Acing Multiple Choice Math Tests Part 1: Understanding the Well Written Distractor

In my opinion, multiple choice math tests are the most difficult type of test you can take. Instead of the usual partial credit, everything becomes all or nothing! Miss a negative sign somewhere? You may end up with no credit.

As a student, the best thing you can do is understand how these tests are written. Both poorly written and well written tests follow typical patterns that, if you know about, will give you a much better chance than guessing on the questions you are unsure of.

The Distractors

The incorrect answer choices in multiple choice tests are called distractors. In a well written test, these are found by purposely doing the most common errors that students do and then making that an answer choice. The idea is that a student who knows what they are doing will not make these mistakes.

How can you use this to your advantage? Know the common mistakes for the type of problem you are doing and try to use this to eliminate answers. I’ll show you an example:

Muliply (-3)(3).

(A) -9

(B) -6

(C)  6

(D)  9

Let’s pretend you are completely stuck on this problem because you forgot how to multiply. What’s a common mistake here? Well, usually people mess up the sign when they are dealing with negative numbers right? If you know that the sign MUST be negative, you can eliminate answer choices (C) and (D) and increase your chance of guessing right!

This works on any level of math test but does require you to know what you are doing at least a little bit. So, pay attention to what your instructor points out as the “obvious” mistakes or what your common mistakes are to help you when you get stuck! I have used this method to write these types of questions even for calculus exams and know that others do as well. Do students always forget to distribute? (answer: yes)… figure out the answer you would get without distributing and eliminate it!

Note: Unfortunately in a poorly written test, the answer choices may just be made up making this method useless! Luckily, it is often true that a poorly written multiple choice tests makes the correct answer obvious since several of the answers will not be realistic.

Over the next few weeks, I will add more tips specifically about this type of test. If you have your own tips, please share them!