What’s Best for Multiple Choice Exams?

Should you A) go with your gut or B) change your answer? A study runs the numbers to find the smartest move

a pencil on top of a answer sheet with multiple choice bubbles to be filled in

Multiple choice exams can instill fear in even the most qualified and skilled students. Though the answer set for each question always contains the correct answer, the wording of the choices can be confusing and unnerving. Students usually believe they should trust their first instinct and not change their initial answer. But is that really the case?

When Gerard Kugel, a professor at the School of Dental Medicine, was present for an operative exam at the school, a faculty member told the class, “Remember, your first answer is usually the correct one.” Struck by this and wondering if this was true, Kugel later talked with a group of faculty at the school, including Assistant Professor Sarah Pagni, and suggested they do a study to find the truth of the matter.

While other researchers have studied the psychology of first choices, the Tufts team used data from D.M.D. student exams at Tufts, in which they tracked changes in answers to multiple-choice questions. They published their findings in a paper called “The Benefit of a Switch” in the Journal of Dental Education—and the results might offer some updated advice for test-taking strategies.

Tufts Now recently talked with Kugel and Pagni to learn more about the study—and better approaches to taking multiple choice exams.

Tufts Now: What motivated you to look at the effect of altering answers on multiple-choice exams?

Gerard Kugel: The common wisdom about multiple-choice exams is to never change your first response to a question. Researchers have looked at this advice in the past, but without the benefit of the amount and quality of data that we were able to access for our study. The earlier studies provided some evidence to suggest that changing first answers during a multiple-choice exam was likely to produce better scores, but that research was stymied by the lack of access to actual answer-tracking data.

Given the common wisdom, students are often reluctant to change an answer, fearing the change will result in a lower score. We designed our study to remove the more subjective aspects of the earlier studies and to introduce objective answer-tracking data taken from actual exam experiences.

What is different about your findings and how will this study change the advice we should provide to multiple-choice test takers?

Sarah Pagni: For this study we used data from ExamSoft, a test-taking software application that tracks and records all changes students make during an exam period. We looked at results for 160 first-year students in the Doctor of Dental Medicine (D.M.D.) program, examining their test-taking behavior for seven exams; three in operative dentistry and four in biochemistry. Over the seven exams, all students changed their answers on a minimum of nine questions.

Changes from an incorrect to a correct response made up nearly 65 percent of the total number of answer changes, while changes from a correct to an incorrect answer were only slightly above 10 percent.

Nearly all students, 99.4 percent to be exact, benefitted from changing answers, with a net gain of at least two additional correct responses. Overall, student exam scores increased when they changed a previous answer choice. Our results suggest that students should be advised to change their answers from their first choice if they identify a better option when taking multiple-choice exams.

Where does this research go from here? What more would you like to learn about strategies for taking multiple-choice exams?

Pagni: In order to protect student confidentiality, we were unable to link demographic data directly with the answer tracking data for this study, so there were some aspects of test-taking behavior that we were not able to examine. For example, we would like to know if there are differences in the benefit of changing first answers between male and female students. We would also like to look at differences in benefit among age groups, as well as other characteristics such as the student’s area of undergraduate training, their GPA, and previous test scores.

Also, we would welcome the opportunity to design a larger-scale project including students from programs outside the D.M.D., including students from other schools, regions, and perhaps countries. In the meantime, we would advise faculty to consider providing students with more nuanced advice concerning revising answers when preparing them for multiple choice exams.

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