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How to succeed at MCQs

How to analyse your MCQ exam score

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Note: Some medical schools use negative marking in undergraduate exams, and some don't. However, it's well worth noting that the majority of postgraduate exams do use negative marking, so if you don't need this section now, it will come in handy later.

This score analysis section demonstrates the effect that negative marking can have on your final mark.

 

There are two main reasons why students fail MCQ exams: they don't answer enough questions, or they get too many questions wrong. But should you leave a question blank, or take a guess and risk losing marks if you get it wrong? It's not always straightforward, and you need to decide on the best strategy for you.

As you practice answering MCQs, you should also analyse your score; this will allow you to maximise your score by perfecting an answering technique that works for you. What do we mean by 'analyse your score'? Take a look at the scenarios below to find out.

Scenario #1: The nightmare scenario

You are sitting a MCQ exam that has 200 questions. On your first attempt you answer 100 questions and get 70 correct. Allowing for negative marking, this is a score of 40 (70 correct, 30 incorrect: 70-30 = 40).

Now you go through the paper again and answer a further 60 questions; this time you get 60% correct (that's 36 questions correct). With negative marking that's a net score of 12 (36 correct, 24 incorrect: 36-24 = 12). At this stage you've achieved a score of 52 out of 200; that's only 26%.

You now tackle the remaining 140 questions; this time with only a 30% success rate. This gives you 42 correct questions, but a whopping 98 incorrect questions - that's a net score of -56!

If you take this score away from your score for the previous two attempts, you are left with an overall score for the exam of -4 - that's -1.3%. The full horror of this situation is expressed below in table format:

Attempt First Second Third Total
No of questions:
100
60
140
300
Score rate:
70%
60%
30%
 
Net score rate:
40%
20%
-40%
-1.3%
Questions correct:
70
36
42
148
Lost marks:
-30
-24
-98
-152
Net score:
40
12
-56
-4

Now consider this scenario:

Scenario #2: Knowing when to quit

Chastened by your disastrous performance, you step up your revision, and decide to thoroughly practice your MCQ-answering technique by attempting a 300 question practice exam. This time you manage to answer 200 questions at the first attempt, with an impressive success rate of 80%. Your second attempt is pretty good, but marks are lost on the third pass, leaving you with a final score of 33%. Take a look at the details in the table below:

Attempt First Second Third Total
No of questions:
200
50
50
300
Score rate:
80%
60%
20%
 
Net score rate:
60%
20%
-60%
33.3%
Questions correct:
160
30
10
148
Lost marks:
-40
-20
-40
-152
Net score:
120
10
-30
100

Your score has greatly improved, but you're still only scoring 33% - not enough to pass. What do you think would be the best thing to do in this situation? If you left the last 50 questions, your score would by 43%: still not great, but enough to scrape a pass. In this situation, leaving the question, or choosing 'don't know' might be the best plan for answers you're not sure of.

Let's look at one last scenario:

Scenario #3: Success!

Spurred on by your dodgy practice scores, you've been revising hard, and practising hard. These are the marks for your final practice paper:

Attempt First Second Third Total
No of questions:
230
50
20
300
Score rate:
90%
80%
60%
 
Net score rate:
80%
60%
20%
72.2%
Questions correct:
207
40
12
259
Lost marks:
-23
-10
-8
-14
Net score:
184
30
4
218

Note that further practice has meant you can answer more questions correctly on the first and second passes, and this means you can now afford to have a go at the remaining questions. You are now scoring an amazing 72%!

As you practice, you'll need to think carefully about the best strategy for you to adopt. If you are consistently reducing your score significantly by attempting to answer questions on your third pass attempt, it might be best to leave these questions.

If, however, you're confident that you can score highly on your first and second passes, keep attempting the third pass questions, as you're likely to gain a few more marks.

Activity: Analyse your score - 15 minutes

Now it's your chance to analyse your score from the practice exam you completed in the activity above.

1. Copy the table above to make your own score analysis table.

2. Enter the scores from your practice exam into your table.

3. Use the table to calculate your net score.

4. Each time you complete a practice MCQ exam, make a table to analyse your score.

5. When you've completed a number of practice exams, you should be able to start to develop a strategy for tackling MCQ exams. For example, if you're consistently losing marks on your third pass questions, plan to leave these blank, or choose the 'don't know' option if applicable.

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