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Different types of exam questions

Last modified on 01-11-2023 14:24
This page gives tips on how to approach different types of exam questions.
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Sitting an exam enables you to demonstrate that you have mastered the material that you have studied. Starting with studying in good time and keeping up with the material helps ensure that you go into your exam with a feeling of confidence. During the exam itself you may suffer from exam stress. A bit of stress is healthy, it helps you stay alert.


Make sure you begin studying in time. This helps you see the bigger picture and the relationships between things. If you start too late, you’ll drown in the huge volume of material that you need to cover. You can find tips on studying more effectively on the page on assimilating information.

Try to find out what's expected of you in the exam, e.g. specific knowledge, insights, analysis, application, etc. See if you can find an example of the type of exam questions you will be asked, to give you an indication of what you can expect.

Read the question

It may sound obvious but, if you are to answer the question correctly, it’s crucial to read the question carefully. Read through the question calmly several times and highlight the key words.

You should also try to estimate how much time you have for each question and work out how best to divide this time between the questions.

Types of exam

There are, of course, different types of exam questions and every discipline has its own different emphases and applications. The information provided here gives a broad overview of how to approach different types of exam questions. Make sure you put these tips into practice before, rather than during, your exam.

Multiple Choice

Some students find multiple choice a great way to demonstrate their knowledge, while others find it more difficult due to the uncertainty that goes with it. Think first about how you would answer the question, then see whether your answer is one of the possible options. 

You can also answer the questions according to degree of difficulty. In other words, you answer the questions that you find easy first, then those that you’re not sure about and, finally, those that you find the most difficult.

Often with multiple choice questions, if you think carefully, you can eliminate two possible answers. But it’s the last two... You’re not sure which of the answers is correct. If this happens it may be helpful to consider which answer is the most likely. 

But the most important rule in multiple choice is this: your first instinct is often correct. Only change your answer if you have new insight, otherwise leave it as it is! Many errors in multiple choice exams come from students ‘improving’ answers that were in fact correct.

Open questions and essay questions

Start by reading through the question carefully, highlighting the key words. What is the central question and what do you know about this topic? A common problem in exams is that students want to put down everything they know. But your lecturer only wants an answer to the question. 

In the case of an essay question, you might choose to make a mind map of key words on a piece of rough paper. This brainstorming technique allows you to access fragments of information that are stored more deeply in your brain. Then select the key words that answer the question. Start with a general introductory sentence containing the question, then deal with the different key words in the correct order. It’s a good idea to develop one key word per paragraph. Round it all off with a conclusion that answers the question.

This method gives you confidence because it gives you an overview of the knowledge that is available to you and you make well-informed choices as to how best to answer the question. It’s a good idea, however, to practise this method before the actual exam, so you feel completely comfortable with it. 

Training courses and workshops

The UvA provides additional support for various topics through information meetings, workshops, training courses and groups. You can learn more about these by clicking on training courses and workshops.