Curiosity

This Is The Best Way To Guess On Multiple Choice Tests, According To Research

It turns out that confidence can go a long way!

You’re taking a multiple choice test and come across a question that you are completely clueless to answer — so you take a guess and just fill in a bubble. Most of us have been there.

But what is the best strategy for bluffing your way through a multiple choice test? Go with your gut? Pick “C” for every answer? It turns out there’s actually a superior way to guess on these tests, and the strategy may surprise you.

multiple choice photo
Getty Images | Leon Neal

According to research published in the journal Metacognition and Learning, two experiments showed that when students chose to stick to an original answer they were correct more often than not, but also showed that when students chose to make a revision to their first instinct, they were correct more often than not.

Those findings seem to contradict each other, but what the researchers found is the students’ rate of correct answers depended on their level of confidence.

To reach their conclusions, researchers asked students to track their confidence on each response to a multiple choice psychology exam, choosing whether they would characterize their original answer as a “guess” or a “known.” They were then given the opportunity to revise their answers if they wanted to. They were also asked to indicate whether or not they revised the original response.

In another experiment, they asked students to rank their confidence in their answers on a one-to-five scale but had them stick with their original answers. In both instances, students’ levels of confidence in their answers proved to be an excellent predictor of whether they had chosen the correct response.

multiple choice test photo
Getty Images | Tim Boyle

What surprised the researchers was, despite being able to predict accurately via their confidence rankings whether or not they had chosen correctly on individual questions, when it came to asking the students to guess how they had done overall on the exam after the fact, they were pretty bad at judging their own performance.

“Thus, the key to knowing when to stick with your first instinct and when to change your mind is to track feelings of confidence during the moment you make the decision,” Justin Couchman, Ph.D., lead author of the study, wrote for Quartz. “During college exams, both revising and sticking with original answers had the potential to result in more correct than incorrect answers.”

students exam photo
Getty Images | Matt Cardy

While Couchman’s experiments showed that metacognition (the act of thinking about your thinking) is a useful tool in taking multiple choice tests, other research has shown that there are common patterns in these type of tests that can help guide you in choosing answers.

In 2015, author William Poundstone analyzed 100 tests, from sources such as school exams, driver’s tests, newspaper quizzes and licensing exams for firefighters and radio operators, for his book, “Rocks Breaks Scissors: A Practical Guide to Outguessing and Outwitting Everybody.”

Poundstone found that correct answers rarely repeated consecutively, which means you can use the answers you are sure about to help you guess on those you’re unsure about. For example, if you know the answer to one question is “A,” you can assume that the next answer will not also be “A.” He also says the longest answer on multiple choice tests is usually the correct one, as the test makers typically need to use more words to ensure the correct answer cannot be disputed.

students exam photo
Flickr | ccarlstead

Do you have any strategies you use when taking a guess?

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