28 Answer Your Exam Questions

“I know the material but I can’t figure out how to answer the question!” – most students, sometimes
Image Credit: Christina Page


Answering Multiple Choice Questions

Read the directions carefully before you begin answering the exam. Scan all questions over quickly to get a sense of the scope of the exam. Allot your time according to the number of questions.

(1) Read each question carefully.

Multiple choice exams also examine your ability to read carefully and thoughtfully, as much as they test your ability to recall and reason. You must answer the question that is being asked.

(2) Start with questions you feel most comfortable answering.

  • Cover up the possible responses with a piece of paper or with your hand while you read the stem, or body of the question. Decide what you think the answer is.
  • Then uncover the answers and pick the one that matches your answer. Check to be sure that none of the other responses is better.
  • Read the stem with each option treating them as a true-false question, and choose the most true.
  • If you are unable to make a choice and need to spend more time with the question, or you answered the question but are unsure that you made the correct choice, put a question mark beside that question, and move on to the next.
  • Move on and finish all of those questions that you can answer and then to come back later to process the problematic questions.
  • Sometimes the answer will occur to you simply because you are more relaxed after having answered other questions.

If you can’t decide on a correct answer:

  • Absolute words, such as “always” or “never” are less likely to be correct than conditional words like “usually” or “probably.” “Funny” or “strange” options are often wrong.
  • If you can verify that more than one of the responses are probably correct, then “all of the above” may be a correct response.
  • “None of the above” is usually an incorrect response, but this is less reliable than the “all of the above” rule.
  • Be very careful of double negatives (e.g. “There are not insignificant numbers of salmon in British Columbia waters = There are significant numbers of salmon in British Columbia waters). Create the equivalent positive statement.
  • Eliminate options you know to be incorrect.
  • If all else fails…Guess (unless there is a penalty for wrong answers).

Finally: Take the time to check your work before you hand it in. [1][2]


Short Answer Questions

Your instructor is looking for a brief and descriptive answer.

  • Allocate your time according to the proportion of marks each question is worth.
  • If a question that asks you to “explain”, imagine you are telling a friend about the topic.
  • If you have questions which are a mix of short and essay answers, check the rubric carefully so you don’t miss answering part of the question.


Essay Questions

Essay questions ask you to discuss and expand on a topic and are usually several paragraphs long.

  • Think about what the question is actually asking. What are you expected to include in your answer? What material will be relevant? A common complaint from instructors is that the student didn’t answer the question.
  • If a question asks you to “briefly comment”, treat it as a mini-essay – have a sentence or two to introduce your topic; select a few points to discuss with a sentence or two about each; add a concluding sentence that sums up your overall view.

Make a Plan! Take a few minutes to think and plan:

  • Underline the key words in the question.
  • Identify the main topic and discussion areas.
  • Choose a few points/arguments about which you can write.
  • Make a mini-plan which puts them in order before you start writing. You can cross it through afterwards.
  • Demonstrate that you are answering the question – In your introduction show how you understand the question and outline how you will answer it. Make one point or argument per paragraph and summarize to show how it answers the question. Short paragraphs with one or two pieces of evidence are sufficient. In your conclusion summarize the arguments to answer the question.

What to do if your mind goes blank?

  • Put your pen down, take a deep breath, sit back and relax for a moment. If you’re in the middle of an answer, read through what you have written so far – what happens next? If you have to remember formulae, try associating them with pictures or music while revising. If you really can’t progress with this answer, leave a gap. It will probably come back to you once you are less anxious.


Try it!

An excellent way to prepare for exams is to spend time doing practice tests.

  1. If your instructor has prepared a practice test/exam for your course, take the time to complete it.  This will allow you to practice the types of questions that will be asked on your exam. Take the test as if it were the real exam.  Close your books, and allow yourself the same amount of time as you will have for the exam.  After you finish, check your work. Monitor what you successfully completed, and what you will need to spend additional time studying.
  2. Creating questions for a practice test is another excellent learning activity.  Look at the learning objectives, and create the kind of questions you think your instructor might ask.  Take your practice test, and monitor your progress.  Better yet, share questions with members of your study group and test each other.

  1. Adapted from: Study Guides and Strategies. (n.d.). Multiple choice tests. Retrieved from http://www.studygs.net/tsttak3.htm
  2. University of Toronto. (2000). Tips for success: Mastering multiple-choice tests. Retrieved from http://bio150.chass.utoronto.ca/tips/testtips.htm


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University 101: Study, Strategize and Succeed Copyright © 2018 by Megan Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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