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Exam Technique Tips for Multiple Choice Papers

David Fairweather
Written by David Fairweather

IB Physics paper 1 is a multiple choice question (MCQ) paper and normally accounts for 20% of the final grade. Students often find this paper stressful because MCQs are so punishing in that they are either right or wrong. No marks for process here and no error carried forward for mistakes.

I was recently asked by a teacher new to the IB if I had any tips for students to help them tackle the MCQ paper. Here are the tips that I have developed for my students over the last few years. I hope that these might be useful to other IB teachers or other teachers preparing for MCQ papers.

For a lot of us, teaching exam technique feels a bit like we are teaching a shortcut to a result, rather than teaching the subject for the love of physics. But we do need to be pragmatic as we approach the exams and give our students the tools to score as highly as they can. So here are some exam technique tips for MCQ papers.

1. You have 1.5 minutes per question, so if you get stuck, just move on.

One of the most common problems that I see with students in paper 1 exams is that they get hung up on one question for 10 minutes, then run out of time for the last 5 questions on the paper. Even as an experienced IB physics teacher, there are occasional questions that will cause a mental block, or just take longer to figure out. It is important that students accept this and are able to move on from a question without it affecting the rest of the exam for them.

2. It is usually better to answer the question without looking at the given answers and choose the answer which matches yours, rather than try to work it out from the given answers.

Writing MCQs is a skill. Presenting three wrong answers which seem plausible alongside the correct answer is difficult and the best exam writers are brilliant at throwing in plausible distractors that can steer you away from the correct answer. Where the question allows, it is best to ignore the four answers until you have come up with your own, and then just select the one that agrees with your answer. When students try to reverse engineer a method from the answers, they often end up wasting time, and falling for the distractor answer.

Answering the question before looking at the answers.

3. For most questions, you can easily eliminate 2 answers, giving yourself a 50/50 chance. That’s not a bad way to start.

This is the only Who Wants to be a Millionaire technique that works in exams. Phoning a friend or asking the audience both end badly, but taking a 50/50 can be very useful. Many MCQs are questions which would be worth two marks on a short answer paper. By pausing and working out the first step, you can often eliminate two of the answers, giving yourself a much better chance at selecting the right answer. Also, by breaking the question into two steps, it often becomes much clearer.

An example of doing the easy part first to give a 50/50 answer, and then tackling the part which is more likely to lead to errors.

4. Most MCQ questions are best approached with a diagram. Ignore the instructions about not writing on the question paper.

You are told not to write on the question paper because it is not marked. However, a diagram is almost always useful in solving physics problems and MCQs especially. Write all over the question paper if you need to, but don’t forget to answer on the answer grid!

A quick diagram makes a question like this much easier to interpret and solve.

5. Practice algebra. MCQ papers are non-calculator, so there are lots of algebra questions. Particularly ratios of quantities and gradients of graphs.

These are the questions that can stop students in their tracks and lead to ten minutes of head scratching. “Which of the following is equal to cx/cy ” etc.. These questions just require rearranging two formulae, combining them, and tidying up the result. Tip 2 applies to these questions.

This is an easy question, but only if you are happy with algebra.

6. Know your data booklet.

This isn’t MCQ-specific, but it becomes most apparent during paper 1 because the timing is so tight. You don’t need to remember everything in the data booklet, that is what the data booklet is for, but you do need to know where everything is and what the symbols in each formula represent.

7. Don’t ever leave questions unanswered, 25% of your random guesses are correct.

This is really obvious, but not always appreciated by the students. I am always surprised when I see MCQs left unanswered. When you get to that last few seconds of the exam, just make sure that every question on the marking grid has an answer.

I would be interested to hear what other advice teachers give their classes ahead of multiple choice papers.


Featured photo by Nguyen Dang Hoang Nhu on Unsplash

About the author

David Fairweather

David Fairweather

A Physics teacher for ten years, currently teaching Physics and Theory of Knowledge at an international school in Switzerland. Particularly interested in increasing participation and diversity in post-16 Physics.

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