23 Answering Test Questions

“I know the material but I can’t figure out how to answer the questions!”
— Most Students, Sometimes!

Test-taking doesn’t have to be a scary experience. Understanding how to take a test is a valuable and empowering skill.

General Test-Taking Tips

  • Listen to your instructor for any last-minute instructions.
  • Read the directions carefully.
  • If you can, review the entire test before you begin to answer.
    • Look for “quick wins” and answer the questions that you know first.
    • Look to see if the questions are weighted differently (e.g. one question could be worth 2 points and another 10 points) and decide which to focus on next.
  • Do a “brain dump” of key concepts, definitions, formulae, etc. on a blank piece of paper (check with your instructor first to make sure this is okay).
  • Pay attention to the time allotted for the test.
  • Take the time to check your work before you hand it in.

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.

Answering Multiple Choice Questions

Read each question carefully

Multiple choice tests examine your ability to read carefully just as much as they test your ability to recall information. You must answer the question that is being asked.

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 body of the question. Decide what you think the answer is.
  • Uncover the answers and pick the one that matches your answer. Check to be sure that none of the other responses are better.
  • Read the body of the question 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 the questions that you can answer and then to come back later to process the problematic ones.
  • 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.”
  • Be 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 that you know to be incorrect.
  • If all else fails… guess.

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

Short Answer Questions

For these questions, your instructor is looking for a brief and descriptive answer.

  • Allocate your time according to the proportion of marks each question is worth. A question worth 5 points will need more time then a question worth 2 points.
  • If a question asks you to “explain”, pretend you’re telling a friend about the topic.
  • If you have questions that are a mix of short and essay answers, read your instructions 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 asking

  • What are you expected to include in your answer?
  • What material will be relevant? If a question asks you to “briefly comment”, treat it as a mini-essay.
    • Have a sentence or 2 to introduce your topic.
    • Select a few points to discuss with a sentence or 2 about each.
    • Add a concluding sentence that sums up your overall response.

Make a Plan

Take a few minutes to think and make a 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’re answering the question

  • In your introduction show how you understand the question and outline how you’ll answer it.
  • Make short paragraphs with 1 or 2 points or argument per paragraph and summarize how it answers the question.
  • In your conclusion summarize the arguments to answer the question.

Try it!

An excellent way to prepare for tests and quizzes is to spend time doing practice quiz.

  • If your instructor has prepared a practice quiz for your course, complete it. If your instructor has not prepared a practice quiz create one for yourself using questions from your textbook.
  • Take the practice quiz as if it were the real test.
    • Close your books.
    • Allow yourself the same amount of time as you will have for the test.
    • After you finish, check your work.
    • Monitor what you successfully completed, and what you’ll need to spend additional time studying.

  1. Adapted from: Study Guides and Strategies. (n.d.). Multiple choice tests. Retrieved from http://www.studygs.net/tsttak3.htm
  2. University of Toronto (2023).Multiple choice tests and exams. Retrieved from https://studentlife.utoronto.ca/task/multiple-choice-tests-and-exams/


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