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In this lesson, we will examine test taking strategies involved in answering multiple-choice questions about literature. Breaking the process down into manageable parts, we will take a look at the literary text, the question itself, and then the given choices.
Navigating a multiple-choice exam for literature is not much different than plowing through a multiple-choice exam for geometry or history. Really, the test taker in any circumstance will do the best if they first understand the text itself, they fully comprehend the question, and finally they can discern among the often tricky choices in front of them. Easier said than done, right?
Well, like anything, this process will feel a lot less intimidating after we break it down into manageable steps. We will also examine how the literary text may present different challenges than, say, a geometry equation. But, fear not, you can do it! Answering multiple-choice questions for literature can be tackled by looking first at the literary text, then the question itself, and finally the answer options in front of you.
How does a multiple-choice test for literature differ than other multiple-choice exams? Essentially, it comes down to the material you're presented with. Most likely, you'll have in front of you a passage of fiction or non-fiction prose or a well-known poem (as opposed to, say, a chemistry identification question or a presidential speech). You will be expected to examine the passage and then respond to a multiple-choice question.
But before you even think about the question (no - don't look at them yet!) you need to do something very important. You need to read closely. What's the point of reading closely? There's a very important purpose. You need to engage with the text in order to gain a basic comprehension. What does this mean? Well, basically, you pay attention to the material while you read it, you retain the information as you read, and you reach a basic understanding of the material by the end. How can these initial steps be accomplished? Think about using the following process:
Step One: Notice the title if there is one. Does it tell you anything initially about the topic of the work? Take notes in the margin - basically, write a note to yourself regarding the significance of the title, or you can underline or highlight important words in the title.
Step Two: Read the text. Underline key words as you go (words that aid in the overall understanding of a piece). Take notes in the margin that may help with comprehension.
Step Three: Can you summarize the piece? If so, it's best to write a phrase at the bottom that summarizes the piece. Is it not completely clear what the piece is about (for instance, a poem that might seem fragmented)? Look back again for pronouns that may help set a context, key words that may help in recreating a situation or a story, and any words that indicate speaker purpose or emotion. This can be tough, and it may not always be clear initially. Write down anything that helps.
Step Four: What type of piece is in front of you? Fiction, non-fiction, or poetry? Write it down. If any context is given to you in the title, take note.
This may seem like a lot of work, but it's worth it. And really, once you get the hang of it, it will become second nature. Remember, the idea here is to engage (to read and interpret information) with the text and to gain an overall understanding of the piece before you read (and potentially become distracted by) the questions themselves.
Let's try the process with a practice poem from the College Board website. While this Robert Frost piece does have a title, it has been left off for this exercise:
My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.
Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.
The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.
Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow;
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.
Now, let's follow the close reading process while taking notes next to the poem. Initially, I, the test taker, notice that there is no title. I recognize right away that the poem has four stanzas with a specific rhyme scheme. I recognize that the speaker references 'My sorrow' and calls it 'she' - this is personification. She loves the dark days of autumn which I know because the speaker gives many images that relate to the dreariness of autumn. I think, but I am not sure, that the speaker is saying he or she starts to see the beauty in the dreariness at the end. In summary, I think the poem might be about a person who is sad and whose emotional state helps to unveil the beauty in what would otherwise be a kind of depressing time of season.
Does this make sense? It's not that you should know all of the answers. It's that you should read closely and connect with the text by considering meaning.
Okay, so, questions on multiple-choice exams typically come in a few different forms. But that's probably something the test taker doesn't always notice because of? well, it's a test. Remember the last time you took a test? You may have been trying to concentrate so hard, but all you could hear was the ticking clock. You may have felt fluttering test-taker butterflies and read too fast, despite your attempts not to. You may have powered through the test without a clue as to how well you were doing.
Ultimately, what you're being presented with today is a method that will hopefully demystify the process for you a bit. In other words, if you can identify what kind of question is being asked, it will feel a lot easier to tackle.
Consider the poem that we examined a moment ago. Now, take a look at the following four questions about this poem (the answer choices are purposefully not given here!). Consider the fact that each represents a different type of multiple-choice question:
1) The central subject of the poem is...
What kind of question is this? This is a straightforward, factual question.
2) The poet primarily uses which literary device to characterize the speaker's 'sorrow'?
This is a question that asks the test taker to draw conclusions based upon literary definitions. Obviously, there is fact and analysis involved, but the question itself focuses on literary devices and definitions.
3) In context, the word 'simple' in line 9 most nearly means...
This question involves a little bit of analysis and interpretation.
4) The speaker's attitude in the poem is primarily one of...
This question asks the test taker to read the text and infer something specific - in other words, make an educated conclusion from evidence.
These four questions are basic models of the typical questions that appear on multiple-choice exams for literature. While it may be difficult to classify them at first sight, knowing what type of question is being asked can be a crucial step in figuring out what is being asked - especially when questions involve less tangible topics, like the tone or mood of a piece or the speaker's attitude. If you read the prompt and think, 'Yikes, I don't know what's being asked, but I recognize the type of question,' then you will have an understanding of what is expected of you and where to look in the text.
On multiple-choice exams for literature, it is less likely that you will get a long question with more than one part. So, what should you do initially? You read the question and underline key words. Do you see the word 'theme' or 'infer' or 'suggest' or other words like 'nearly' or 'probably?' These words are the key to you understanding what you need to do. As you read, you need to pay attention to what is being asked. Consider how these words would change the meaning of the sentence or clue you in to the proper response.
When you take a look at your multiple-choice options on any given exam for literature, the first thing you need to do is - you guessed it - read closely. There may be tricky words in any given multiple-choice option, like 'always' or 'never' or 'sometimes.' You should immediately underline these, take another look at the prompt, and then rule out the responses that you know to be incorrect right away. These incorrect options are called distractors. Often distractors appear as absolutes - things that are always or never true. They're tricky, and they need to be read closely.
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If eliminating seems too tough, try the true/false test by reading each option to yourself and responding with true or false. Anything that is sort of true or sometimes true - rule out. Anything that is false, cross off. Most likely, you will be left with a few options that sound very similar. Again, underline the words in each that makes them different and try to distinguish between them. Go back to your question. Refer back to the text again. Underline that part of the text that the question is referring to if it is helpful.
Let's try this process with one of our questions:
The central subject of the poem is...
A. a couple's conversation about which season each prefers
B. the speaker's dislike of autumn weather
C. the speaker's desire to spend time with his companion
D. how sadness helps the speaker appreciate late autumn
E. why the speaker's companion is looking forward to winter
Read these options closely. Are there any absolutes? No. How about any immediate red flags? Initially, choice A sends off a red flag with the word 'couple's.' There's only one person in this poem, along with a personified 'sorrow,' so choice A does not work.
Well, we predicted this would happen - the rest of the choices do look similar. So, it's time to look closely again. Choice B states that the speaker dislikes the autumn. Is that the case? The last stanza actually contradicts that, so choice B should be eliminated. Does choice C work? That one is tricky and possibly a contender. What about choice D? It is also a contender. When reading choice E, you have to consider that the poem is about the companion's love of fall (with no mention of winter or looking forward), so choice E can be eliminated.
For the options left, it is necessary to think back to the text. Does the speaker talk about wanting to 'spend time with his/her companion' as stated in choice C? Not really. Again, remember that the companion is actually sorrow or sadness. When given the true/false test, this doesn't pass as absolutely true. Does sadness 'help the speaker to appreciate late autumn' as choice D states? Yes. That is what the central subject of the poem is. If you read the poem one more time, that makes the most sense. Choice D is the answer.
As you can see, when you couple close reading with an analysis of the multiple-choice options in any given question about a literary passage, the distractors are more recognizable. It's not difficult to do this - it just takes some discipline, which can be difficult during those pesky exams. So breathe! And remember these steps I'm about to outline in the summary.
Answering multiple-choice questions for literature can feel daunting. You arrive at your first question, and - ah! - all you see is a page-long passage that you have to read first. Do you feel defeated before you begin? No! You follow these steps.
The Literary Text: Note the title. Read closely while taking notes in the margin. Underline key words. Summarize at the end. Identify as fiction, non-fiction, or poetry.
The Question: Read the question closely. Underline key words. Classify the type of question if possible. Return to the text. Highlight relevant relating passages.
The Options: Read the multiple-choice options carefully. Underline key words and make note of absolutes. Rule out options if possible. Apply true/false test to remaining options. Carefully examine wording to discern among existing choices. Refer back to specific passages of text in order to make correct choice.
And there you have it - a guide to help you answer any multiple-choice question for literature. Take your time, and remember, breaking this process down into individual tasks makes all questions much more approachable.
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