First year chemistry: Multiple choice madness

As a first year university chemistry instructor, I find it unfortunate when I see some of my good students perform poorly on midterms or final exams because of their inexperience in multiple-choice based test-taking. I want to clarify explicitly that this has nothing to do with the students’ lack of knowledge or understanding in the topic; nor is it because the students have failed to prepare well. Because of the ‘all-or-nothing’ nature of a multiple choice test, every mistake or unanswered question can really add up. At the University of Waterloo, we use multiple choice-based testing in our first year introductory chemistry courses. You might be curious why we would choose to take this ‘unforgiving’ approach to testing our young students, so I follow by providing some background information about the nature of first year chemistry at the University of Waterloo.

The current size of the incoming first year chemistry class totals just over 1700 students and is composed of five sections, with each section having one instructor and approximately 350 students. Because of the large class size, we choose to use multiple choice based testing in order to ensure a fast turnover on grading so that our students receive feedback in a timely manner. We believe that when our students receive prompt feedback, they are better equipped to quickly identify and address any problems that they might be having in the course before it is too late.

I have presented a good reason for giving multiple choice-based tests to my students; however, I appreciate that not all of my students are comfortable with, or well-trained in, multiple choice test-taking. A few days before an upcoming test, I always take a little bit of time in class to give my students a quick pep talk about what I believe to be useful multiple choice test-taking strategies. Here I share some of those strategies.

Before the test

Consider the total number of questions and their relative grade weighting in the test as a whole; such information is generally provided by the instructor before the test. For example, consider a test with 16 multiple choice questions. Eight questions are worth 0.5 marks each and another eight questions are worth 1 mark each, for a total of 12 marks. Each question has five possible answers labeled “A” through “E” and only one correct answer choice. Students are not penalized for choosing a wrong answer. The first eight questions assess understanding of individual concepts or definitions, or they involve solving problems requiring simple one-step calculations and are therefore worth 0.5 marks each. The eight 1 mark questions that follow assess deeper understanding of integrated concepts, or they involve solving problems requiring multistep calculations.

Students should consider the time allotted for the test and the total number of marks. In my class the students have exactly 50 minutes to complete their tests. In other words, they have (50 minutes) ÷ (12 marks) = 4.2 minutes/mark, or about 4 minutes of time to complete 1 mark worth of question(s). It is always safer to round down the amount of time allotted per mark, because it leaves some time at the end of the test for checking over work. In this case, rounding down to 4 minutes per mark leaves (12 marks) × (0.2 minutes/mark) = 2.4 ‘extra’ minutes.

Remember that in order to reinforce the strategies described here it is critical to practice, practice, then practice some more. We provide sample exams for our students so they have an excellent idea of what to expect for the real thing. Additionally, we have online assignments that use multiple choice based testing. It is important that students use the provided resources in such a way that it not only helps reinforce concepts and improve their problem-solving abilities, but also provides the opportunity to practice multiple choice test-taking.

It is extremely beneficial to actively practice. What does this mean? It means treating a sample test or assignment just like it is an actual test. For active test practice: put away study notes, turn off the smart phone, do not have email open and situate yourself in a quiet environment where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Next, attempt the sample test or assignment as if it is the real test. Assuming that the sample test or assignment is representative of the real test, then the grade you can obtain in 50 minutes is likely a strong indicator of how you will do on the actual test. The great thing about this approach is that there is absolutely no consequence to doing poorly — unlike on a real test where the grade obtained is likely worth a relatively substantial fraction of the final grade.

One benefit of mock-testing is that you obtain immediate feedback that can be used to identify concepts you are struggling with under a testing environment. Address any concepts that you struggle with, then test yourself again: repeat, repeat, and then repeat some more. By training this way, you will also be conditioning yourself to cope with writing a multiple choice test under pressure. A hockey player does not become the best in the league by watching a lot of hockey on television; the individual gets on the ice and plays.

During the test

Keep in mind that in a multiple choice test only a correctly chosen answer (‘circled’, or transferred to a computer read card) is graded; meaning that writing out a highly-detailed solution to a problem is entirely unnecessary and can be a serious waste of time. Only write down what is absolutely necessary, just enough so that you are not doing too much work in your head. For example, with a problem requiring a calculated solution, it is unnecessary to write down units of measurement in each step of the calculation; again, it wastes time. Although dimensional (unit) analysis can be useful, with practice, it can be done in your head and does not have to be transferred to the paper. However, always make sure that you clearly write down the final calculated answer with units just in case you make an error in circling or transferring the answer choice to a computer card.

Do not feel required to attempt the questions in sequential order, immediately proceed to the final eight 1 mark questions because they alone are worth 67% of the total grade and will require more work than the 0.5 mark questions. You should attempt the questions that you are most comfortable with first. Successfully completing questions right away increases confidence and helps to suppress anxiety, whereas attempting questions that you are not so comfortable with can have exactly the opposite effect. If confidence decreases and anxiety begins to rise, then silly or distracted mistakes tend to rise too. Anxiety can be a powerful and debilitating distraction.

Be mindful to keep track of the time. Do not forget that the maximum amount of time that you should spend on a 1-mark question is about four minutes. It is sometimes easy to become obsessed with a problem that at first glance you thought was easy to solve, but then becomes difficult or confusing. If the 4-minute mark is reached, then you have to stop and move on to another question; if you are lucky, there may be time to come back to it at the end of the test.

Finally, when there is no penalty associated with choosing an incorrect answer, never leave an answer choice blank. There is a 0% probability of success on a question left blank and a 20% probability of success on a question that is chosen randomly!  Ideally nobody wants to be in such an unfortunate situation, but if it happens, then make your best guess!

The strategies described here are based solely from my experience as an instructor, from talking openly with my students and from reading their anonymous course evaluations. I hope that you find some of the ideas I have presented here useful.

Good luck!