The Art of the Multiple Choice Question

Why do so many tests have multiple-choice questions? Is there something magical about that format? And can we use that structure to our advantage? Standardized tests favor multiple-choice questions for a variety of reasons.

First, they are quick to grade – using a Scantron sheet, an exam administrator can grade every test in just a few minutes! Secondly, they bolster the idea that the test is objective because there exists a clear correct answer for all test questions. If the test had multiple answers for a given question, it would have to be discarded.

Finally, they have enough flexibility that they can measure a wide variety of skills at varying levels of difficulty.

Why do so many test takers fear multiple-choice tests?

The very aspects that make a multiple-choice test efficient can lead a student to “overthink” or “underthink” the test. Some students look at a multiple-choice question and immediately think it’s a trick question!

They plant the seed of doubt in their own mind, undermining overall confidence in not just the individual question but the entire test—“Am I sure this is the right choice? That other answer option does look reasonable, maybe I am wrong.” These doubts can easily lead a student to overthink their answers. On the flip side, other students might underthink the test. They might think the test looks too easy, move too quickly through the questions, and miss keywords that lead to the right answer.

To properly prep for the ACT, it helps to keep some general strategies in mind.

First, always use common sense reasoning to your advantage. Suppose you are working on a math problem and you are not sure you used the right formula. You get a certain answer that is not one of the choices but is close to two of them.

You start to panic. Instead of giving up or randomly guessing, look at the measurements involved. Do some answers just seem too far-fetched by size (either too large or too small) to be right? If so, eliminate those choices and reassess the remaining answers.

If your answer was close to one of them, you know you did something wrong. In this way, the choices give you feedback as to how to find the correct answer when you are unsure.

Second, have a proactive strategy for answering questions; trust your gut. First impressions often are the right answers for a variety of psychological reasons. Do not linger on questions because the ACT is a tightly-timed test, so the more you linger, the less you complete.

Feel free to skip questions you can’t answer immediately to keep a good rhythm and a positive sense of confidence. Know your approach for each section of the test, and notice patterns you may see in question types within a section.

Third, you beat a multiple choice test through careful reading, general knowledge, and deductive reasoning, or know what you just read, know what you know, and logically work through what you don’t know. Every multiple-choice question has clearly wrong answers, “sucker” answers, and close to correct answers. Learn how to distinguish between these question types. In this way, you begin to take the test on winning terms rather than passively letting the test rule you and lure you into mental wrong turns and traps.

Remember, practice makes perfect. Take an occasional practice test or quiz to work through the process of assessing each possible answer using critical thinking skills. 

The bottom line is a multiple choice design by nature has to have an inarguably right answer and using that fact to your advantage is the key to ACT prep. At Mackler Associates, we help students by teaching key strategies and approaches that are proactive and based on the design of the ACT itself. Mastering strategies is at least as important as mastering content, if not more so.


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