choices to two possible answers.
  • Evaluate each option individually.
    • Treat each option as if it were a true or false question, and indicate this (T, F, T?, F?) at the end of each option or on a piece of paper.
  • Evaluate the remaining options.
    • Look for similarities and differences between options. Similarities won’t usually help you eliminate options. Differences between options can help you decide which option is the best.
    • Check if any words would make one answer wrong. For example, if the option says, “Winters are always cold in Canada,” eliminate this option because the word “always” doesn’t allow for an exception.
  • Make a choice based on your careful evaluation, but when in doubt, guess.
    • You want to be sure to answer all questions, even if some answers are just good guesses. Keep in mind your first instincts and don’t let nerves cause you to change your mind!

Solving Multiple Choice Questions (An Interactive Example)

Take the following 3 exam questions – highlight the key words in the questions; then record a prediction; highlight the key words in the answers; show the options being eliminated; explain why. Then, compare the 2 remaining options, explaining why one is better than the other.

Question 1: Convert 1750 ml to litres

a. 1.75L
b. 0.175L
c. 17.50L
d. 0.0175L

What do I know about metric conversion?
1000 ml = 1 litre

Step 1: Cover all options with a sheet of paper.
Step 2: Underline the words convert, ml and litres with a red pen.
Step 3: Write down the question: "What do I know about metric conversion?"
Step 4: Write down "1000 ml = 1 litre."
Step 5: Now you know that the right answer has to be a factor of 1000 different from 1750 (which means the decimal point has to move to the right or left 3 places).
Step 6: So you can cross out answers “c” & “d”.
Step 7: Based on step 4, working backwards from answer “b”, 0.175L x 1000 = 175ml and 175ml ≠ 1750ml. Therefore, answer “b” is incorrect.
Step 8: by elimination, you have figured out that correct answer is “a”.

Question 2: A soliloquy is

a. when the curtain closes at the end of a play.
b. when an actor says something alone on the stage to share his or her thoughts with the audience.
c. when the words said mean something else.
d. when an actor says something aloud to the audience, but it is not intended for the other actors on stage.

actors, speech, audience, play, Shakespeare, drama

Step 1: Cover all options with a sheet of paper.
Step 2: Underline the word soliloquy.
Step 3: Write down what comes to mind when you think about the word soliloquy. Possibilities could include: actors, speech, audience, play, Shakespeare, drama.
Step 4: Now go back and evaluate each of the options.
Step 5: What do you notice? Answers “b”, “c” & “d” all have something to do with saying something, but answer “a” doesn't. For now, you decide to cross out “a” because it seems different than the rest.
Step 6: Answer “c” seems vague - perhaps this is a distracter? Cross it off.
Step 7: That leaves “b” & “d”, which are similar. The difference between them is that one means having just the actor on stage; the other involves a speech with others on stage. At this point, you may have remembered the word “aside” and that it is used when an actor goes to the side of the stage to speak to the audience. You then cross off answer “d”.
Step 8: answer “b” is the only one remaining so you select it.

Question 3: From this list, choose the city that is not a provincial capital in Canada.

a. Edmonton
b. Victoria
c. Ottawa
d. Charlottetown

So I need to find all the provincial capitals and then the one that is left over is the correct answer

Step 1: Cover all options with a sheet of paper.
Step 2: Underline the words not and provincial capital.
Step 3: Write down, "So I need to find all the provincial capitals and then the one that is left over is the correct answer."
Step 4: Read each possible answer to see what you already know.

a. Edmonton – It is in Alberta, so it is probably a capital.
b. Victoria – It’s a city in British Columbia so it is probably a capital.
c. Ottawa – It’s in Ontario it could be a capital.
d. Charlottetown – Maybe you’re not sure where this city is, but you know it is in the Maritime provinces, so it could be a capital.

Step 5: Cross out two you think are wrong because they are capitals. You would cross off a) Edmonton, and b) Victoria because you’re pretty sure they are provincial capitals.
Step 6: You now have only Ottawa and Charlottetown to consider. Ask yourself, “What do I know about Ottawa? It’s Canada’s national capital”.
Step: 7: Light bulb moment – Think back to the question. What are you asked to do? - Find provincial capitals, so even if you aren’t sure where Charlottetown is, you know the answer is c) Ottawa because it is a national capital, not a provincial one!