Strategies for Short-Answer Questions
There are three types of short-answer questions that are commonly asked on examinations: fill-in-the-blank, true-or-false, and multiple-choice. Although there are different strategies for each type of question, you can follow the same techniques.
Read the Directions
Students often make the mistake of diving right into the questions without reading the directions. The directions include important information you need to know before you start answering questions. You may, for example, not be expected to answer all questions on the exam but have a choice. You won’t know that, though, unless you read the instructions. It would be unfortunate to take the time to answer all 50 multiple-choice questions, when the directions told you to choose only 30.
Or you may be asked to select three of the following five short essay questions to answer. The directions might also indicate whether you are penalized for incorrect answers. If you are penalized, then you won’t want to guess as often. In general, get all the facts about the examination before beginning.
Read Each Question Carefully
With all short-answer questions, it is extremely important that you read the question carefully. Read the entire question and, if it is a multiple-choice question, all the possible choices as well. Don’t read the first few words or skim the question and think you know the answer. Sometimes the wording of a question (or the choices on a multiple-choice question) will look familiar, and you’ll therefore assume you know the answer; but when you read the question carefully, you may find that even if an answer sounds right, it’s still not.
When students get short-answer questions wrong, it’s often the fault of “trick words” they’ve overlooked. These are crucial words tucked into the question that completely determine the correct answer but are easily not caught. Here is a list of trick words frequently tucked into exam questions: not, always, sometimes, never, all, some, none, except, more, and less.
Always be on the lookout for these “trick words”; if you see one, underline it in the question so you can keep it in mind as you attempt to determine the answer. And never assume, just because a true-or-false statement or a possible choice in a multiple-choice question looks familiar, that it is necessarily true or correct. There could be one word tucked in the sentence that invalidates the entire statement.
Time is of the essence, especially on an exam. You’ve therefore got to watch the clock and pace yourself to make certain you get to all the questions.
When you first get the exam, look at the total number of questions and how much time you have to answer them. You can then figure out approximately how much time you have to answer each one; of course, you may spend more time on the harder questions and less time on the easy ones, but it should average out.
Check the time frequently. It’s a good idea to get in the habit of checking your watch every time you turn the page of the exam. Monitor your progress and look at how many more questions you have to go. If you find you are going too slowly, then try to pick up the pace.
In multiple-choice tests, if you choose to skip a question, circle the number of the question you skipped on both your tests AND answer sheet so that you remember to go back. Otherwise you will be off by a number, which can foul up your entire test.
Difficult questions will require more thought and time. When you get stuck on a particular question, you risk using up time that could be spent answering easier questions—the ones you immediately know the answers to, without a doubt. If you come across a very difficult question, skip it for the moment; that way you make certain you will get to all the questions you can answer easily and earn all of those points. Circle the difficult questions so you can find them when you go back. After completing all of the easy questions, go back to the tricky questions and take the remaining time to work on them.
Chances are, you are not going to know the answer to every single question on an examination; on a short-answer question, though, you can always guess. And if you guess intelligently, you have a decent shot at getting it right. Intelligent guessing means taking advantage of what you do know in order to try to figure out what you don’t. It makes much more sense than random guessing.
Guessing on Fill-in-the-Blank Questions
These are the most difficult to make guesses on because you usually need to furnish the answer independently; you aren’t always given a selection of choices as you are on a multiple-choice question. Try to identify a general theme that the question reflects, and think about the key terms that relate to it. There’s a strong chance that one of those terms will be the correct answer. You can also look for and underline the key terms within the statement and think about any related concepts you have learned in class.
Guessing on True-or-False Questions
It almost always pays to guess on these because you have a 50-50 chance of getting it right. If you are uncertain about the answer, test the statement by finding specific cases that support or counter it. For example, if the statement asserts that a particular phenomenon is always true, you only need to think of a single case when that statement is not true and the answer will be false. Similarly, if the word “never” is included, you only need to think of a single case when the statement is true, and it will be false. When you come up with specific cases that support your guess, you can be confident that your answer is correct.
Guessing on Multiple-Choice Questions
The key to guessing on these is to eliminate as many of the choices as you can. With each elimination, you raise the odds of picking a correct response. If you can narrow down to two choices, then you’ve got a 50-50 chance of getting it right—the same odds as on a true-or-false question.
There will usually be at least one choice you can eliminate right off the bat because it is obviously wrong. After that, examine each choice and see if there is anything incorrect within the answer itself. If the choice can’t stand on its own as an accurate statement, then it is probably not a correct answer and you can eliminate it.
For example, a possible choice might include a key term with the wrong definition. In that case, you know it won’t be the right response. Finally, you can eliminate choices that don’t reflect the same general theme as the question. A choice that relates to a completely different theme most likely will not be the correct answer.
Many multiple-choice questions include the options “all of the above” and “none of the above.” When these statements are included, it becomes much easier to make a guess. Look at the other choices. If you identify one that you think is an accurate answer, you can confidently eliminate the “none of the above” option. By the same token, if you are only allowed to include one answer, and you find two choices that are accurate answers, the “all of the above” option must be the correct answer.
Watch out for choices that, on their own, are correct and accurate statements; they aren’t always the correct answer to the question. Just because a choice is itself an accurate statement doesn’t mean it is correct in the context of the question.
Once you narrow down the responses to two options, don’t spend too much time pondering and evaluating which one is the right choice. Just go with your gut instinct; your first impressions are usually right. And once you’ve put in your guess, don’t go back and change it unless you later figure out the correct response with absolute certainty. Sometimes, for example, a later question will include information that sparks your memory or helps you figure out the answer to an earlier question. If that happens, go back and change the answer. Otherwise, forget about the question and forge ahead.
You might find, in the midst of an exam, that you’ve forgotten some piece of information you are certain that you studied. This can be particularly frustrating because the answer is stuck somewhere in your long-term memory and you are having trouble accessing it. Close your eyes and try to picture the page from your notes or the master list on which the information is included. Try to “see” the page in your mind. Can you “read” the information on the page?
Picture yourself studying those notes wherever you actually studied. Sometimes by seeing where you originally studied some piece of information, you can remember it. If none of that works, skip the question and move on to others. You may find that, as you answer other questions, you will remember the information you needed for an earlier one. Memory is a mysterious mechanism; sometimes it resists pressure until you are distracted.
A Word on Penalties
On some examinations, you are penalized more for putting in an incorrect answer than for leaving the question blank. On those tests, it won’t pay to guess as often. If you can narrow down your choices to two or even three possibilities, however, it is usually to your advantage to guess, since the odds are in your favor.
What if I do not understand a test question?
If there is a question that you just plain do not understand, go to the professor, teacher, or proctor and ask. Chances are some other classmates had similar questions and if enough of you ask, perhaps clarification will be addressed or announced during the test time. If you never ask, you risk being penalized and not being able to make up for the error.
If You Have Trouble Understanding the Question
Read over a difficult question a few times to see if you can at least get the gist of it. Don’t worry about specific words you don’t know. Focus, instead, on what the question is essentially asking. Does it want you to furnish a key term? Provide a definition of a term? Provide an example or illustration of some idea? Figure out the exception to some rule? If you can grasp the nature of the question, you may be able to narrow down the possible answers.
When you read over the question, underline any key terms. What general theme or topic is associated with those key terms? If you think more about that general theme, what related concepts or issues come to mind? Do any of these topics seem to tie into the question? If it is a multiple-choice question, look at the various choices. Do you understand them? Do any of them contain key terms that are familiar? Sometimes, even if you don’t understand a specific question, you may be able to make a guess based on your overall knowledge of its general theme.