First answer always right? Wrong!

Students taught how to take tests
: Mid-terms provide a dose of reality

From an article by Louise Brown, Education Reporter, from the Nov. 7. 2005 Toronto Star

First-year university student David Arias thought he knew all the tricks of multiple-choice tests: “When in doubt, choose answer ‘c’' — it's usually right.” Wrong. Contrary to campus myth, studies show that professors don’t put the right answer in one position more often than another, said Arias’s teacher, Dawn Lovas, in a course on study skills that is compulsory for Arias and all first-year students at Ryerson University.

 “Don't ever change your answer. Your first instinct is always right.” Wrong again, Lovas said. Research shows students switch from wrong to right answers slightly more often than the other way around, she warned about 20 students during a recent Friday morning session on multiple-choice tests. “If one of the choices is ‘All of the above,’ take it. It's always right.” Not always, Lovas warned. “When in doubt, choose the longest answer.” Wrong again.

As Ontario's college and university students wrap up mid-terms and start bracing for December exams, institutions are beefing up the help they offer students making the transition from high school to higher learning. To Arias, a 20-year-old sociology major from Scarborough, “this is all helpful. You always hear these sayings, but who ever knows if they're true?” Ryerson is one of the first to require all first-year students to take a half-course on study skills. Queen's University, like most campuses in November, has added extra shifts to its writing clinic and still has waiting lists six days a week.

Personal counsellors say this is one of their busiest times of year. “We see many students stressed out from the mid-term slump. They're getting back marks 15 to 20% lower than in high school, so we tell them to calm down and not push the panic button and call their parents to pick them up and take them back home,” said Mike Condra, director of health counselling at the Kingston university.  “Giving up this early in the year is a bit like quitting a new job after eight minutes because no one smiled at you,” Condra said. “There's lots of time to improve — if you learn from your mid-terms.”

At Ryerson, Lovas gives tips on how to succeed at the multiple-choice tests, which are common among professors coping with large classes. “But overall we're trying to be proactive with first-year students by having them take a half-course on learning when they first arrive,” said Lovas, whose tutorial students also attend a lecture on learning each week. “It's not often that students will ask for help unless something happens,” she said, “so we feel it's better just to have the course compulsory for everyone first term.”

Lovas has young scholars keep a study journal to track their own habits and see where they might improve. “That's why I study at 2 a.m.!” said one female student. “There's no one left to talk to because all my friends have gone to bed and all the good TV shows are over.” Lovas talks about human memory and explains that people remember material better if they review it within 24 hours of first learning it. She suggests tricks for memorizing large lists of facts and recommends students have a “note buddy” with whom to swap lecture notes after class.

And she serves up an array of tips on multiple-choice tests. “If you're making an educated guess, avoid answers that contain absolute terms like “never’ or ‘always’ — they're often incorrect, especially in arts courses,” Lovas said. “Instead, look for answers that contain qualifying words like ‘some, many, few, more, usually’ because they're more likely to be correct.”

That’s a tip that student Sike Olowolafe wishes she had learned several weeks ago — before her first multiple-choice mid-term. “We need all the help we can get here, because university is so different from high school,” said Olowolafe, a sociology major. “I never realized how much they literally spoon-fed us in high school until I got to university. In high school, teachers would tell us what sections to study for the exam and give us so much more help, and we used to complain even then.”

One student asked Lovas whether it was true that “apple juice makes you smarter for exams?” She pondered the thought. “Maybe the sugar would give you a short-term energy kick,” she said. “But I don't think it does anything else.” Nonetheless, David Arias reached into his knapsack and pulled out a small box of apple juice.