Strategies for answering exam and test questions

Click on the accordions below to see more information about how best to tackle the following question types in your exam.

Multi-choice questions

Things to remember about multi-choice questions

  • Read through the options and try to eliminate the ones that aren’t right. Multi-choice questions usually have one option that is obviously wrong, and three or four others that are similar.  It is important to look carefully at how they are worded in order to select the correct  answer.
  • Don’t struggle over a question. Do all of the easy questions first and come back to harder ones later to maximise efficient use of test/exam time.
  • Answer all the questions. Even if you are not sure, your educated guess may well be correct. It is better to have a go at answering a question than potentially miss out on a mark.
  • When you check back through your paper and think an answer is wrong - change the answer. Research indicates that you will probably be correct in doing so.

Short answer questions

Short answer questions range from a sentence or two through to a paragraph in length.

  • Keep to the point. Short answers are usually two-three sentences.
  • Main ideas. Your answers should incorporate the key points, words, ideas and phrases the marker will be looking for.
  • Leave one or two lines after each answer. This is so you can add important points later on.
  • Try to answer all the questions.  If you don’t know the complete answer, put down what you do know, as this is likely to get you some marks.

Exam essay questions

The advice here is in four parts: Time allocation | Task analysis | Planning | Presentation

Time allocation
  • Use the reading time at the start of the exam to choose which essay questions you will answer.
  • Check how much time you might have to answer each essay question, and stick to it. You can come back and add more to your answer in your revision time at the end of the exam session.
  • If you haven’t finished your answer, jot down the rest in note form. This will show the marker what you know, and you might get some marks for it.
Task analysis
  • Read the question carefully.
  • Underline or highlight the content words. What is the topic?
  • Pick out the instruction words in the question, e.g. identify, describe, compare and contrast, evaluate. What are you being asked to do with the topic?
  • Take some time to think and plan your answer. For example: use the reading time to select which essay questions you will answer. Then use the start of the writing time (5-20mins) to make notes of all the points you remember that are relevant to the essay.
    General guide for timing: for 30 minutes of writing, allow 5-7 minutes for planning.
  • Plan out the structure by organising your points into a logical order:e.g. by numbering them according to intended sequence.
  • General writing rule for exam essays - one paragraph = one point. Follow standard essay-writing procedure, e.g. start with a topic sentence that contains your key point, and then support this with examples, explanations, and evidence.
  • Make sure your handwriting is legible. Markers should not have to decipher your handwriting. If your handwriting is illegible, it could compromise your marks.
  • Make sure that you can express ideas effectively in terms of sentence structure and word use.  Incoherent sentences and incorrect terminology will likely result in the marker not being able to understand your answer properly.
  • Don’t worry too much about punctuation, grammar and spelling. Getting your ideas down is more important than ‘perfect’ writing (and markers usually take this into account given that students are writing under pressure in an exam situation). However, you do need a basic level of competency in these areas: an answer that lacks any punctuation and is full of spelling mistakes will probably be incoherent for the marker.
  • Don't waffle. Get straight to the point in terms of your answer so that you don’t waste time and word space on unessential or irrelevant detail. Planning your essay beforehand is key to avoiding waffle.

Problem solving questions

Usually these types of questions target formulae, steps in a process, or rules.

  • Make sure you write down relevant formulas, equations, and rules. Important: For numerical problems involving computation, make sure you include the appropriate mathematical units in your final answer (e.g. ml, m/sec).
  • Clearly show the steps you have taken in working out the answers.
  • If necessary, write notes to explain your answers.
  • Do the easier answers first, and return to the difficult ones later.


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