Student sitting in front of a laptop looking quizzically at the screen.
April 1, 2022
3 mins read

How to tackle multiple choice tests

Chances are, you’ve taken a multiple choice exam before. They’re pretty hard to escape.

Some people thrive in the face of Scantron adversity, while others tend to totally freak out when confronted with those neatly alphabetized lists of available answers.

Back in first year, I was definitely in the latter category. I couldn’t even fill in 1 bubble without second-guessing myself into disaster. Even worse, my choice to minor in Psychology made it impossible to avoid multiple choice (Psych profs love this format).

Thankfully, in my very first Psych class (and then in more detail in PSYC 333), my prof introduced us to a few of the basic types of human memory, including declarative memory, a.k.a. how we remember facts.

Declarative memory

Declarative memory can be broken down in a few different ways, but the simplest (and most helpful for test-taking) has 2 basic categories:

  • Recall memory: your answer to a question is pulled directly from your own mind—you either know it or you don’t, like in an essay exam.
  • Recognition memory: you choose a correct answer based on information you have in front of you, like on a multiple choice test.
Recognition memory

Recognition memory occurs in 2 steps:

  1. Familiarity: the instinctive feeling that you have encountered a piece of information before.
  2. Recollection: the retrieval of specific contextual details about that fact.

For example, if you see someone on the bus and feel like you know them from somewhere (familiarity), it might take you a few minutes to remember why (recollection).

Understanding how your brain remembers information can make multiple choice tests (or all tests, really) a little less scary.

Here are some test techniques that use memory processes to your advantage:

1. Read every single word

In the exam time crunch, it’s easy to get stressed out and rush through the questions (especially if there’s a giant countdown timer up on the projector).

Do your best to read every single word of every question and possible answer—you never know what reference, word choice, or name could jog your (recognition) memory.

2. Press pause

That said, you shouldn’t read them all in one go.

A strategic pause between reading the question and the given responses might allow you to come up with an answer you already know. Recall memory is more reliable than recognition memory because it doesn’t depend on external cues, so if you remember the answer without reading the options, go with whatever’s closest to what you know.

3. Answer what you know, skip what you don’t (for now)

On your first pass, answer everything you know for sure, but leave blank the ones that elude you. As you read the remainder of the test, you might find something in another question that leads you to the answer of a previous one.

You’ll be surprised by what you realize you know on the second time through. (And don’t forget to respond to every question, whether you’re sure of the answer or not!)

4. Use process of elimination

Sometimes it’s easier to identify the wrong answers (that’s recognition memory, too!). Even if you don’t know the correct response, cross out the ones you know aren’t it. Your job just got easier.

5. When all else fails, go with your gut

The cognitive process behind familiarity (i.e. step 1 in recognition memory) is less methodical, but it’s also faster and less subject to outside influence.

The process of recollection (i.e. step 2) can be affected by a million different outside factors (other courses, other test answers, that one poorly written Wikipedia article you read last night when the textbook suddenly decided to be written in Greek).

If a response seems correct to you right off the bat, but you can’t explain why or how, just go with it before you get psyched out (no pun intended).

Exams are stressful by nature. But if you go in with a cool head, you’re much more likely to perform to the best of your ability. In other words: keep calm and carry on.