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.