The best way to memorize multiple choice answers is two-fold. First, use mnemonics to link keywords and answers to questions with pictures or stories. Second, use spaced repetition to recall and remember the mnemonics you make.
Of course there’s more to it than this – effective techniques depend on many factors. You need to know the facts about the volume (how many questions and answers you need to memorize), the topic and the time you have available. As well as which questions (assuming you’ve done some studying) you already know the answers to already.
And as I say to all med student colleagues; seeking to understand before attempting to memorize is always the best approach. (See my article – how to study medicine effectively).
But sometimes there’s no getting around the fact (especially with medical school entrance exams, class tests etc) that some tests call for hardcore memorization.
So this article is all about how to do that and what to think about in terms of preparation.
What Are the Main Things You Should Find Out About a Test Before You Take It?
To memorize multiple choice answers well you first need to answer some key questions:
- What kind of questions are you memorizing: how many answer options are there? 4? 5? What’s the subject and possible syllabus topics?
- How many questions are you memorizing: you need time to memorize. Allocate a minute per two questions (assuming they’re short).
- How will it be graded: what is the minimum or maximum score you need to achieve? What’s the benefit/drawback of meeting or falling short of this target?
Starting with the answers to these will help you plan the next part of the process. As well as know more about the time frames you need to achieve it in.
Before You Memorize Multiple Choice Answers
Ask yourself; what’s the benefit of memorizing this information? To reiterate again: it’s always best to understand first before memorizing. Especially if you plan on remembering and applying this information long-term.
Understanding the material is a safety net and fall-back mechanism for when memorization fails or goes wrong. But it does take more time.
Just something to be aware of.
Another key thing to make sure you do (that can also reduce your workload):
Filter: sort through the questions and separate ones you have a good understanding of already and feel would you would probably answer correctly anyway
Doing so will help reduce the amount of cards you have to memorize. Speeding up the following processes.
Memorizing Multiple Choice Answers: Step 1
The first step to memorize a question and answer is to search the question for keywords. Linking a keyword with an image (or story) can then help build context for the question in your mind. Connecting it was something more ‘memorable’ to aid future recall.
For example (from pharmacology):
Which group of antiarrythmics can be used to correct rapid ventricular response?Answer: II and IV
Here you could identify the keyword of “rapid ventricular response” and imagine it has a heart running at full speed (rapid) with two legs appearing from the lower part (ventricles).
Then you can attach the answers to this image. Possibly by imagining the heart wearing socks with the symbols II and IV on.
This is what effectively what the excellent Sketchy series does (see my recommendations) for med students. It creates image style mnemonics to make obscure facts easier to remember. The funnier the better.
To see more about mnemonics work check out my article: 20 funny medical mnemonics.
Memorizing Multiple Choice Answers: Step 2
The second part of the process involves something I champion a lot; spacial repetition.
Once you get your image or mnemonic in mind you then have to practice recalling it. So read the question without the answer and see if you can arrive at what you created. Then spread this test out over time (doing it the day after, then 3 days, then 5 etc – provided you have the time).
Creating flashcards here can be another big help. Especially if you’re able to write or draw the image on the back side of a card.
Digital flashcards apps like Anki and Quizlet can be massive helps also. But it can be time consuming to create individual cards.
Memorizing Multiple Choice Answers: Other Possible Techniques
Other techniques that could be used to memorize multiple choice answers include the memory palace (method of loci), the pegword method (if applicable to the question type) and the dominic system. I talk about these in more detail in my article how to memorize medical books. These same techniques can apply to any topic or subject however.
Aside from using these techniques and ringfencing time to create the systems you can use to memorize, there are some productivity tips you can employ here also. The Pomodoro method and its alternatives are useful to help you get disciplined and focused. These can help you get done what you need without any possible distraction.
Crucial when it comes to memorizing a lot of questions and answers fast.
How Many Multiple Choice Answers Can You Memorize?
It’s generally advised to aim to memorize two questions and answers per minute following this process. But obviously this depends on the complexity and length of the questions themselves. As well as how many questions total you aim to memorize.
Cognitively-speaking, there’s no defined limit as to how many questions your brain can handle. It’s more a question of how much time you have available prior to a test to be able to do so.
That’s why I advise coming up with a plan first. That way you can set a target and estimate how long it will take to meet that.
It will also force you to be more ruthless with questions you discard (because you feel you understand them) too. Effectively prioritising the more challenging ones where the answers aren’t immediately obvious.
What is the Most Common Answer On a Multiple Choice Test?
“The answer is always C” is a popular meme when it comes to considering the most common answer on a multiple choice question (MCQ) test. The truth however? Unfortunately not so clear.
If tests are truly randomized (sorted by chance) than statistically the most common answer would likely change every time (with each answer having equal probability). If they’re written by hand however, or made up by a professor or a team of examiners, there could be some bias at play.
This is where the meme of ‘always C’ comes from. It’s the idea that human test creators have a bias against the first (A) or last option, and instead choose to ‘bury’ the answer somewhere in the middle. The problem is however that this is just a theory – so it’s not something to be relied upon!
It’s all about distribution and how it occurs. This video explains it well.
Interestingly you can also refer to multiple choice probability calculators, where you enter in the number of questions, responses and a necessary pass mark, to work out what would happen if you left your responses down to chance.
Their scores may serve as a motivation to memorize more questions however!
How to Improve Multiple Choice Tests
The best way to improve is to practice. That means finding questions and quizzes and doing a lot of them.
Memorization can help here, granted you stick to practicing questions related to the topic. But it can also be limiting if you lack understanding of the concept being tested. This is because the method outlined above is dependent on a question being asked a certain way.
Other than that though here are some extra tips to employ:
- Going through questions at speed and skipping over difficult ones early (with the plan to come back to them)
- Eliminate the outlier answers first (generally there will be one or two you know shouldn’t be the answer)
- Go with your gut (or first impression – sometimes deliberating can trip you up)
At the end of the day confidence plays a massive role in success. The more comfortable you get doing MCQ’s the sharper you’ll get.
Can You Cheat Multiple Choice Tests?
There’s no traditional way to cheat a multiple choice test or exam. You’d need to use old school methods (phones, smart watches, copying etc) to do that. But there are some hacks that involve paying close attention to stastical bias.
These could include:
- Choose the long option (examiners usually take more time to write more detail for longer answers)
- True more than false (considered easier to write questions this way)
- Out of two opposite answers one is usually correct (this can help eliminate other possibilities)
- ‘All of the above’ or ‘none of the above’ are more significantly likely to be correct
- Punctuation or spelling errors usually indicate wrong answers (more time spent proofing correct options)
- Guess (unless you get point deductions for wrong answers)
Memorizing multiple choice answers, although not the most convenient or fun task, is entirely possible. It does take preparation however – specifically if the questions and answers aren’t for some big national test (where people are likely to have already made online or shareable flashcard decks).
Using the methods outlined though can certainly help.
Image Credit @craftedbygc at Unsplash
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.