Playing the game – Tips for answering objective tests


Which is the real logo?

Objective tests (OT’s) are becoming increasingly popular.

There are many reasons for this; educationally one of the big advantages is because, they are objective i.e. the mark is accurate, it’s either right or wrong.

It may come as a surprise to some students but when people mark there will be a slight (we hope) difference, its called marker bias.

The more cynical might argue that the examining body introduces them to simply save money. Whatever the justification students will find OT’s being used more frequently, at all levels and so need to be prepared.

But OT’s must be easier?

Answering a question like…. which one of the following best explains how a car engine works a-b-c-d, must be easier than writing/typing an answer explaining how a car engine works – right?

Well perhaps not, what if all of the answers are plausible? Think of the mental process you go through trying to distinguish between them, digging deep into your understating, looking for a word in the question that might give a clue, might help you narrow down your options. And even if you do narrow them down to let us say, 50:50, there are no method marks, it’s either right or wrong; it’s 50% of a full mark or 50% of no mark. The student answering the written question is unlikely to get no marks at all even on a question they don’t really understand.

Personally I think OT questions are more difficult from a student’s perspective but very useful for examining bodies as part of the assessment process. But they should only be part of that assessment process; other types of assessment should also be used.

Playing the OT game – Tips

But what can be done, how can you improve your chances of passing OT’s?

Well there are the simple things like, make sure you read the question carefully. This is much easier if it is a paper based test where you can underline exactly what you have been asked to do. I have written in the past about the importance of underlining. It helps the brain focus on what is important and what is not.  This is made much harder when the OT questions are on the screen. In these circumstances I would suggest you write out the key words on a pad or white board.multiple-choice marriage'

Answer the questions you can answer first and leave the longer more debatable questions until the end, and follow the advice of Ludy T. Benjamin, et. al (1984). She identified you are better changing your original answer to another one if you doubt it. This is very much the opposite of conventional wisdom that suggests the first answer you come up with is probably correct. But be careful, this is only if you doubt your original answer. The argument being that when looking at the question a second time you can tell something isn’t right and so will spend more time on the question than before, changing to a more plausible one.

There are some more sophisticated techniques that can help reduce the odds, I have summarised them below. Many of these I have borrowed from a more comprehensive article written by a colleague, John Bennett – thanks John.

  • Distracters – these are questions that contain an answer very similar to the real one and are often plausible. The technique is to cover up all the answers, so that they don’t distract, work out what you think the answer is, then reveal. Hopefully your answer will be in the list.
  • Go for the long answers – William Poundstone author of “Rock Breaks Scissors” noticed that the longest answer on multiple choice tests was usually correct. “Examiners have to make sure that right answers are indisputably right,” he says. “Often this demands some qualifying language. They may not try so hard with wrong answers.”
  • Eliminate the outliersAnother Poundstone tip is to look out for one of the answers that is very different to the others, and if you find the outlier it’s probably wrong. So for example if you had 4 numerical answers a£0.46 – b£0.54 – c£0.55 – d£1.60. The outlier in this sequence of numbers is d and is unlikely to be correct. It doesn’t of course give you the answer but it will at least improve your odds.
  • Find opposites – An easy one next, where two answers are exact opposites, the answer is more likely to be one of those two.
  • Look out for general words – The University of Minnesota identified that the question that use general words such as, mostly, possibly, often, usually, will “often” be the correct one.  This is because when an examiner wants to write an incorrect answer they will be far more specific e.g. it will NEVER rain on Friday as opposed to Friday is OFTEN the wettest day of the week.
  • Negative worded questionswhen questions ask which of the following is NOT true mark off the ones that ARE true first. The brain struggles to recognise negatives, so you need to put the question in terms of positives, what it is as appose to what it is not.

There are of course more techniques but you don’t want to enter the exam worrying more about the techniques than the exam itself.

And don’t forget hard work – exam tips only stop you failing

And as you would expect me to say, these tips only help you play the game better, hard work, studying and practising questions are far more important.

The answer is 3 – Amazon sells everything from A – Z and that puts a smile on your face

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