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April 2, 2012 | Exam Preparation Blog

Anatomy of Multiple-Choice Tests

ACE certification exam understanding multiple-choice questions

To become an ACE-certified Personal Trainer, one of the hurdles you have to jump over is the famed multiple-choice certification exam.

Ever since Frederick J. Kelly, in 1914, at the University of Kansas, invented this approach, students have struggled with no real clue how to approach and analyze multiple-choice questions. Some people create so much stress and anxiety over these tests that they continually postpone taking it. To help you overcome anxiety and succeed, you simply need to understand the system behind multiple-choice tests.

The first anatomy lesson of multiple-choice exams is the structure of the standard question.

It consists of two basic elements: the stem and the alternative answers.  The stem, or the problem, is often in the form of a question or an incomplete sentence. The answers, or alternatives, contain one correct answer and several incorrect or distractor answers.

Here are two sample questions that demonstrate this specific anatomy. Pick out the question and incomplete stem, and identify the correct answer and the distractors:

1.  A client in the maintenance stage of the transtheoretical model of behavior change:

Choose one.

  • A. Increases his or her chances of success by focusing on minor violations and slip-ups in the program
  • B. Is more likely to relapse if the exercise program is varied and challenging
  • C. Is best served through activities that provide a variety of exercise routines to counter boredom
  • D. Will be more likely to relapse if there is some degree of flexibility in the program

2. Julie has just completed an exercise confidence survey as part of her initial consultation. She indicated that she has low confidence in her ability to stick with an exercise program after a long, tiring day at work. Which of the following strategies would be the BEST option for enhancing Julie’s adherence to her exercise program?

Choose one.

  • A. Recommend that she perform an extended warm-up prior to her exercise sessions following work.
  • B. Suggest scheduling her workout sessions before work or during her lunch hour.
  • C. Request that she take a mid-day nap so she is more refreshed for her evening workouts.
  • D. Offer her a reward of a T-shirt, water bottle, and workout towel after completing 10

Understand that the answer is provided to you in these questions. Knowing how to properly guess helps, too. Of course, you need to know your material. But knowing how to take the test and analyze test questions is essential for success. 

For example, the distractors are meant to be, well, distracting. They can lead to second-guessing and anxiety if they are written well.

Here’s how to beat distractors. Focus on the stem. Cover the distractors (the answers) before you start reading the questions. (This is called the “cover-up” technique.) Predict the answer as you read the question. Then cross off the choices that are totally silly. 

Next, treat each answer as if it is true or false, and read them that way. Select the answer that appears “most true.” Try rephrasing the stem as a statement with each answer as a part of it. Does it seem accurate? Answers that provide a range of numbers often hide the correct response in the middle range. The extremes are likely distractors.

Watch out for words like none, never, all, always, and only. They are often keys to wrong answers.

Also, be alert to the style of an option—if it is very different from the others, it may be a sign that it’s incorrect. Grammar of the stem often matches the grammar of the correct answer. When “All of the above” is an alternative, choose it if at least one of the answers is true, and more likely when it appears another may be true as well. When two answers use phrasing that is very similar, it’s likely one of those is the correct answer. Distractors are more typically written in a way that is opposite the correct answer.

Should you change your first response if you have a nagging doubt about your answer?  Many say, “no, don’t change your answer.” 

However, there is research backed by sound statistics suggesting that you should not necessarily rely on and trust your first instinct. If additional thought suggests that changing an answer feels right, know this: More than twenty studies indicate that “right to wrong” changes are about 20.2%, while “wrong to right” changes are about 57.8% (Benjamin, Cavell & Shallenberger, 1984). The point is, don’t be afraid to change if you feel you have good reason to do so.

Good luck in your studies and be sure to use sound test-taking strategies to identify correct answers.  By the way, did you discern the correct answers in the sample questions at the beginning of the article? Hint: they follow the guidelines provided here.

Interested in testing your knowledge with additional sample test questions before the big day?  Check out the new and improved format of the Personal Trainer Online Diagnostic Practice Test!

By Michael Mantell
Dr. Michael Mantell

Michael Mantell earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and his M.S. at Hahnemann Medical College, here he wrote his thesis on obesity. He’s served as the Chief Psychologist of Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and the Chief Psychologist for the San Diego Police Department. He provides breakthrough strategies to help business leaders, athletes, individuals and families create healthy, fit and happy trajectories in life. He is the Senior Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for ACE, an international behavior science fitness presenter, an Advisor to numerous companies and fitness organizations, on the Sports Medicine team of The Sporting Club of San Diego and is featured in many international media outlets. He is listed in the 2013 “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.”