Types of exam questions

Exams usually include different types of questions. This section contains tips on how to study for and answer the most common types of questions.

Short answer questions

Short answer questions require a reasonably short answer – anything between a few words and a paragraph or two. The number of marks allocated often give an indication of the length required.

When studying for short-answer questions, concentrate on:

  • Terminology
  • Names
  • Facts
  • Concepts and theories, and examples underpinning them
  • Similarities and differences.

Tips for answering short questions

  • Plan your time and stick to your time allocation.
  • Keep your answers short – it’s not necessary to rewrite the question.
  • Plan your answers quickly before you start to write.
  • Don’t give more information than you're asked for, you won’t get extra marks and you may run out of time.
  • Try to answer all the questions.
  • Mark the questions you aren't sure of and leave a few lines open so that you can go back to them at the end if you have time.

Multiple-choice questions

Multiple-choice questions consist of a question or the first half of a sentence (the stem) and provide a number of possible responses (usually between 3 and 5). You have to choose one answer – the most correct – from those provided.

When studying for multiple-choice questions, concentrate on:

  • Terminology
  • Names
  • Facts
  • Concepts and theories, and examples underpinning them
  • Similarities and differences.

Tips for answering multiple-choice questions

  • Quickly read through all the questions and the options before you start writing.
  • Mark the questions you aren’t sure of so that you can come back to them at the end, if you have time.
  • Answer the questions you’re sure of first.
  • Then try the others. Start by eliminating the obviously wrong answers (i.e. draw a line through them).
  • Watch out for negatives (e.g. Which of these is not…?).
  • Stick to your time allocation – if your time’s up and you still haven’t decided on an answer, guess or leave it out.
  • In most cases, answer all the questions even if you have to guess – if you don't answer a questions, you definitely won’t get a mark; if you fill in something, you may just be right. However, marks are sometimes deducted for wrong answers. If this is the case and you’re not sure of an answer, leave it out. (Remember to find out before the exam if marks are going to be deducted for wrong answers and read the instructions very carefully.)
  • Don’t change your first answer unless you’re really sure – your first, instinctive, choice is usually right.

Essay-type questions (long answers)

These are questions that require an essay-type answer (i.e. structured in the same way as an essay or a report.) Essay-type questions can be anything from a few paragraphs to a few pages. You don't have to include a reference list but you should acknowledge the source(s) of your information. The mark allocation will often give an indication of the length required.

When studying for essay questions:

  • Try to predict a number of possible questions.
  • Use past exam papers, corrected assignments and/or revision-type questions in your course material and textbook(s) to help you identify possible questions (but first make sure that the contents/format of the exam hasn't changed.)
  • Work out model answers.
  • Practise by writing a number of essays under 'exam conditions': plan an essay and write it out in full; time yourself.

Tips for answering essay questions in the exam

  • Read the questions carefully and then analyse each question so that you're sure you understand what they mean.
  • Brainstorm ideas and plan your answers; you could try using a mindmap to plan your answers.
  • Write down some key words: e.g. your answer might have five main points, so jot them down, with a few key words under each point.
  • Start your answer by briefly rephrasing the question – use your own words.
  • Use a new paragraph for each main idea or topic. Back up each topic with supporting detail (e.g. examples, reasons and results.)
  • Leave a few lines open between paragraphs - you may want to add additional information later.
  • Leave wide margins for the marker.
  • Stick to your time allocation.
  • Try to write neatly and proofread as you go.
  • If you run out of time, jot down your main ideas and key words so that the examiner knows where you were going with the essay – you may get a few additional marks in this way.

Problems/computational questions

This type of question requires you to solve a problem using calculations.

When studying for problems/computational questions:

  • Learn the key vocabulary as well as the theories and formulas (make sure you know how and when to apply the formulas).
  • Practise - with this type of question, practice really does make perfect.
  • Look for practice questions in past exam papers, your course materials, set texts, etc.
  • Don’t just read through the questions – answer them in full, writing each step down as if it were an exam.

Tips for answering problems/computational questions

  • Read the questions and the instructions very carefully before you start.
  • Underline the instruction words and make sure you know exactly what's required.
  • Once you’ve decided what you have to do, write down the formulas or methods you’re going to use, if applicable.
  • Show your workings; even if your answer is wrong or incomplete you may still get some marks for showing you understand the process.
  • Use a pencil for drawings and diagrams (so you can rub them out if necessary). If required, go over them with pen once you're satisfied with your drawings/diagrams.
  • Don’t make drawings and diagrams too small.
  • Label drawings and diagrams and include headings.

Note: Before you start studying for exams, make sure you know what type of questions to expect. Check your course materials or the course page on the Online Campus. If you're still not sure call 0508 650 200 and ask your lecturer/tutor.

More about answering different types of exam questions

Exam and test study – Massey University (opens in a new window)
Exam question types – Massey University (opens in a new window)

Different types of questions: what examiners want – Monash University (opens in a new window)
Identifying the type of exam question (quiz) – Monash University (opens in a new window)

Objective tests - CalPoly (opens in a new window)
Includes true/false, matching, multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions.

Studying for multiple choice exams - University of Newcastle (opens in a new window)
Short answer and long answer exams - University of Newcastle (opens in a new window)
Problems or case-based exams - University of Newcastle (opens in a new window)
Essay exams - University of Newcastle (opens in a new window)
A useful site; however please note that the Open Polytechnic doesn't give overnight essays as part of an exam.

Note: The online sources above are for general guidance only. As different education institutions have different requirements, it’s very important that that you follow your exam instructions. If there’s anything you're not clear about, contact your tutor/lecturer, or the Learning Centre, on 0508 650 200, before you start studying for your exams.



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