Technique is the ability to perform a task in a particular manner irrespective of the time it takes to do it. Skill is the ability to use a technique successfully, regularly, with minimum effort, in the shortest time possible.
Technique comes usually from a well-thought analysis of how to optimally perform a task, i.e., as efficiently and as effectively as possible. Skill comes from the repeated use of a technique, i.e., “learning by repetition” which means “practice.” Just as excelling at any other activity, acing an exam requires technique and skill. Skill does not need any further elaboration; however, technique does.
Two different things are necessary to successfully sit for exams: (1) knowledge of the subject matter and (2) capacity to answer questions. ‘Preparing for an exam’ then means both acquiring that knowledge and building that capacity. And just, as in the case of other tasks, each requires suitable techniques that we will refer to, respectively, as:
- Study-techniques, and
Study-Techniques are methods (i.e., strategies and tactics) to streamline your learning of any subject matter. Exam-Techniques are strategies and tactics to get the optimal score in an exam for a particular level of your knowledge.
Study-Techniques and Exam-Techniques are different and probably have very little ground in common. However, the first without the second or vice versa will not get you to your optimal score. To optimize it, you need to command both.
How many times have we not seen students who knew the subject matter inside out, but underperformed in an exam just because they lacked the ability to answer questions in a certain format? And the other way around, students whose knowledge of the subject matter was poor, but still scored better than others with a richer knowledge just because they possessed an ability to answer questions in a particular format. In either case, still, the result was not optimal.
Our focus in this blog will only be Exam-Techniques for the MCQ part of the NPPE exam. Study-Techniques will be left for a future one. (Note: MCQ stands for Multiple-Choice-Question/s)
Though a few of the exam techniques may be general and apply to all exam formats, in reality, each exam format demands its own exam techniques because these depend on the format. Therefore, this blog will be divided into four parts:
- Exam Format (to explore our war scenario),
- Exam Strategy (as the exam is the overall war we want to win),
- Question Tactics (as each question is a little battle we want to prevail in), and
- Structural Analysis (key issues to consider when analyzing questions and answers.)
1.- Exam Format.
The techniques addressed in this blog apply only to the MCQ part of the NPPE Exam (though it can be recycled and applied with some modifications to variations of this format), and as such our first task will be to understand and assimilate this format. According to the NPPE Candidate Guide , the format of this exam is as follows:
- 2.5 hours / 110 MCQs for all Canadian provinces and territories except Quebec. 10 out of the 110 MCQs respectively are not marked as they are included only to test them for future use. (Note: the 110 MCQ exam will be referred to simply as the 110Q exam from here onwards.)
- There are four alternative answers per each MCQ, with no exception.
- There is only one correct answer per MCQ, with no exception. Nevertheless, sometimes the MCQ asks for the best answer which means that there may be more than one correct answer but one carries more relevance or importance and this and only this one is correct from the exam point of view.
- There is no penalty for incorrect answers.
- A blank answer is counted as incorrect.
- The final exam score is based on the number of questions answered correctly. A statistically equated score of 65% minimum is needed to pass the exam.
Therefore, our strategy and tactics need to consider this format.
2.- Exam strategy.
This section concentrates on what should be the approach to the exam as a whole. The section will be divided into two parts: before and during the exam. Nevertheless, the first part will only consist of bullet points of crucial things you need to do before the exam.
a. Before the exam
Read the instructions on your booking confirmation and follow them
Test your equipment and software ahead of time, as appropriate
Calculate the average time you have to answer one question to track your time during the exam. The math gives 1 minute and 22 seconds on average per each question of the NPPE exam. Further on, get an intuition of this average time from mock tests
Get enough sleep the night before and have your proper meal of the day before the exam
Just before the exam, try some stretching and deep respiration exercises. It may be helpful to watch the condensed TED Talk video ‘More Confidence in 2 Minutes’  or if you have the time, the full TED Talk by the same speaker .
b. During the exam
The first winning strategy is to approach the exam questions in two rounds. The first round should be devoted to answering judiciously only the short and easy questions to pick the easiest points first and fast, and the second round to do so with the long and difficult questions. Nevertheless, in the first round, the long and difficult questions should still be attempted at least cursorily and fast, an option needs to be chosen for each of them – even if it is by random guessing–, and these questions need to be bookmarked to re-visit them during the second round which will be devoted exclusively to them.
The reasoning behind the two-round approach is that all questions (easy, short, difficult, or long) answered correctly have an equal impact on your score. So, it is more beneficial and efficient to answer first those that take less time, and these are the easy and short questions.
One added advantage of applying the two-round approach to the exam is that it gives you the opportunity of inferring answers to some questions from the stem and correct options of other questions.
Answer all questions of the exam. Do not leave anyone blank.
Since there is no penalty for wrong answers, your chances of scoring better improve if you leave no questions unanswered. If you leave one question blank, your score for that question will be ZERO. However, if you answer it, even if it is at random, you have at least a 25% chance of scoring it right.
Most of these types of exams are balanced. This means that if you are completely ignorant of the subject matter and answer all the questions of the exam with the same option (say answer C or any other), you will score 25% in that exam all the time. Also, in repeated attempts of the exam, if you answer all questions randomly, on average, you will still score 25%.
A further point to notice is that 10 questions of the exam will not be marked and will not influence your score at all, as they are included only to test them for future use. However, since there is no way of identifying them, the candidate must treat all questions of the exam as valid, and answer all of them without exception.
As you progress on the exam, judge the length and difficulty of each question and its answers and act accordingly
If the question or any of the answers takes three or more lines or if it is difficult, do not initially waste much time analyzing it. A longer or more difficult question means a longer time of analysis than a shorter or simpler one. Long and difficult questions are usually convolved, devised as distractors, and many times placed at the beginning of the exam to make you waste time. Do not fall into the trap and get stuck in them. First, secure all the points from easy and simple questions. Then, come back to long and difficult questions. Apply the corresponding techniques in the tactics section.
Stay as calm and as focused as you can
Knowing that we need to sit 2.5 hours for an exam is already stressful. Encountering a long or difficult question can add to this stress. It can get us nervous, and make us lose concentration and focus which inevitably leads to mistakes. Do not let that happen. The best weapon to combat all of that is realizing that you do not need to score a perfect 100% to pass the exam, but only around 65%. This means that on this 110Q exam, you can afford to fail approximately 38 as you only need around 72 correctly answered questions. Finally, if you feel exhausted at any point, quickly stretch rising your arms, breathe deeply, and carry on.
Pace yourself and keep track of the time
Do not invest more than the average time you have to answer a question as calculated above. If you got to that limit, deem that question difficult, apply the corresponding tactic below, bookmark it, and move on. This does not mean that you have to time every question; the key is to use the intuition you developed from attempting mock tests before the exam. Nevertheless, you need to keep track of time, but do it only for a particular number of questions, for example, 1/5 of the questions on this 110Q exam which equals 22. To do so, set the corresponding checkpoints and learn them by heart: 22, 44, 66, 88, and 110, which is a very easy series. Then, at each checkpoint make sure you are roughly well below the corresponding fraction of the time allotted for the exam. The time intervals between checkpoints would be 30 min on this 110Q exam in this example. Naturally, other fractions can be used and this should depend on your preferences. Just avoid the risk of checking too often as this may lead to stress and loss of concentration and focus. If at any check, you find that you are above the corresponding fraction of time, then increase your pace.
Completing the exam earlier
If you were able to complete the exam (even reviewing marked questions) before the time expires, do not submit it and let the system do it automatically once the time expires. Moreover, do not stay idle until that point, but judiciously use every second you have left to review your answers. There are always answers you may not completely be sure about, and this would be the time to go back to them. Submitting your exam earlier may give you some worthless bragging rights, but using your remaining time wisely may mean the difference between passing and failing the exam.
Double-check your answers if you have the time
Needless to repeat the previous bullet point, but if you have time left after you answered all the questions, double-check your work, especially those questions with several correct answers where you have to pick the best. With the confidence of having completed the exam and the reduced stress that it brings with it, the brain tends to think more clearly.
Running out of time
If you are running out of time and see you will not have enough to answer all the questions, random-guess all the remaining questions, but do not leave any unanswered.
3.- Question Tactics.
This section concentrates on how to tackle a question of the exam.
a. Short or easy questions
Once you read the question carefully and made sure you understood it:
If you think you know the answer, do one first scan of the options, find and pick the right option. Before committing to it, however, read all the options systematically, no matter how sure you are about your choice. Confirm it is the best answer and move on. Not doing so is usually a source of mistakes as we will see below since we tend to get biased by the first option we saw that looks right. This may lead to errors, especially with questions where you have to pick the best answer.
If you understand the subject matter but do not exactly know the answer or are in doubt, read carefully each option and apply the technique known as the process of elimination (aka educated guessing) which works as follows: Instead of searching for the right option, identify as many as the wrong ones as you can (a helpful method is to apply a true/false test to each option), eliminate them, and make your best guess or randomly select from the remaining ones. The more options you eliminate, the more your chances of getting it right increases.
If the process of elimination failed because no option could be eliminated, deem the question as difficult, pick randomly one option, bookmark the question, and move on. Do not waste precious time, as you can come back once you try all the easier exam questions.
If you do not understand the question, deem it difficult, and proceed as in the previous roman numeral.
b. Long and/or difficult questions
If on your first round at attempting the questions, you encounter one that you deem long, your first approach to it should be applying the ‘last-phrase’ technique. This technique teaches to just scan the question but read carefully only its last phrase. Many times, only this final phrase is all which counts (as the rest may be a distractor), and you might be able to apply the short or easy question tactic.
If on your first round you encounter a question that, despite being short, you deem difficult, or if long, the ‘last-phrase’ technique was not good enough, then scan the answers, pick the one that intuitively seems the best, bookmark the question so that you can come back to it on your second round, and move on. Do not waste time on your first encounter with a long or difficult question.
If you are re-visiting the long or difficult question on your second round, having already pocketed all the easiest points, it is time to try these long and difficult questions in more detail. Read the question carefully, make sure you understand it, and apply numerals (i) or (ii) of the section on short or easy questions, if possible and as appropriate. If you still do not understand the question or the process of elimination failed, confirm your previous choice or pick randomly another option that may now make more sense to your intuition as you read it carefully, and move on. Mind that you are now in a position to see if you can get clues to answer this question from the information on other questions of the exam that you already visited.
c. Seemingly "tricky questions"
No examiner on a serious subject matter like the NPPE exam would write tricky questions. Therefore, take this thought out of your mind and apply one of the tactics above, as is appropriate.
4.- Structural Analysis of Options.
It is probably straightforward to write the correct answer for a question. However, it is not that simple to write the wrong options giving them an appearance of correct; and it is well known that examiners use some patterns to write them. Exploring some of these patterns may help recognize the wrong options to streamline the process of elimination, and this section is devoted to these techniques.
a. Absolute and relative qualifiers
The proverb says “there is an exception to every rule.” Therefore, using words like always, never, all/every, none/nobody, exactly, must, etc., signals exaggerations and extreme situations as they do not allow for exceptions. These and other absolute qualifiers overlook those exceptions and frequently signal a wrong option.
On the contrary, words like might, usually, often, seldom, sometimes, probably, and other relative qualifiers allow for exceptions and help to identify the candidates for the correct answer.
b. Exact opposites
If two options are exact opposites, one is likely right and the other wrong. So, your work reduces to picking one of them. The only caveat however is to verify that the material is relevant to the question, and if it is not, then both are probably wrong. (See the numeral ‘True material but irrelevant’ below.)
c. Similar options
If two options mean the same thing, then both are probably outright wrong. Most likely, however, examiners tend to design options that appear to be similar and correct including a subtle false detail in one of them. Therefore, if two options seem correct, then a thorough comparison of these options is necessary to spot that subtle difference. Once the difference is spotted, it needs to be contrasted with the question itself to confirm the right and wrong answers.
d. New pieces of information
Sometimes examiners include in an answer option information that is not in the question or cannot logically be derived from it. Even if that information is true, it points out a wrong option. Remember: only the information in the question is the source of truth.
e. Adversative adverbs
Adversative adverbs are words such as however, but, nonetheless, nevertheless, although, etc., and are used to switch the flow of ideas on the contrary direction. Examiners sometimes use this device to add new information together with a layer of complexity to an option. (See numeral d above.)
f. Negative of the negative
The negation of a negative statement is a positive statement. However, if we lack sufficient experience or training working with double negations, the brain struggles to interpret it as a positive statement. The best practice in these circumstances, if possible, is to re-write the double negation as a positive statement and analyze the statement in its positive version.
g. More than one correct option
As mentioned earlier, the NPPE exam many times asks for the best answer. This implies that more than one option is correct. Your job then is to identify all those correct answers and grade them in order of importance or relevance. The first one on the gradation should be the correct answer from the point of view of the exam.
h. Grammar mismatches
If an option reveals a grammatical inconsistency with the question, the option is very likely incorrect. Be especially cautious with the following mismatches between questions and options: verb tenses, singular/plural.
i. True/false test
A useful technique to discard options during the process of elimination is to apply the true/false test to each option. False options, can be eliminated.
j. Relevance test
Examiners many times generate options using facts that are true but have little relevance to the question. If an option passed the true/false test, you still need to apply the relevance test to it: ask yourself if the option is related to the question and if it ultimately answers the question.
k. All of the above / None of the above
If two options seem to answer the question, ‘all of the above’ is very likely the correct option.
If two options seem to contradict each other, ‘all of the above’ is very likely an incorrect option.
l. Obvious answer
The most common source of mistakes on MCQ exams of any sort is misreading or ill-interpreting a question and rushing to pick an answer, many times one that seems very obvious. If you encounter such an answer, make sure you understand the question properly and double-check your work.
m. Trust your intuition
A last piece of advice: When you struggle to decide between two options that look the best, and you have an intuition as to which is the best answer, trust it. Intuition in this case seems to be your mind’s response in the face of a poor recall . If you have no intuition, guess.
Excelling at exams requires (i) mastering study techniques and exam techniques, plus (ii) gaining skill at both by repetition. Exam technique comprises strategies and tactics to build the capacity to answer questions. The appropriate exam technique to apply in a particular case depends on the exam format.
Note: The original version of this post appeared first in the blog section of NPPE Exam: Top Preparation Materials | WPE Studio on April 16, 2022