Strategies For Selecting The Right Answer And Passing Multiple Choice Tests

by | Nov 2, 2021 | Blog, Career Path, General

I’m a trivia nut.  I’ve always loved trivia questions.  I wanted an activity to play with my fellow Temple Men’s Club members during the pandemic.  So I organized a daily trivia game.

In order to make it more interesting, I asked questions on a variety of topics.  I also avoided repetition by asking questions in different ways.  These formats included open-ended questions, numerical questions, fill in the blanks, and multiple choice questions.

I was very generous giving credit or points for the correct answer. I tried to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, I’d even give two or three guesses.  Other times, if the person was close or on the right track, I’d award points even if they didn’t have the exact correct answer.

And I realized something.  I noticed that the most restrictive, unforgiving type of questions that I asked were the multiple choice questions.

Presenting Multiple Choice Questions

Multiple choice questions were

  1. The easiest to compose.  I usually came up with questions, answered them correctly, and then included four or five wrong answers as choices.
  2. The most unforgiving. There was only one correct answer, so I could never give partial credit. (Unless I gave multiple guesses— which I sometimes did).
  3. The easiest to grade. Most multiple choice tests were graded with a grid or by computer when using a No. 2 pencil
  4. The most objective type of questioning. Multiple choice questions were always used to compose the following types of tests:  SAT and ACT tests, high school and college exams, admission and entrance exams, driver’s tests, and aptitude tests.  Multiple choice tests were also used by the PTCB for certification of pharmacy technicians.

Knowing The Scoring Method

When I was in high school I took the SAT test.  In fact, everyone took the SAT test, It was an important step into getting into college.  I could be the most knowledgeable , well-rounded, outstanding student in my school.  I could have listed beautiful references and written the most compelling essays around.  But it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t have good SAT scores.

When I took my SAT test, the test discouraged guessing.  The test would award one point for each correct answer. And penalize 0.25 points for an incorrect answer. For questions left blank, zero points were awarded.  Thus, if I really wasn’t sure of an answer, it was better to leave the question blank.  That way I wouldn’t lose any points, rather than risk losing 0.25 points.  Because four wrong answers (4 x 0.25) would cancel out one right answer.

It was crucial to know this method that the SAT exams used for scoring. Mainly because a person’s score could have been greatly reduced by random guessing.

I have not encountered this method of scoring on any other multiple choice test.  None of the other multiple choice tests that I took discouraged guessing.  In fact, most multiple choice tests that I’ve taken scored as follows: credit was awarded for each correct answer.  No credit was awarded for each incorrect or blank answer.

Thus, if a question was skipped or left blank, it was wrong.  On the flip side, if I guessed, I would have a 1 in 4 chance of getting it right. Therefore, I always told my students that if they didn’t  guess or left a question blank, it was wrong.  However, if they guessed, they had a 25% chance of getting it right.  So they might as well guess.  And if they could eliminate one or two incorrect choices, then the  25% chance might have increased to a 50% chance or even a 75% chance of coming up with the correct answer. 

Mastering The Time

Many of my students who took the PTCB test passed and became certified.  Unfortunately, some of my students did not pass.

Of those students that did not pass, many stated that it was because they ran out of time and did not finish the exam.

In order to become a certified pharmacy technician, my students took the PTCB exam. It was composed of 90 multiple choice questions. The test taker was given 1 hour and 50 minutes to complete the test.  One might think that this was a lot of time.  It wasn’t.

Changing 1 hour and 50 minutes to all minutes equaled 110 minutes.  Dividing 110 minutes by 90 questions resulted in 1.2 minutes.  Therefore, the average time that should have been spent answering each question was 1.2 minutes.  

Now there were some questions that a person might know instantly.  Thus, these questions should have only taken a few seconds to answer.  There were other questions that may have taken 2 or 3 minutes (like a math problem) to figure out.  

Thus, time management was vital when taking this test.  I remember when I was taking a comprehensive exam (comps) in order to obtain my Master’s Degree.  The test was an essay test.  I was given six essay questions to answer and three hours to take the exam.

Again this seemed like a lot of time.  But since I had six questions that I needed to answer and only three hours to complete the test, I had to budget my time well.  I could only spend a half hour on each question.  For if I spent 45 minutes, or an hour, or more on the first few questions, I’d never finish and run out of time.

It’s the same way with the PTCB test. Since a person was allowed 1.2 minutes for each question, they had to complete about 25 questions in the first 30 minutes.  Then complete 50 questions in the first hour.  And then complete 75 questions in the first 90 minutes.  Actually, the number of questions completed should be higher than this, since one should allot some time (10- 15 minutes) to check or go over their work at the end.

Leaving No Blank Answers

I know the scoring has since changed.  But at one point, my students needed a score of 70% to pass the PTCB test and become certified.

There were 90 questions on a PTCB test.  Therefore, in order to obtain a score of 70%, I figured out that my students needed to answer 63 questions correctly.

It should be noted that the 63 questions were based upon answering 90 questions (70% of 90 is 63).  But what if one of my students didn’t finish the test? What if they only answered 70 or 80 questions? Would the 63 question mark change?

The answer was no.  Passing was not 70% of the questions answered.  It was 70% of the total number of questions available on the test (which, in this case, is 90). And this was regardless of whether the questions were answered or left blank.

Since my students needed to answer 63 questions correctly, those that did not finish and answered less than 90 questions, were at an extreme disadvantage.  For they had to correctly answer 63 questions out of 80 questions.  Or even 70 questions.  This was a much more difficult feat.

Thus, I told my students to do the following.  When there were fifteen minutes left, they should complete the question that they were working on and proceed to the remaining unanswered questions.  They should spend no more than five seconds each answering these remaining questions.  If they do not know the answer, they should pick a letter (A, B, C, or D) and answer all the remaining questions with the same letter.

There were no strategies as to which letter to pick. Personally, I liked “C”.  Some students liked “B”. Others liked “A” or “D”. It’s pure luck.  So I told them to pick a letter and use it to answer all the remaining questions so that there are no blank questions.

After they had answered  all the questions with the same letter, I told them to go back to where they left off. They should then try to determine the correct answer for each question.  When figuring out the correct answer, they may have to change the answer from the letter they picked to the correct answer (in my case from “C” to “A” or “B” or “D”).  If they could not come up with the correct answer, they should leave the question answered with the letter they selected.  

I cautioned them not to spend too much time on each question— 30 seconds at the most.

The logic of this process was that if my students ran out of time,  every question was answered.  Remember, an unanswered question is wrong.  But a completed question has a 1 in 4 or 25% chance of being correct.  Thus, filling in 20 or 30 questions with a single letter, might result in 5 or 6 correct answers.  And this might just result in enough right answers needed to attain a passing score regardless of the scale that was being used.

Going With Your Gut Reaction

When dealing with multiple choice questions, people sometimes had an inkling— a sixth sense, as to what the answer might be.  This usually occurred when they first read the question.  In these cases, when my students have this strong sensation, I always tell them to go with their gut feeling or first response.

In addition, I have always been a strong proponent of never changing an answer to a multiple choice question.  I have heard of many more cases where a person changed a right answer to a wrong answer then I’ve heard of a person changing a wrong answer to a right answer.  Thus, I never recommended it.  I always told my students to go with their first answer.

However, there was one exception.  I noticed that if a person answered a multiple choice question, and later found a future question or answer that directly contradicted the previous question or answer, then a person should change their answer to the multiple choice question.  

But this does not happen too often.  Thus, I tell my students to be absolutely sure. After all, they don’t want to miss passing a test, because they changed one or two multiple choice questions to the wrong answer.

Taking The PTCB Test

When I was a pharmacy manager in one of my hospitals, the pharmacy had a clinical pharmacist.  My colleague had been in the position for several years.  He was in his 40s, married, had two children, and was very good at his job.  He was a registered pharmacist with a Bachelor’s Degree in Pharmacy.  My colleague did not have a Pharm D or a Master’s Degree.

And he wanted to go back to school and get his Pharm D.

It is never easy going back to school. Now it is one thing, when a person was young, fresh out of school, and had few responsibilities. At that point of their lives, it might be tough, but was doable.  However when a person was in their 40s, married, had two kids, and other responsibilities— well, it was much tougher.  But it wasn’t impossible if a person really wanted to do it.

My colleague wanted to go back to school and get his Pharm D. It took him two years of attending night classes.  But he got his Pharm D.

I taught students who wanted to become pharmacy technicians.  As the course came to a close, I asked my students when they might want to take the PTCB exam.  There were two schools of thought.  

Some students wanted to take the test as soon as possible.  There was so much material, that they wanted to take the exam while everything was still fresh in their mind.  I understood this logic.  I agreed with their answer.

Other students felt differently.  Since there was so much material, they wanted to take the test in three months so that they would have time to study. I understood this logic. I agreed with their answer.

So when should a person take the PTCB exam? Perhaps the best answer is as soon as possible.  Or as soon as the person feels comfortable.  But unlike my colleague, I wouldn’t wait too long.

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