If you’re in a clinical subject, such as Medicine or Dentistry, you’ve probably heard of Single Best Answer exams. These exams tend to count for quite a high percentage of your grade, and they can seem trickier than typical Multiple Choice questions.
Before we start, what exactly are Single Best Answer questions? Simply put, they’re a type of Multiple Choice question where all the answers are technically correct, but only one of the answers is “best.” These questions typically test your clinical reasoning, and they ask questions such as “What is the best investigation?” or “What is the best treatment?”
These types of questions can be challenging at first, but in this resource we’ll highlight seven strategies to help you prepare for Single Best Answer exams.
1: Read the Question
It might sound obvious, but it’s worth a reminder: read the question! Often, SBA questions hinge on a single detail, such as the patient’s demographic or medical history. Make sure to read the question at least twice and watch out for details that could be important.
That said, sometimes the question will include information that’s not relevant, so don’t feel like you need to account for every single detail when deciding on an answer.
2: Use the ILOs
Every course will have Intended Learning Outcomes that list what you should know by the end of each year. All your assessments will match up to these ILOs, so they’re an excellent way to know what to revise.
When using the ILOs, pay special attention to any that won’t be assessed anywhere else. Practical ILOs will often be covered by things like OSCEs, but many areas of knowledge can only be assessed through an exam, so focus your revision on those.
3: Focus on the General
By nature, SBA questions tend to focus on the general, rather than the specific. After all, if you’re asked about the best treatment, and all the answers are potentially correct, what you’re looking for is the solution that is most likely to work in the majority of cases.
In your revision, then, focus on patterns, not outliers. You’re looking for the answer that is most likely, not any that could be possible.
4: Focus on Understanding
With SBA questions, it’s important to focus on understanding rather than memorisation. The questions will often involve multiple stages, such as combining a patient’s symptoms and medical history to work out a diagnosis, then suggesting the best possible treatment. In these cases, it’s essential you fully understand the condition, rather than just memorising a few facts.
This type of understanding is called “Clinical Reasoning,” and it’s an essential part of being a good clinician. Basically, these exam questions aren’t asking, “Do you know the answer?” they’re asking, “Can you work out the answer?”
5: Make Connections
Clinical reasoning is all about putting information together to identify the best way to proceed. This means your revision needs to focus on combining ideas, rather than just memorising facts. A good clinician will understand how different information fits together.
One way to do this is to combine different ILOs, or different sections of your course. You might choose two ILOs and ask yourself how they intersect, or pick two lectures and explore how what you learned one week impacts what you learned the next. Revising this way should unearth some interesting connections, and it will also train your brain to bring different aspects together.
6: Use Scenarios
SBA questions often rely on scenarios, so it’s a good idea to use them in your revision. Try writing a scenario for yourself, such as, “A 5-year-old female presents with pain in her jaw…” This strategy can work particularly well in groups, as everyone can take turns presenting scenarios and you can discuss them together.
To make this strategy even more effective, try modifying your scenarios. Add or change details and see how that might change the answer. You can also try writing your own answers; see if you can come up with some good options that are correct but not “best”!
7: Understand Effective Revision
While SBA exams might sound quite different from other kinds, the reality is that most effective revision strategies are fairly universal. To do your best on exams, it’s important to understand principles like active revision, recall vs. recognition, and the importance of continuous revision.
If any of those terms are unfamiliar to you, we recommend you check out our Revision Bites resource. This resource contains many of the most effective learning strategies that will help you on any type of exam.
In this resource, we’ve covered seven different strategies for revision for SBA exams. This format is new to many students, but its focus on understanding rather than memorising will help you develop the skills you need to be a good clinician. If you use these strategies and focus on developing your clinical reasoning, you’ll soon become much more adept at picking out the “best” response.