7.3 Strategies for Different Exam Types

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the five principal types of questions.
  2. Gain specific strategies for addressing each type of question.
  3. Gain strategies for doing well on math and science exams.

You can gain even more confidence in your test-taking abilities by understanding the different kinds of questions an instructor may ask and applying the following proven strategies for answering them. Most instructors will likely use various conventional types of questions. Here are some tips for handling the most common types.

Multiple-Choice Questions

Figure 7-5: Don’t forget to bring a pencil and eraser to multiple choice exams! Source: https://pixabay.com/en/test-testing-exam-sat-act-mcat-986769/ Permission: CC0 1.0
  • Read the instructions carefully as there may be more than one right answer. If there are multiple right answers, does the instructor expect you to choose just one, or do you need to mark all correct options?
  • Read each question carefully and try to answer it in your head before reading the answer options. Then consider all the options. Eliminate first the options that are clearly incorrect. Compare the remaining answers with your own answer before choosing one and marking your paper.
  • Look for clue words that hint that certain option answers might be correct or incorrect. Absolute words like “never,” “always,” “every,” or “none” are rarely found in a correct option. Less absolute words like “usually,” “often,” or “rarely” are regularly found in correct options.
  • If you have to read a passage before choosing a multiple choice answer, read the question first so that you read with more focus.
  • Be on the lookout for the word “not” in the stem phrase and in the answer choice options; it is an easy word to miss if you are reading too quickly, but it completely changes the meaning of the possible statements.
  • Reread the question before it (the “stem”). Do any of the answers not follow grammatically from the stem? If they don’t, they are probably not correct.

True-or-False Questions

  • Most of the tips for multiple-choice questions apply here as well. Be particularly aware of the words “never,” “always,” “every,” “none,” and “not” because they can determine the correct answer.
  • Answer the questions that are obvious to you first. Then go back to statements that require more thought.
  • If the question is stated in the positive, restate it to yourself in the negative by adding the word “not” or “never.” Does the new statement sound truer or more false?
  • If you still are unsure whether a statement is true or false and must guess, choose “true” because most tests include more true statements than false (but don’t guess if a wrong answer penalizes you more than one left blank).

Matching Questions

  • Start by looking at the two columns to be matched. Is there an equal number of items in both columns? If they are not equal, do you have to match some items in the shorter column to two or more items in the longer column, or can you leave some items unmatched? Read the directions to be sure.
  • If one column has a series of single words to be matched to phrases in the other column, read all the phrases first, then all the single words before trying to make any matches. Now go back and read each phrase and find the word that best suits the phrase.
  • If both columns have single words to be matched, look to cut down the number of potential matches by grouping them by parts of speech (nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, and so on).
  • As always, start by making the matches that are obvious to you, and then work on the ones that require more thought. Mark off all items you have already used so you can easily see which words or phrases still remain to be matched.

Subjective Questions

Subjective questions such as short answer and essay questions require planning, outlining, drafting, and revising. You will bring in memorized material, but you must expand on it in your own way, often bringing in your own arguments and examples.

Short Answer

  • Short answer questions are designed for you to recall and provide some very specific information (unlike essay questions, which also ask you to apply critical thinking to that information). When you read the question, ask yourself what exactly the instructor wants to know. Keep your answers short and specific. Do not “information dump” everything you know; craft a clear paragraph.
  • Read the question very carefully.
  • Repeat key terms in the question.
  • Understand the qualities of a good argumentative paragraph: topic sentence, evidence, explanation of evidence, concluding sentence.
  • Use full sentences, and take some time to add transitional expressions (e.g., “furthermore,” “for example,” “however”) so that you are clearly linking ideas together.
  • Budget some time to proofread!


  • Essay questions are used by instructors to evaluate your thinking and reasoning applied to the material covered in a course. Good essay answers are based on your thoughts, supported by examples from classes and reading assignments.
  • Careful planning is critical to answering essay questions effectively. Note how many essay questions you have to answer and how difficult each question seems, and then allocate your time accordingly.
  • Read the question carefully, underlining or circling key words. Watch for words that describe the instructor’s expectations for your response. Pay particular attention to verbs (action words), such as “discuss,” “explain,” or “compare” (see table 6.1).
  • Create a quick outline for your essay. This helps to ensure that you don’t leave out key points, and if you run out of time, it may pick up a few points for your grade. Write a preliminary thesis, some topic sentences, and jot down specific information you might want to use, such as examples, figures, dates, or places.
  • Double space so that you have room to rewrite or revise.
  • Introduce your essay answer, but get right to the point. Remember that the instructor will be grading dozens of papers and avoid “filler” text that does not add value to your answer. For example, rather than writing, “In our study of the Civil War, it is helpful to consider the many facets that lead to conflict, especially the economic factors that help explain this important turning point in our nation’s history,” write a more direct and concise statement like this: “Economic factors help to explain the start of the Civil War.”
  • Revise with an eye to the “hot spots,” areas that can make or break your essay: the first sentence, the thesis statement (i.e., main argument in the introduction), topic sentences, and conclusion. Make sure that these sentences are as clear as can be, and check that the topic sentences beginning each paragraph have a crystal clear connection to the thesis statement.
  • Add transitional expressions.
  • Don’t waste time erasing or using correction tape. Simply cross out sentences and passages that you don’t want the instructor to read.
  • Write neatly and watch your grammar and spelling. Allow time to proofread.

Table 6.1  Verbs to Watch for in Essay Questions

Word What It Means What the Instructor Is Looking For
Analyze Break concept into key parts Don’t just list the parts; show how they work together and illustrate any patterns.
Compare Show similarities (and sometimes differences) between two or more concepts or ideas Define the similarities and clearly describe how the items or ideas are similar. Do these similarities lead to similar results or effects? Note that this word is often combined with “contrast.” If so, make sure you do both.
Contrast Show differences between two or more concepts or ideas Define the differences and clearly describe how the items or ideas are different. How do these differences result in different outcomes? Note that this word is often combined with “compare.” If so, make sure you do both.
Critique Judge and analyze Explain what is wrong—and right—about a concept. Include your own judgments, supported by evidence and quotes from experts that support your point of view.
Define Describe the meaning of a word, phrase, or concept Define the concept or idea as your instructor did in class—but use your own words. If your definition differs from what the instructor presented, support your difference with evidence. Keep this essay short. Examples can help illustrate a definition, but remember that examples alone are not a definition.
Discuss Explain or review Define the key questions around the issue to be discussed and then answer them. Another approach is to define pros and cons on the issue and compare and contrast them. In either case, explore all relevant data and information.
Explain Clarify, give reasons for something Clarity is key for these questions. Outline your thoughts carefully, and use examples and explanations to make yourself clear.
Illustrate Offer examples Use examples from class material or reading assignments. Compare and contrast them to other examples you might come up with from additional reading or real life.
Prove Provide evidence and arguments that something is true Instructors who include this prompt in an exam question have often proven the hypothesis or other concepts in their class lectures. Think about the kind of evidence the instructor used and apply similar types of processes and data.
Summarize Give a brief, precise description of an idea or concept Keep it short, but cover all key points. This is one essay prompt where examples should not be included unless the instructions specifically ask for them. (For example, “Summarize the steps of the learning cycle and give examples of the main strategies you should apply in each one.”)

Strategies for Math and Science Exams

Math tests require some special strategies because they are often problem based rather than question based.

Do the following before the test:

  • Attend all classes and complete all assignments. Pay special attention to working on all assigned problems. After reviewing problems in class, take careful notes about what you did incorrectly. Repeat the problem and do a similar one as soon as possible. The last solution to a problem in your mind should be a correct solution.
  • Think about how each problem solution might be applied in a real-world situation. This helps make even the most complex solutions relevant and easier to learn.
  • In a study group, take turns presenting solutions to problems and observing and correcting everyone’s work.
  • If you are having difficulty with a concept, get help right away. Study in your university’s math centre, where you can get help as you need it, and make use of office hours and extra study sessions. Remember that math especially builds new material on previous material, so if you are having trouble with a concept now, you are likely to have trouble going forward.

    Do the following during the test:

    • Review the entire test before you start, and work on the problems you feel most confident with first.
    • Approach each problem following four steps:

        1. Read. Read the problem through twice: the first time to get the full concept of the question, and the second time to draw out pertinent information.
        2. Ask. After you read through the problem the first time, ask yourself, “What is this problem about?” and “What is the answer likely to look like?” The second time through, consider these questions: “What facts do I have available?” “What do I know?” “What measurable units must the answer be in?” Think about the operations and formulas you will need to use. Try to estimate a ballpark answer.
        3. Compute. Compute your answer, writing as neatly as you can (fours can look like nines). First, eliminate as many unknowns as possible. You may need to use a separate formula for each unknown. Use algebraic formulas as far as you can before plugging in actual numbers; that will make it easier to cancel and combine factors. Remember that you may need two or more tries before you come up with the answer.
        4. Check. Check your work. Start by comparing your actual answer to the estimate you made when you first read the problem. Does your final answer sound likely? Check your arithmetic by opposite operations: use multiplication to check division and addition to check subtraction, and so on. Look at the question to be sure you answered it completely.

      Science tests also are often problem based, but they also generally use the scientific method. This is why science tests may require some specific strategies:

      • Before the test, review your lab notes as well as your class notes and assignments. Many exam questions build upon lab experience, so pay close attention to your notes, assignments, and labs. Practice describing the experimental process.
      • Read the question carefully. What does the instructor expect you to do? Prove a hypothesis? Describe an experiment? Summarize research? Underline the words that state the objective of the question.
      • Look carefully at all the diagrams given with the question. What do they illustrate? Why are they included with the question? Are there elements on the diagram you are expected to label?
      • Many science questions are based on the scientific method and experimental model. When you read the test question, identify the hypothesis the problem is proposing; be prepared to describe an experimental structure to prove a hypothesis. When you check your work, make sure the hypothesis, experimental steps, and a summary of results (or expected results) are clear. Some of these elements may be part of the question, while others you may need to provide in your answer.


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