A reader recently asked me about multiple choice tests. He was interested in study advice for those large, 100-question, scantron, “fill in the bubble with a number two pencil” style beasts used, mainly, in intro life science courses.
These tests pose a problem for us as they seem to fall through the cracks of the Straight-A method. The information is not in the form of big ideas that can be captured in question/evidence/conclusion clusters. At the same time, it’s also not in the form of discrete sample problems with clear-cut steps toward a solution. (In Psych 101, for example, you might get a lecture full of facts about the brain, as revealed by different experiments.)
To make things worse, the number of facts presented in lecture can be so voluminous that tackling them, one by one, using the Quiz-and-Recall method, could take days. This is no good. What we need is a strategy streamlined for this particular type of test:
The Focused Question Cluster Strategy
Here is a technique that served me well during the occasional multiple choice (MC) test-centric courses I took at Dartmouth. The goal of this system is to: (1) enhance recall on the individual facts that pop up on the MC tests; and (2) make sure you understand the underlying ideas so you can tackle new questions with ease.
It works as follows:
- Reduce your notes to rapid-fire questions — short, specific questions that can be answered in a few words, or, at most, a sentence. For example:
- “School of thought justified in Skinner rat maze…”
- “Five parts of the auditory system…”
- Make sure your rapid-fire questions for each lecture cover all of the information presented. Significant compression is possible here if you choose your questions carefully. One short question that asks for you to list five things, for example, might cover a page full of notes.
- Arrange the rapid-fire questions into focused clusters such that all of the questions in a cluster cover the same topic. (e.g., “Early behaviorism experiments”). Have one page for each cluster. Put the questions in list format at the top of the page. Put the answers in list format, in the same order, at the bottom of the page.
- Add to each focused cluster one or two background questions
that ask for some general explanation of the topic. (e.g., “What were the other movements around when behaviorism came along. What made it different?”)
- When you study, do quiz-and-recall on the cluster scale. For each cluster, shoot quickly through the rapid-fire questions (literally should take only a minute). Then lecture, out-loud, in the traditional quiz-and-recall style, on the background question(s). If you have trouble with anything in the cluster, mark it and return to the entire cluster during your next round.
Why This Works
This approach ensures you still memorize the little facts that serve as the bulk of the content on any multiple choice test. Because the questions are in rapid-fire format and arranged in lists, you can do quiz-and-recall on this great volume of information quickly.
The background questions, however, ground this memorized knowledge. Not unlike the technical explanation questions used in studying for technical courses, the background questions put the rapid-fire answers you just rattled off into a larger context — helping to cement the critical understanding that will allow you to tackle new questions that might pop up on the test.
A Final Tip
From experience, I know that it can take a long time to transform your notes into the focused question clusters. This follows directly from the volume of rapid-fire questions you end up having to record. To keep things painless, it’s highly recommended that you consider transforming your notes into these clusters every week as you proceed through the term. This will keeps the studying itself a reasonable chore.
40 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: Use Focused Question Clusters to Study for Multiple Choice Tests”
Wow, this is going to be really helpful since most of my exams are in MC format.
Cal, you are awesome! Thank you so much for this….this really makes studying more efficient and I now have more time on my hands now….
Thanks so much for this! It’s a very big help to me; all my exams are this way! 😀
If you’re still looking at this post: Do you have any tips for creating question clusters based on material learned in textbooks?
Is Focused Question Cluster Strategy useful for subject like anatomy? The exam for the anatomy course I am taking consists of essay questions and short answer questions. What is the best way to study for this type of course and exam questions?
You might need a combo of focused question clusters for the short answers, and something more like Q/E/C for the bigger picture ideas you tackle in the essay questions.
What is QEC? And how is that different than Focused Question Cluster if it already includes background questions? I’m also take anatomy and physiology. Thanks Cal!
What about for taking notes for anatomy? It’s hard to take notes using both Q/E/C and focused cluster. Could I do focus cluster and then Quetison/Evidence/Support after? I’m confused on this one.
I haven’t tried this tech. yet…
So your notes will be questions. And you find the answers in the textbook? Or you write the Q AND the A?
Can you give an example of this? like the stories you wrote in your book. when the plan was put into action. and the type of questions?
Yes, I would also like an example of the focused question. I’ve read it so many times but I still don’t understand how it’s formated properly. I need this for patho!
This is the BEST way to study for med school classes. Anatomy and histology exams become much more manageable when you’ve answered the questions to yourself first. I made 3×5 flashcards where each card dealt with a subtopic, and had 4-5 Q’s on each card. Thanks for clearly spelling this method out!
I too would like some specific examples of the Focused Question Clusters. I have been using Q/E/C, however wanted to also try this out to.
How is writing rapid fire questions helpful if I do not know how to answer those? I am sorry but I think that what makes you answer more rapidly is to build a clear mind map with clear connections in your brain. This is probably the most essential and once this is done you can probably secure 95% of the exam (assuming you have solid understanding). I do agree this method would help getting the 5% and achieve the perfectly inhumane 100% mark.
It’s helpful since not knowing the answer primes your brain to desire an answer to the question. Considering that you’re not supposed to know the answer to the question in the first place, since you’re trying to learn it, the struggle to find an answer is what helps the information stick once you do find (or look at) it.
Heidi – You sound like a very visual-based/auditory learner. I bet you have a great memory, too. But every one learns differently, and many students do not have eidetic memory. They need the verbal/written connect-this-to-brain method to “cement” the knowledge. Other people, like me, need to read things aloud to really learn them, or try to explain it to another person, because we have crap memories and aren’t visual learners. 😉
Hey Cal, I’m a bit of a fix with Biology right now and I’m not sure if I am doing the focused clusters correctly or not but for some reason I’m still dying on my bio exams (could you provide an example of this technique? sample notes perhaps?)
Cal, I’ve been employing the cluster technique for the last 2 Biology exams which of course have tons of material on them. I keep getting low B type grades, and unfortunately it is to late to get an A with only the final to go. It seems as though when I finish the test I know so much more material that wasn’t even tested, and there were a handful of questions that were on the test that seemed to slip my mind. However, I have 2 more semesters of Bio. exams that will be in this long MC format are there any tweaks you think may help? Seems as if some of my classmates just simply re-read the book with flash cards and score 90’s I’m at a loss…
See my somewhat more recent post on studying for non-technical science classes. I would give this same advice to @Brandon. You might also check out my article on studying for Orgo — which is probably relevant as well.
I have to say that this piece of advice would work very well for a variety of test formats, such as:
Quotations (Literature classes only)
I am lost though as to how to apply it for essays, since all of my history tests have essay components.
Also, is there any way this could be applied to foreign language courses?
What do you think of the Cornell Note Taking system. I have had many professors speaky highly of it and wanted to try it out this semester. What is your experience with this method of taking notes?
How do you recommend taking notes for non-technical science courses? Q/E/C? Or Clustered method?
The tests are multiple choice and short answer. I don’t know which method to use.
Cal, you should write a post about how to take notes, write study guides, and study for courses (non-technical science and others) that have essay questions and multiple choice questions on the test. This is how most of my tests are. Just a suggestion. Thanks!
I am still struggling in biochemistry. The application type questions I struggle to prepare for. Any advice for me? I understand all the definitions and knowledge based questions.
I study psychology. We only have MC-questions or single choice-questions. I tried to learn with this technique but the questions are so extremely detailed that I am not happy at all with my grades. Further the formats are different, sometimes you get only 1 point if you have all answers/distractors right an sometimes you get minus points for every wrong answer. This is so much stuff to memorize and I do not know to do it. Do you have any further advise for me ?
Does the same strategy hold true for some business courses? Although business isn’t really a science, I find that courses such as marketing could use this same strategy because there’s no math, but it would be too difficult to squeeze into QEC format.
P.S. After reading your post on business majors, I wished I had majored in something more interesting, like history.
Can you provide an example of what this technique looks like? I’m having trouble conceptualizing what this is supposed to look like.